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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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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