What in the World is Church Membership?

Church membership One of the neatest things about starting a new church is that you must think through nearly every element of church life in greater detail than you ever have. Ever have. So, I'm thinking about the whole issue of church membership. I'm for it, but have seen this whole thing overdone on both sides.

At some point, most figured out that having people who wanted to place membership walk forward during the invitation song and simply declare they were now members wasn’t working very well. We didn’t really know what it was…other than it meant you were supposed to give, we got a vote at the congregational meetings the church never had, and that we now had something we could withhold if we ever got upset. Many churches rarely stopped to even find out if people were Christians—much less where they had come from, or whether they were there to split the church apart…or were a Wiccan priestess. They came forward and said they were members. 'Nuff said.

Not good.

Then, ministers read The Purpose-Driven Church and rejoiced at the thought of higher, not lower, expectations. So now, not only do churches have membership classes (which I think is a splendid idea), they submit would-be members to an examination that surpasses the TSA in intimacy and a baseball season in length. On top of it, churches seem to ask more of people than they are authorized to by their Head–Jesus. I recently read membership covenants of five churches. One asked each would-be member to commit to daily quiet times (good in-and-of themselves), not to attend the events of other churches (huh?), and to pray daily for the success of the church (also good in-and-of-itself). Only one of five I examined asked members to tithe (Hmph).

So, here’s my issue: I tend to lean toward the higher-expectation side of things. I think the sign-up sheet version of placing membership is riddled with problems. However, how can a church feel good about binding things on people that God has not bound? What right do we have to tell a baptized believer they cannot be a member of our church if they won’t have a daily quiet time as we believe is best for them? It seems that’s where we jump the shark.

I’ll save the subject of whether or not “membership” is itself a biblical concept for another day. But, since we’re doing it, can we find a way to do it freed of the illusion of creating a “higher standard” than those God has put forth. I’m quite sure there is no higher standard. The Gospel is it's own standard. To add to it is to take away from it.

As I see it, a membership covenant is a commitment to be and do in the local church what God asks us to be and do everywhere. It's simply the contextualization of being the Church in that local Body. It's not a place for pork-barrel theology. We don't get to slap our own hobby-horses on there and call it a "higher standard." Membership should be a beautiful thing–because it's simply declaring your intent to do Gospel with a local body of Believers. People will be far better followers of Christ if they stop dating the church (to use Josh Harris' language), and live in Covenant–provided they are joining a Christ-centered church committed to Truth and God's priorities.

So, let's talk membership. I'd love to hear some good, bad and ugly stories.

Are you on the “open membership” or “higher expectation” side of the coin? Is there a way to have a robust view of church membership without binding things on people God has not bound?


Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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7 thoughts on “What in the World is Church Membership?

  1. I have a friend who joined a church by saying “I want to be a member”. He had a gift for youth ministry and was very involved with the youth ministry. So the church elders hired him to be the new youth minister. Not too long after that, he came to the elders asking them about baptism since he had never been baptized. Needless to say the elders felt like they had egg all over there face for never knowing if this person, who they not only accepted as a member but also hired to be a youth minister, had never been baptized. It’s all good though. The elders taught my friend about the importance of baptism and he was baptized.
    Grace and Peace,
    K. Rex Butts

  2. Tim, what does “Hmph” mean in “Only one of five I examined asked members to tithe (Hmph).”? Just curious.
    To the question: its begs other questions: Is the church an institution or a fellowship? What is the difference between church membership and being a brother/sister in Christ (Christian)? Who determines church membership: the church creed, the preacher, the elders, the church? How do we deal with the “denominational” factor: is church membership to a franchise of Christianity and who “owns” the franchise? Is “church membership” useful to determine those we (the rest of the church) seek to encourage or a way of thinning the ranks to more effectively promote the church?

  3. This is definitely something we should be talking about. What I have seen too often is a cycle of extremes. We did the “come forward” approach and for the smaller churches it seemed dumb when everyone was baptized. So now we don’t do it at all which leaves out those who are seeking and we aren’t giving them the possibility to make known their desire to place membership. But making a list with little stars next to members is dumb too. If in the wrong hands, it hurts a lot of feelings.

  4. This is such a good topic to discuss as we’ve done a really terrible job of membership in the church. I’m definitley all for it and want it to be something meaningful and healthy. I just preached on it not too long ago actually.
    It’s something i’m tackling in the mid-west as membership is viewed rather culturally rather than biblically. It’s seen as a status symbol of sorts rather than a uniting with a specific body. I think you are dead on in saying it is a subject that has been ran through both extremes and needs to be brought back to a truer form.

  5. I work at a mini-mega-church, Pleasant Valley in Little Rock. We’ve got about 2,000 members in our database, and membership is pretty much just a function of our database. People who want to be members are. We have a pulldown calendar checkbox in that database for date of baptism.
    I have some ambivalence about this. While I am glad that we don’t impose our own judgment as a church on individuals’ supposedly “saved” status, I wish that membership meant more; that discipleship meant more than just being here once a week so that we church office folks can poll the database and send out a card to those who are missing in action for 2, 6 weeks or longer … or we e-mail you the church bulletin version with addresses as well as names of folks who are hurting, need prayers, are celebrating, etc.
    On one hand, we have lots of folks who are baptized believers who are so caught up in family and careers and community that warming the pew is about all they could be expected to do.
    At the other extreme, there’s a fellow who is a longtime member who, as far as I know, doesn’t believe in Christ. Yet he is faithful to his commitment as a volunteer who video-records the morning worship and brings his teenage daughter. His wife transferred her membership to a more conservative church which doesn’t have much of a youth group.
    He’s part of my church family.
    So I tend toward the idea that membership in church should be open – and relationship with God in Christ should be personal as well as communal. Not a checkmark in our database, but family.

  6. This is a great topic. Being a part of a church family should start with a birth like any other member of a family does. Baptism is the door into God’s family and the only necessary thing to become a part of His church. Once you become a part of God’s family you are held to His standards and His alone. These may be even more “strict” than the ones you listed above in some people’s minds. I loved the way Metro Church of Christ in Gresham ask people to place workmanship. This required more from the family members, it required action! I beleive that this is what God calls us to over and over again. So we should be asking why are members not doing more??? Could it be because they feel like strangers in their own church? Could it be that they have no direction in how to do ministry? Or that they are merely called to action but never see it?