By Karen O’Connor
My husband and I moved to a new city several years ago, found a church home right away, and promptly en-rolled in a membership class. But here we are five years later worshipping in a different church with our daughter and her family who are now part of this body. We love the preaching, are growing in our faith, and have made friends with people of various ages. My husband has become involved in the men’s ministry and I’ve recently joined the writing team of a new blog for women.
I hope to finish out my years in this congregation. Of course I can’t be certain of that, so I’m wondering if I should sign up for a new members’ class. I’ve done so in two other churches over the years. Yet signing a document didn’t keep me in place. Does it really matter? How important is it to be an official member?
According to the Barna Research Group, “Each year, one out of every seven adults changes churches. And one out of every six adults attends a carefully chosen handful of churches on a rotating basis.”
In an online article titled, “Changing Churches,” Jeff Dunn had this to say: “I live in a city where changing churches is an art form. Those who have been in their same church for 10 or more years are as rare as an Oklahoman who doesn’t like football . . . . For the most part, I think we imperfect people need to select an imperfect church and stay there.”
And become members.
To Be or Not to Be
I’m not sure I agree, so I asked several people I know. If you’re in a dilemma about whether or not to become a member of a church, maybe you’ll find your answer here.
Longtime Christian and retired business owner Don Loewen simply said, “I want to follow Jesus. Through church membership I can identify with others who belong to Christ, but most of all, it gives me a sense of belonging to him.”
Charise Olson, writer and mother of three, has a different opinion. “Membership is not important to me,” she says. “Attending and participating are.”
Mary Panhorst attends a church in Arkansas and is a firm believer in joining a church. “Membership is a very important factor in the life of a Christian,” she claims. “Belonging to a group of believers familiar with your personal beliefs and ideas pro-vides the same effect as a natural family does, birthing unity among church members. The more support a church body has, the stronger it is. ’Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor‘“ (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
Writer Jim Warren says, “Mankind has lost sight of his identity, destiny, and perceived significance to God through fear, guilt, shame, regret, anger, and unbelief. It’s as though we have decapitated the head from the body. Church is where we reattach and feel whole again.” For Jim, membership is essential.
Our Way, or God’s Way?
My sister Shevawn O’Connor, who lives in Italy, says she believes in belonging to a congregation “not because of what I have in common with the other members, but more because of what we don’t have in common. Through church I’m forced to rub elbows with people I wouldn’t normally spend time with because of differences in age, political leanings, lifestyle, and, yes, even theological orientation. When I choose who to hang out with, life is oh, so comfort-able. When God chooses, church is challenging!”
My friend Carolyn Hayes, a
speaker and publisher, says, “Church membership is important to me because through that commitment I associate with people who share the same mind and heart as we worship our Lord and Savior together.”
Karen Greenwell claims church membership “is the spiritual covering that is important. Most people think only about themselves and what they can get out of church.” She suggests we ask ourselves, “Am I spiritually covered by a minister who seeks God, knows the Word, and prays using Jesus’ name? The enemy cannot easily prevail over sheep that have a good shepherd.”
Steve Hutson, editor and literary agent, shared this comment: “God expects us to lead righteous lives of continual repentance and discipline, which means that we need to have practical mechanisms to enable us. Regular fellowship with a group of like-minded believers is the only way I know to accomplish that.”
Christian author and speaker John Piper made the following statement in an audio presentation on church membership:
What I mean by member is somebody who, whether by a signature or a word of commitment or promise, says, “I’m committed to a people, a people who hear the Word of God preached, a people who perform the ordinances that Jesus gave to his church (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and a people who commit to the ‘one another’ commandments (love each other, exhort each other, admonish each other, hold each other accountable).” I think something is wrong if you resist putting your name on the line for that.
Kathleen Gibson, author and
businesswoman, and her hus-band Rick, a retired minister in Canada, gave much time and thought to this important question of church membership because they have seen people come and go over the past 30 years while leading small congregations.
“In three years of irregular attendance at our current church,” said Kathleen, “due to our speaking elsewhere on various Sundays, I can’t recall hearing a single word of encouragement from the pulpit of our church to become members.”
She sees this reluctance to ask people for a commitment as a reflection of what is going on in our culture today—a lack of commitment to anything. “We can’t blame the young,” she says. “Even seniors today are less likely to commit to membership or even to service than they were when we were new in ministry.
“Believers in our pulpits and our pews have either forgotten or were never taught the importance and the blessings of a formal connection to a local body. In our years leading congregations across Canada, even among our fellow ministers there seemed to be a stoop-shouldered apology for having to ask for a commitment to membership. ‘Don’t press them, or you may lose them,’ seemed to be the voiced or unvoiced fear.”
For most of Kathleen’s life as a Christian, “nearly half a century now,” she says, “I’ve had little understanding of the specific ways in which our interconnectedness strengthens us all. Conversely, sin and disconnectedness in our local bodies weakens us. Somehow, those of us who are church leaders—no matter how large the congregation—have got to find an effective way to teach new believers the blessings of connectedness and the scriptural reasons for membership as outlined in the New Testament” (1 Corinthians 12:14-31).
Kathleen remarked that people who become members are less likely to become church spectators.
I recall my husband teaching membership classes. For the most part, individuals who attended were more active and grew deeper in their faith after a formal joining of our congregation. But I also recall that in some cases, church membership lists went untended for years, without any attempt to reach out to lapsed members. What message can this possibly give?
It’s so important that the concept of membership be considered valuable for more reasons than simply to gain givers and get workers. When attendees observe that church leaders value their members, more people may choose to join their ranks.
Another aspect of church membership that is seldom addressed came to light as Kathleen responded to the question.
In this litigious day, church membership is almost necessary for a body that wants to protect itself from lawsuits. The covenants or statements of belief that members sign can act as legal documents in cases of abuse or non-conformity to the specific principles that guide the church. They also provide a legitimate and safe way for congregations to practice church discipline within lawful boundaries.
Church membership may not be for everyone, but for those who choose it, the benefits seem apparent.
Karen O’Connor is a freelance writer living in Watsonville, California.
Digging Deeper on Church Membership, Healthy Involvement, and Accountability
What Is a Healthy Church Member?
by Thabiti M. Anyabwile
(Crossway Books, 2008)
What Is a Healthy Church?
by Mark Dever
(Crossway Books, 2007)
The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline
by Jonathan Leeman
(Crossway Books, 2010)
Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion
by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
(Moody Publishers, 2009)
Stop Dating the Church!:
Fall in Love with the Family of God
by Joshua Harris
(Multnomah Books, 2004)
Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church
by Nelson Searcy with Jennifer Henson
Training for Service
by Orrin Root
(Standard Publishing, 1983)
The Barna Group uncovered startling information about the lack of accountability in today’s churches.