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.