Should church “membership” still be a thing?

Few people really ever question the concept of church “membership” these days. It’s just become kind of a staple of the Western church that we all accept. Despite that, Life.Church ended membership. I must confess, I hadn’t even considered changing the membership dynamic that we have all grown so accustomed to, but if I’m totally honest, I do think that the way membership has been done is certainly lacking today. We may even be encouraging people to sit back and treat church like a club where they should feel comfortable when Christ himself promised discomfort for those who followed him.

Do your church members treat membership more like it’s for club entitlements?

I want to look at a few pros and cons of traditional membership and then propose a framework more consistent with the early church that I propose would be a better approach to the concept of “membership.”

Pros of traditional church membership

  • It’s clear the member has a commitment to the church and vice versa.
  • It’s great for church polity things like determining who can vote.
  • You have a clear pool of who you need to focus on for deeper engagement and development.
  • Staying connected to the church gets incentivized.
  • There are legal benefits when it comes to church discipline.

Cons of traditional church membership

  • Scripture and what we know of the patristics indicate Christians just kind of treated baptism as membership.
  • People assume privileges or entitlements like the use of the church facilities for personal things like birthdays based on “I’m a member.”
  • Much like Kierkegaard pointed out with state Christendom, church membership itself can easily be confused with faithfully following God.
  • It doesn’t seem to really reflect the needs of the hybrid “phygital” church where engagement is far more important than membership.
  • It works against collaboration between different church congregations because membership is hyper-localized.
  • Members don’t really have to do much per se to be a member, so it encourages lowered expectations.

An alternative to making people members of a church

As much as I do like traditional membership and the benefits a traditional membership model has, I can’t help but think that perhaps it’s time to explore alternative approaches to church polity and engagement. Here’s my proposal:

  1. We need to unlink the board of directors from eldership and broaden eldership substantially so that it’s something people aspire to and is a bit less prone to becoming a political office. If you have a ten-thousand-person church and five elders then I’m pretty sure Paul would want to have a word about why so few mature Christians are being tapped for eldership. 🤔
  2. We need to recognize everyone who is baptized, holds to Christian orthodoxy, and interacts with the church as, for all intents and purposes, disciples we have a commitment to help grow along their discipleship journey.
  3. For legal purposes, any time that people sign up for anything we need to have the disclaimer that they agree to the church discipline policy and statement of faith.
  4. Most board things should still be handled by a smaller board composed of some of the elders, but big vision things should be handled by the entirety of the elders coming together in prayer to discern what direction God is taking the local church. Those elders should also be core to the volunteer and mentoring pool.

I get that there are issues that can crop up with a proposal like that. Sometimes unity can be really tough with seven elders let alone two-hundred elders! That said, I have seen very effective churches that included every person who had ever held the board elder position placed on a “council of elders” that would come together for big church decisions like church planting.

Closing thoughts

There are a lot of challenges to changing the membership model churches have been using. Most churches probably won’t be able to change it at all because it’s core to either their or their denomination’s charter/articles of incorporation. However, membership will probably face ongoing challenges as the way people interact and engage change and it may be time for us to look closer at ancient models to better serve the modern church.

Isaac Johnson

Isaac has been in professional ministry since 2002, holds an M.Div. from Moody, and his goal is to equip churches to reach digital natives.

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