Reflections on Church Membership

I remember the first time I became a member of a church. I didn’t really know what membership was about, but as I became a member of the church that helped grow my faith as a young Christian it was like a right of passage. It felt like being accepted as an adult, able to be a member of the church that was so foundational in my early faith.

As the years passed though, I wondered if being a member was largely symbolic. When I transferred colleges my sophomore year I was only able to go to that church probably about a third of the year. I considered it my home church, but honestly during my college years it felt like I didn’t have a steady church home. It was a weird split being involved with two congregations at the same time for a few years. I was still more invovled with my home church than my college church at this time, but you just felt like you missed so much of what went on during the year. I was also never able to make annual meetings because they would always wind up on weekends that I was back at college, so I often felt like there was little change after I became a member from before I became a member.

I retained the membership to that church until my wife and I moved to Massachusetts for me to go to Seminary. We started going to the church and fairly quickly became members; we liked the church, they were having a membership class fairly shortly after we started going, and I needed to be involved in the work of the church for Seminary and membership is typically required for such things. Again though, membership just seemed a bit strange. I did it more because the church required it, than any sort of personal reasons. Maybe this boils down to the fact that if I’m going to a church, I’m going to be committed to that church and get involved in the ministry of that church. Membership didn’t bother me, but it also wasn’t something I viewed as a badge of importance either.

Later at this church, I would be part of the leadership that would dissolve membership (as well as all offices, including our own) as part of a restructuring of the church. It wasn’t a permanent removal of membership necessarily, but it was enough to cause a major ruckus in the church. Admittedly, looking back I think we could have introduced the idea better, but at the same time I’m not sure if this would have made things better, worse, or the same. People left over getting their membership taken away, and it just struck me as odd. I never held my membership as super important. I was part of a congregation because of my relationships, my attendance, and the work that I did in the church. I didn’t necessarily need to be an official member to be considered a member.

I don’t say that to dismiss people’s thoughts on membership, but I just didn’t quite understand their position as to why it was so important. If it was about power, about the only power I got from membership was voting on the budget and electing people for offices, which was pretty much just affirming the one person who was willing to do the job. If it was about their connection to the church, leaving over it seemed to be an odd way of voicing such a concern. I mention all this because in my life of viewing membership as something minor, I ran across people who felt that membership was of significant importance, at least enough to leave a church over.

This brings us to today. Last Sunday my wife and I became members of the church we’ve been going to since the beginning of this year. I’d like to say I view official membership as something super important, but I still don’t. However, due to something I’ve read recently, I think I might have some idea why.

When I was reading Resident Aliens the book I gave my thoughts on not long ago, I came across this quote, “We shall have to break our habit of having church in such a way that people are deceived into thinking they can be Christians and remain strangers.” Now it may rub people as a bit of an overstatement, but for some reason it really struck me. For some reason this quote and my thinking about membership intersected. I wondered is this idea that we can remain strangers while going to the same church part of the reason for membership? We don’t really know too many people beyond surface level so we need a procedure that will help us know who is committed, who believes the right things to be involved with ministry, and will allow us to still remain mostly strangers.

Now I admit that this may sound anti-membership, but this was just my thoughts when these two ideas collided. What are the reasons for membership? I’ve heard it used as a tool used for churches to know who is allowed to be invovled with ministries, but is membership the best way to figure this out? I’m not sure as I’ve gone through membership classes and interview that people would know me enough to know if I was a good fit for the various ministries of a church.

I’ve also seen membership used as a sign of commitment by members to the vision and body of the church. This kind of works for those who become members right at a given time, but as leaders change, new people come, people go, and the vision changes this isn’t a good barometer either. It can be a sign of commitment through all changes, or it can easily turn into a sense of entitlement because of holding a membership for x number of years. Perhaps what would be needed is a membership renewal after so many years to recommit to the vision, particularly if it has shifted since last membership.

Membership has also been viewed as a way to get power in the church. It is a way to get a voice in the church. I’m not sure this is a good reason. As I’ve already said, becoming a member didn’t really give me a feeling of great power in the church. If anything actually being involved with the ministries of the church was more empowering, but even then it was also frustrating and humbling more than empowering.

The bad thing with all of these though is they seem to operate from a place that considers being strangers the status quo. We need to know who is able to do ministry because we don’t know others enough to where they are in their faith and what their gifts and talents are if they are mature enough to be involved with ministry. We use membership as a sign of commitment because the commitment isn’t cemented in our relationships with the people of the church. We use membership as a way to get power because the power of the church doesn’t come from knowing one another and valuing each others voice, but from a title.

I don’t know if these are fair thoughts against membership or not. I mean I’m one who doesn’t hold  membership that important in the large scheme of things, so I could just be off on my own here. As I said I’m not against membership, but I do wonder if we need to reflect over our reasons for membership. We need to make sure we’re not encouraging a way for the church to stay strangers by incorporating a rubber stamp system so that people know who is okay and who isn’t.

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5 thoughts on “Reflections on Church Membership

  1. I wonder if your thoughts would be different if you had remained in the same Church all along. Membership isn’t a huge deal to me either, but we’ve moved several times as well. My parents went to the same Church for 50 years and membership is much more significant to them.

    We once went to a church where on our first Sunday somebody came up to me and said, “you’ll have to become a member so we can get you to teach Sunday School.” Yikes! Went there for 3 years, never became a member because of that statement! Also audited my kid’s Sunday School class to make sure that their teachers were grounded.

    • That’s a possibility. I didn’t think about the fact that we’d moved around making membership more or less important. I would be interested to know why membership is so important for people going to a church for a long period of time though. It probably does change the field a bit, but I’m still not sure why.

      That’s not too good of an experience with church membership. I guess they were really wanting new members? Not a way to instill confidence in the Sunday school teachers though.

  2. I feel a little weird commenting because I haven’t technically been a member of any church. But if I understand the concept correctly, it feels like membership is not so much about voting and being rubber-stamped as much as it is about being known (like you said) and also knowing what you’re getting into.

    Recently Matt Chandler talked about church membership and he likened it to going on a date where neither of you hides who you are and what you believe; it’s all laid out on the table so you can make an informed choice. So you know up front what this church believes about salvation, about the roles of men and women, about all the big ideas.

    And it ends up being a two-way street, because not only do you know what the church is about and how disciples are made, but the leadership gets to know you in that process and how to care for you.

    I don’t know if that’s typical or atypical of church membership but it definitely sounds appealing.

    • If membership was more like that I think that it would be great. It still begs the question, at least in my mind, is membership needed to be able to do what you just described?

      I think what you just described is probably the way membership should work, but whether it works that way or not is something that probably depends on the church. Most of the times I’ve become a member it has been more about are you a Christian or not. It often isn’t necessarily about what the church believes, although I know with our most recent membership these were talked about. The vision of the church and such were part of the discussion of course this is assuming always that the vision of the leadership is always the vision of the membership.

      So yeah I’m not sure if the ideal is very typical. It seems that it is more atypical and something that has to be very intentional. I agree though it is appealing.

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