Weigh in: Formal church membership – yea or nay?

Are you an “official” member of your local church? Why or why not?

I am curious to know what your experience has been.

Researcher and teacher Ed Stetzer offers three reasons here why believers should go through a formal membership process with their local church. Pastor Matt Chandler makes his case here why he believes formal membership is biblical.

Taking the opposite position, Judge Tim Fall addresses here the issue of formal membership covenants. A blogger named Matt Cameron did a thoughtful analysis of why Scripture doesn’t command or endorse local church membership here.

Throughout the last four decades, my husband and I have been a part of small congregations with less than 200 in attendance for corporate worship services that didn’t have a formal membership policy (commitment and faith were assessed relationally), and have also gone through an official membership process in three others. We find ourselves reluctant to go through the process of “joining” a local body. In lieu of official membership, we have presented ourselves to church leaders in the last two congregations we’ve attended, both of which had formal membership policies, to say:

  • Here is our testimony. Feel free to examine our beliefs thoroughly.
  • Here is our experience. You are welcome to inquire about our earlier church membership, associations, struggles, education, and faith journey. We’ll give you names and phone numbers so you can follow up with anyone you might wish in order to find out more about our history.
  • Here are our gifts. We want to serve and participate.

We chose not to go through formal membership in either of those cases because of our earlier, mostly negative experiences with membership. We have also questioned whether the notion of membership can be supported from Scripture. Our negative experiences have been related to issues of accountability and covenant-making.

Accountability is a word that is tossed around a lot when it comes to formal church membership. Going through a membership process (which typically includes education about the church’s doctrine, history, and may include baptism in some cases) is touted as a way to ensure accountability. What this is supposed to mean is that leaders are involved and invested in the lives of their members, offering prayer, instruction, guidance, and relationship. The word “accountability” suggests these relationships are supposed to be a two-way street. In practice, in the distant past, we’ve seen some over-reaches by leaders who were influenced by the Shepherding Movement or by a pastor who had no filter and blabbed things we’d told him in confidence with his family members, who then blurted them out in public.

Mostly, though, we’ve seen the language of accountability used to communicate that membership comes with privileges, such as being able to do more than be either a spectator or do the jobs no one else wants to do.* Or it has been used to oversell the kinds of relationships a potential member can expect to have in a congregation. There is nothing more heartbreaking than to find out a member commitment only goes one way. For example, if a member faces illness or loss, communicates a need to the church, and no one from the church reaches out. When I did a survey about the relationship of those over forty with their local church a few years ago, I received dozens of responses and emails from people who’d been faithful, long-time members of their church who’d faced illness and been ignored during their time of need by church leaders/members.

A lingering negative experience regarding formal congregational membership has to do with with entering into a covenant with a group. It seems the only conditions under which it is possible to leave a church with whom you’ve made such a vow without damage is if you are moving out of the area. We have left two congregations where we were members because there was serous sin among the leadership after trying for a long, long time to first prayerfully work through the issue. Though exiting those churches was the right thing to do, the severed relationships and broken promises (theirs – and ours) hung on in our lives like a bad break-up. There are spiritual consequences to busted vows.

We’ve elected not to be “official” members of the congregation we currently attend, primarily for the reasons above, as well as the fact that we are facing a move and aren’t sure where we’ll land next.

The question of church membership falls in a gray area, it seems to me. So I’m interested in learning from you, friends. Has formal church/congregational membership been a positive or negative experience for you? 

 

* I wholeheartedly believe those who are teaching or leading ministries do need thorough examination/testing by church leaders for integrity, spiritual maturity, giftedness, and faithfulness. I recognize for some congregations, church membership serves as one simple way to attempt to streamline this process. But I’ve been in churches where completely unfit “members” lead ministries simply because they took some classes and signed on the dotted line. 

 

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3 thoughts on “Weigh in: Formal church membership – yea or nay?

  1. I’m not disinclined to formal membership, but I do caution against those churches where membership means signing over decision making to the leadership. That’s the issue I had in the covenant documents mentioned in the post of mine you linked, and it really leads to problems.

  2. I’m a member, my husband isn’t. I was on staff though, and also as a woman the only official voice we have in decision-making is by casting a member’s vote… so for those two reasons it was more important for me than for him. In hindsight, I’m also glad I became a member Bc of the women/authority/the church conversation: as an online minister of sorts, I want to be more closely tethered to a body of believers, and church membership does function practically as a form of congregational accountability.

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