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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5 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.

  3. The small congregation I serve (about 50 on Sundays) does have official membership, but it’s not your typical membership. We are in a low-income multi-ethnic neighborhood, and our congregation is mostly low-income and very multi-ethnic. The way we organize our life together is highly relational with house churches, discipleship triads, and ministry teams being the heart of what we do. These relational groups are life-transforming for many, perhaps most who are involved.

    A few years ago we redefined our membership process. We now call our members “Disciples” to emphasize that this is not about joining an institution. One requirement of becoming a Disciple is that the person must be actively involved in one of these intimate groups where “we grow by sharing our struggles and victories with one another.” A person expressing an interest in becoming a Disciple is interviewed by his/her shepherds (house church leaders) and share his/her spiritual journey. The shepherd has a list of 4 or 5 questions to ask, “Where are the areas where you struggle and how can we support you?” Of course, before the interview, the shepherds already have a significant relationship with the applicant because they are in house church (or triad) together. Becoming a Disciple normally includes baptism unless the person was previously baptized.

    The Discipleship covenant includes the commitment “to give and receive loving correction.” We have had a few people who, after the interview, chose not to proceed because they were involved in an extramarital sexual relationship that they were not ready to give up. This year we adopted a bylaw change that involves renewing the Discipleship covenant each year. So, if someone has become careless about the commitments, this is a time to reflect on whether they want to renew those commitments.

    We do have a few specific leadership roles that are open only to people who are Disciples or who meet the requirements for being a Disciple but for some reason prefer not to be formal members. So, someone like you would be welcome to serve in those roles without formally joining.

    Members do vote at Disciple meetings, but voting is pretty much a formality. Most decisions are made more informally by our ministry teams and are ratified by vote when the bylaws require. If there is a significant decision and there are some–even a few–who have serious reservations about a proposal, we normally hit pause while we work through the issues and come up with an approach that all can support. We once hit pause on a proposed bylaw change, appointed a committee made up of people on both sides of the issue (an issue that revealed a cultural divide), and charged them with coming back with an alternative proposal that addressed the need the bylaw change was intended to address, but did it in a way that all could support. We thought it might take a couple of months. It took a year or so, but that was fine. We got it done with no hurt feelings. That approach may not continue to work when we get larger, but it seems to be working well for us now.

  4. question…

    Why submit to any leadership that makes divisive rules based solely on implication and speculation? I would too often question the decision making and motive of these men.

    Church membership (formal) is constantly pushed in many congregations. Some groups say, “If you are a regular attender and not a member formally then you sit in your pew a harlot.” And others say, “church membership is like a marriage.”

    The first example is obviously manipulative and even sinister, while the second example seems reasonable up front it raises a lot of uncomfortable questions which you can just play around with in your mind to see if it even makes sense. Well maybe it makes sense if you don’t think about it.

    Random: if a covenant and vows don’t really do much for a marriage, considering the divorce rate among Christians, then how on earth is it going to help a local gathering of believers?

    Elders like to talk about church discipline… how can they discipline someone if they haven’t signed on the dotted line? How can a non-member obey them? Well here it is utterly important to understand the role of an elder and what exactly the parameters of his authority are. What does “obey” mean I’m this particular context? And if a person is not a formal member does that actually hinder their ability to “follow” a leader and “obey” those in authority of that gathering?

    If an elder truly believes that a person cannot be a faithful and biblical participant without the shackles of Formal Church Membership then perhaps that elder should find another “job”.

    Don’t let your decision making be on divisive extra-biblical ideas just because you managed to force the Bible to support what you believe is implied. Submit instead your preconceived ideas to the Bible and let your decision making ride on what is explicit.

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