Pros and Cons to Church Membership: Yes There Are Pros and Cons

I personally have mixed feelings about church membership. I remember going through the Purpose Driven Life’s 30-Days of Purpose with my church when I was but a precocious Bible College Student. The Bible Study material brought out topics such as: Evangelism, Discipleship, Worship, Preaching, and Membership. I remember thinking how Sesame Street taught me. (sing songy) One of these things is not like the other one. To me, “Membership” doesn’t fit into that list. Obviously I want people to be committed to serving their church, so the question is, does “Membership” accomplish this. Here are the pros and cons.

Pro

Church hopping is definitely at epidemic proportions. People love to just hop around to different churches. They might be looking for the perfect church. They might be looking for the church that has something for everyone, yet is small and intimate. They might be looking for the church that only plays their favorite songs like they NSA spied their iTunes account. They might be looking for the right pastor who has all the spiritual gifts, like a great blend with the theology of Piper, the charm of Osteen, the power of Evans, and the sincerity of Chan. So in this quest they either go lots of places or spend just a few months in each location until they find the glaring error. So pushing membership can help shift a person’s mindset from looking for the problems to be a part of fixing the problems. Membership can get someone to settle down and begin to use their gifts to edify and build-up the church – serve instead of being served.

Con

On the flip-side, it actually gives people an excuse to not serve. It’s up to the members to serve the church, and they’re just an attender. I’d rather believers enter every church service with a ministry mentality. By instantly dividing the congregation, a person can even subconsciously believe that they don’t have responsibilities in that church yet; and that’s untrue because their responsibilities as disciples of Christ are in no way linked to man-made membership. Also, it can slow down people from getting involved. Many churches with a high-view of membership, make people wait before they can serve in the area and in the way God has called them. That waiting period can cause a person to either leave and go elsewhere to a place they can serve, or even worse get caught in the mindset of just being “fed” without “feeding” others. That comfort can set-in and can be tough to break. It’s important to “vet” people before serving in certain ministries, but that can be done sooner rather than later.

Pro

Membership is a great way to protect the church. One of the Pastor’s primary roles is to protect the flock. Being able to really get to know people before they become members can help ensure that they are truly believers, that they do not hold to some sort of dangerous heretical doctrine, and that they are not living in sin. Having an opportunity to lovingly guide and direct a potential member towards truth is not only life changing for that person, but potentially direction-changing for your church. It can also be a great chance to instill some specific church vision while in new-members meetings.

Con

As a Pastor, I can tell you that confronting people on sin is not the most fun part of the job. It’s easier to put it off and just pray that the Holy Spirit convicts and then I just get to help keep them accountable. In many instances, a person might not be seeking membership because they are stuck in sin in some way. If a Pastor waits to confront such issues until they seek membership, they might never come face-to-face with someone who points out their transgressions before a Holy and Righteous God. Everyone (including the pastor) should be concerned with the spiritual health of everyone in their church. Waiting for someone to ask to be a member before you point-out a sin that’s obvious to everyone is not only dangerous for the individual but to the church at as a whole.

Pro

It allows for legal protection. Churches have the ability to choose their own members. I know this makes them sound like they are some sort of exclusive country club, but it actually protects churches from lawsuits. (As of right now,) churches can refuse to marry anyone they want. They can remove any member off their rolls that they want. They can spend money on whatever they want. So anyone can bring a lawsuit, but if they are not a church member they would have to show how they were specifically hurt beyond other by a church policy and that is a really hard bar to get over. As long as a church is following their by-laws, the lawsuit has a high likelihood of being thrown-out. In fact, if the person bringing the lawsuit is not a member of the church they have even less rights to see certain information like finances, member rolls, etc. (And remember, a church can remove a member whenever they want as long as they follow their by-laws.)

Con

People can still sue you whenever they want. Every church should be as prudent and judicious as they can be, but you can’t worry about things that are totally out of your control. It’s smart to put certain phrases in your by-laws that are suggested by the Christian Law Association, but no church should feel forced to operate their church under a pretense that they don’t feel is biblical. There are churches who do not do church membership at all, and they still exist. There are churches that don’t have 501c-3’s. There are churches that don’t collect money, or buildings, or even pastors. The early church model is simplistic, and is still a viable growing entity.

What are your thoughts? Should churches have a high-view or covenant view of membership, or a low-view or non-existent membership? Leave your comments below.

Personally, I try to thread the needle. I don’t outright reject membership, I think it has some value. So I try to gain the benefits of membership like commitment and protection; without losing the organic nature of the church that calls all believers to serve one another.

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2 thoughts on “Pros and Cons to Church Membership: Yes There Are Pros and Cons

  1. Joe,
    Good thoughts, if not a little radical….. As a known radical myself, I like your thoughts. In general I love incrementally getting more commitment from believers. However, as a corporate entity, I take a low bar view of “membership”. What I mean is, if your willing to come most Sundays and will raise your hand and say “I’m in” I would welcome you in, with all your insanity and sin. It’s the “Fog a mirror rule”. I love the rascals and rugged peps, God tends to use us in cool ways. I believe in progressive sanctification, and have seen the Holy Spirit inch many into being repentant believers from just barely willing to darken the doors. So, I’m willing to trust the Holy Spirit and let the timid humans approach the thrown slowly. The discriminator for me is service roles. Those have qualifications. You can’t be a teacher unless you are doctrine solid, no more than you should be a treasurer unless you are of impeccable character, know debits, credits, can balance a check book and navigate a balance sheet. Elders and Deacons both have clear and distinct biblical roles with qualifications. Unfortunately the qualifications are often looked at less than other non-relevant social status qualities. This can harm a church deeply (leaders of limited depth). I also prefer people in prominent worship service roles to be of solid repute and known believers in good moral standing. It’s a mater of example. I have friends I consider church members who are not married. It doesn’t keep me from building a relationship, loving them or deeply caring for them. I trust the Holy Spirit to nurture them into productive people that can fully serve. Maybe my view is not so radical but I like to keep things biblical simple. I used to be more demanding of even believers expecting an orderly statement of belief, repentance and a swift dunking. Over the years I’ve softened as I have seen the Spirit take people to full transformation in very non-standard sequences.
    Cheers
    Bill

  2. Like the thoughts of both the article and the comment above. Thank you for not using Biblical verse out of context which many pastors have done. Concerning all the pros for membership, I’m already engaged, I’m already serving as I can and as God would have me, though I’m limited in ability and by rules of the local church (Must be a member). I’m already a member of the church, that occurred when I was saved.

    The commentor above made an excellent point which is another reason why I chaff at the membership idea. A new person, first learning comes in and he feels like the only one new, he’s in a different category (now I’ve added a layer of membership). This just heightens the weirdness factor. What are we about?

    All the pros and all the benefits pastor after pastor marches out there is without biblical support. Accountability? What one is saying in stating this as a benefit of membership is one can’t be accountable unless part of the body formal? If a person, member or not disagrees with a pastor’s stance and it is an important area to that person, do you really believe that person should stay because he is a member? (I think this is simplistic reasoning.)

    How do you measure then the congregation? How? The same way as you do individually? Over time, regardless if you have “membership” or no. If one comes into your church tomorrow and signs your membership agreement tomorrow, you will not immediately give leadership to that person. You, if your wise, will need to see, over time, just as if he/she didn’t sign a membership agreement. Membership is mostly “man’s idea”, that is formal membership. Formal membership makes it easy for leadership, Its a check the box process that can easily leave the HOLY SPIRIT outside the door. As for the whole congregation, it’s very easy – are they serving, is it just the 20% serving? If so, you have a HOLY SPIRIT problem, not a membership problem.

    Having said all that, if I’m in a church and serving and I’m being blocked from serving because I am not a member, I know I am to serve GOD and HIS Kingdom and will become a member though I loathe the thought process, I respect that I do not have all knowledge or righteousness and continue to be open to anyone who can show me how to see this in a better way.

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