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Is Church Membership Relevant?

Document-1899-Church-Membership1There is considerable debate among believers about church membership. While some ask if it’s even biblical, others debate how steep requirements should be. Must it involve baptism, a signed pledge, tithing, doctrinal profession, etc.? Then there are those who believe that dogma and rigid theological statements completely alienate our postmodern culture and misrepresent the subjective nature of truth. Leading them to believe that church membership is an idea whose time has passed.

During my pastorate, I struggled greatly with this idea of church membership. On the one hand, the early church clearly had membership requirements: inclusion through public profession of faith and baptism, participation in the sacraments, submission to church leadership and church discipline, etc. Raising the bar on church membership may thin the ranks, but it could ultimately lead to a healthier, more committed body. On the other hand, culture HAS changed! Not only are we more transient, changing jobs and cities with fair regularity, respecting people’s autonomy and points-of-view is crucial to winning a hearing.

Which is why I found An Interview with Mark Driscoll on Doctrine so interesting. The article is a few years old now, but it provides a fascinating glimpse into this mega-church pastor’s unconventional approach to church membership. And how, for him, it works.

As the tree grows and the fruit increases, the roots need to sink deep as well. So, when our [church] attendance was at about six thousand people a few years ago, we did something unprecedented. We canceled out the membership of everyone in our church and I preached the Doctrine series for thirteen weeks. Each sermon was well over an hour and included me answering text-messaged questions from our people.

Those who made it through the entire series were interviewed, and those who evidenced true faith in Christ and signed our membership covenant were installed as new members. We had always had a high bar for membership, but I wanted to raise that bar higher as we pursued our goal of becoming, by God’s grace, a church of fifty thousand. In so doing, we lost about a thousand people, dropped to five thousand total, and missed budget for the first time in our church’s history. We then rebounded over the next few years to ten thousand people a week and as many as thirteen thousand on our peak weekend. We had pruned, which hurt, but then we harvested, which was healing. It’s not all about the numbers, and we were willing to lose a lot of people, but God proved that there is power in the gospel and that a people united around core biblical doctrine can be used by God to bear much fruit by grace.

Sure, we can argue metrics. Is the size of the congregation indicative of health? In a church this size, numbers can be deceiving. Nevertheless, I think Driscoll’s desire to raise the membership bar was bold. I mean, how many pastor’s today would even think about making it harder for a person to be a member? Of course, most pastors aren’t starting with 6,000 members.

What’s most intriguing is the two diametrically opposed views at the heart of this debate. While some would celebrate the raising of the bar of church membership, and probably frame it as a precursor to revival, others would suggest that this type of demanding, theological specificity is exactly what’s killing the American church. So while one approach seeks to attract and grow people by being MORE demanding and doctrinally articulate, the other seeks to attract and grow people by being LESS demanding and doctrinally articulate. These two approaches are indicative of our changing religious landscape and the tug-o-war taking place inside Christendom.

In my view, there are good arguments for and against a “high bar” for church membership. On the one hand, being a Christian means something and the Church does a disservice to interested parties by downplaying those demands or distinctives. After all, Jesus said the road to eternal life is narrow (Matt. 7:13-14) and cautioned His followers to count the cost (Lk. 14:25-34). Christianity without qualifications not only “broadens” the road, it cheapens the cost of discipleship. If anything, church membership should remind us about the parameters of the road we travel and the cost of staying on it.

On the other hand, the Church is called to love others, embrace others, and woo the world to her Savior. Requiring formal church membership is hardly an attractive evangelistic tool. In fact, Jesus did not hammer potential followers with doctrinal statements or a strict list of requirements. Which is one reason the religious establishment chafed against Him. Yes, once a person was on “the inside” things changed. There were communal, ethical, as well as theological expectations. Of course, most of these were seen as part of an ongoing growth spectrum. (After all, a thorough understanding of the Trinity, Justification by Faith, and Sanctification doesn’t happen overnight… if it happens at all!) For this reason, the creeds of Christendom served less to fire the Gospel than to nourish those who eventually embraced its message. So whatever church membership should be, it should not eclipse the magnanimous love of our Savior and impede one’s journey there.

All that said, I personally find more danger in an un-defined church membership than an overly-defined membership. But it’s still a debate worth having. Should Christian churches have a “higher bar” for membership or require “less qualifications” for inclusion? Either way, in today’s transient, postmodern culture, it’s worth asking whether church membership is even relevant.

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{ 17 comments… add one }
  • billgncs July 10, 2013, 5:41 AM

    attendance is more important than membership, fellowship is like an anchor to keep us grounded.

  • G.G.Paxton July 10, 2013, 6:21 AM

    I have an old communicant’s token from the earlier days of the reformed tradition that testifies to the rigorous standards of accountability then practiced.

    For today’s culture, it seems the Temple’s model of two tiers is fitting: Outer Court for Seekers; Inner Court for Believers. At the edges, welcome and heal. Inside, disciple for service.


  • Aqiqah July 10, 2013, 6:58 AM

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    are but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not already 😉 Cheers!

  • R.J. Anderson July 10, 2013, 7:11 AM

    I believe that if a local church is really concentrating on fulfilling the purposes and activities of the church as given in the New Testament, then unbelievers and idle hangers-on will soon lose interest and drift away. The church, as the Body of Christ, is made up of believers, and the meetings of the church are intended for the edification, instruction and fellowship of believers, who are then to go out into the world and preach the gospel and make disciples. Unless you’re already committed to Christ and eager to learn more about Him and talk about Him with others who love Him, there’s going to be very little for you in church meetings and they probably won’t even make a lot of sense.

    The church’s mission is not to tempt or lure unbelievers or “seekers” into a building where they can be corralled and assimilated — it’s a gathering of like-minded Christians who want to worship God and learn more of Him. What possible interest do those activities hold for someone who doesn’t believe? So it seems to me that “membership” in that sense is an unnecessary and artificial construct which has only become necessary because the church has not been fulfilling its true mandate.

    It boggles me that so much of today’s church activity centers around the idea of enticing the half-hearted or even downright uninterested to come and hear a message tailored to them, while neglecting the actual discipleship and instruction of believers. I’m not in favour of cultivating some crusty old-fashioned atmosphere that would put off anyone under the age of 60, because a lot of old traditions that conservative churches cling to have nothing to do with Scripture and everything to do with fear and ignorance. But I do think we have to stop focusing so much on the weak and uncommitted and really work on cultivating true disciples. Those are the real members of the church, and they don’t need a piece of paper to say so. It should be perfectly evident by the fact that they keep returning week after week for fellowship and instruction and to use their gifts in God’s service.

  • Ricardo Williams July 10, 2013, 8:03 AM

    Good post. I think church membership seals our commitment towards our Christian faith. I belief though there is danger and it can breathe the spirit of the anti-Christ when Church leaders get to decide who can and can’t become a member, or who should or should not be promoted as the church grows.
    It’s a kind of feeling of you’re welcome here but you’re not welcomed. We tend to forget that even the Apostle Paul who terrorized Christians when he was accepted with all his flaws did great things for the present Church.
    I wondered how John the Baptist and Jesus Christ kept their ministries vibrant without building membership?

  • Jessica Thomas July 10, 2013, 8:59 AM

    Someone who says this:

    “I wanted to raise that bar higher as we pursued our goal of becoming, by God’s grace, a church of fifty thousand”

    and this:

    “It’s not all about the numbers”

    In the same paragraph, strikes me as one who is confused and unclear of his own motives.

    Driscoll’s approach to church membership (as well as other aspects of his approach to ministry) strikes me as cult-like. Jesus didn’t make his disciples sign an paper and then take a quiz. Although if he did, we could at least be confident that his teaching wasn’t corrupt.

    • R.J. Anderson July 10, 2013, 10:38 AM

      Seriously. I should like to rearrange that last sentence to say, “It’s not about the numbers AT ALL”. How many times did God’s faithful servants preach to vast crowds who totally ignored and despised them and refused to respond to anything they said? What about the entire life story of Ezekiel, for instance? Measuring God’s favour and your own spiritual worth by how many people you can entice into becoming “members” of “your” church, especially (as in this case) by putting would-be members through a grilling to prove their worthiness, smacks of cultishness to me.

    • Katherine Coble July 10, 2013, 12:07 PM

      Jessica–so very much yes to all of what you say here.

    • Katherine Coble July 10, 2013, 12:09 PM

      Mark Driscoll is the epitome of someone running a church upon Cult of Personality. He can say it’s all doctrinally super pristine but the fact of the matter is that he admits to putting himself in a position as arbiter of who “evidence[s] a true faith in Christ.”

    • Nathan July 10, 2013, 6:18 PM

      As someone who is an avid follower of Mark Driscoll and who keeps up with all Mars Hill’s podcasts (and someone who has become a more sacrificially-loving husband to his wife because of the Spirit’s work through these podcasts), I’m going to take a guess and say that when he says “by God’s grace” in reaching a church of 50,000 . . . he isn’t exactly paying God lip service. Why he picked that number, I can’t really say; but he picked that number only because he’s so passionate about seeing people meet Jesus; also, from what I’ve gathered from his podcasts, the number by itself is worthless to him unless these people are maturing disciples able to make new disciples themselves. He’d like to reach the number, but if God says “no,” I think he’d be totally content with that as well.

      • Jessica Thomas July 10, 2013, 7:01 PM

        You may be right about his motives. I hope so. I personally don’t feel safe putting myself under his spiritual guidance. So, I don’t. I guess it’s that simple.

    • D.M. Dutcher July 10, 2013, 6:29 PM

      Maybe. He might have just had a high goal, but he was willing to lose people for the more important goal of requiring church membership in a strict sense. I can see both happening.

  • D.M. Dutcher July 10, 2013, 11:25 AM

    The “submission to church leadership and church discipline” is probably why this isn’t a good idea. I mean in one sense, yeah it’s vital; there’s a point where a Christian in open sin needs to be asked to leave if he doesn’t seem to be changing his ways. But there’s a lot of damage done due to those words, and a temptation to serious legalism that goes beyond the original intent.

  • Hannah H. July 10, 2013, 11:31 AM

    In the short span of my life, my family has moved a lot… We are devout Christians, but never have been members of a particular church.

    I believe membership does more harm than good. I’m not going to rail against churches that have membership, but I believe that some (not all) can tip over into a legalistic trap.

    Yes. Church is ment for Christians to gather and focus in God, however, membership can exclude many Christians from this process to. Church is not a place for only Baptists, or Methodist, etc to gather. It is a place for people who love and follow Jesus.

    The church is also ment to be the example that shines so the world can see Jesus. That world will never see Jesus if churches squabble over issues over who is allowed to sit in the pews.

    Again. I am not attempting to mock church membership. But, personally… I have qualms signing a paper of commitment to a church that is governed by man than listening to God’s guiding voice. Membership is not evil or bad… It just can become so in the wrong hands.

  • Katherine Coble July 10, 2013, 12:10 PM

    I’m a member of one Church. That works for me just fine. The rest of it is a loose confederation of social and support groups emphasising a wide variety of activities.

  • Robert H. Woodman July 10, 2013, 8:46 PM

    I struggle with this one, Mike. My wife and I are members of a small Baptist Church with an aging population. If we don’t start growing significantly, and quickly, I fear we will die. At the same time, though, I see the mega-churches in our area, and I have attended several of them over the years, and I have come to intensely disagree with and dislike the “anything goes” attitude of many of them.

    At this point in time, after thinking and praying about it for years, I am of the mindset that says, “We love and welcome EVERYONE with no restrictions, but we set the bar high for actual membership in the Church.” I don’t know how long I will continue in that mindset, but that’s where I am now.

  • Jason Haenning July 12, 2013, 9:10 AM

    R.J., I really appreciate your comments in particular.

    The Church is not a secular civic organization, and man is not the arbiter of membership. The Church is the saved body of Christ. Christ alone saved and adds members to his Church with true knowledge of who is in a right relationship with Him.

    The membership we are speaking of here is a man-made faulty system designed to regulate participation and influence. Even when assuming that membership requirements are a well-intentioned method for leadership to help protect the flock from wolves, I believe there are far more effective methods that better reflect the Lord’s attitude toward others.

    The important details that need to be known about someone’s relationship with God and their potential of influence within the body are most directly found by engaging side by side in life and service. Too often, membership “screening” techniques have little correlation to the person’s faith life. There is often little commitment to walk side by side with the person, learn their strengths and weaknesses and see their faith in action. A well-disguised wolf can only be discovered by intimate knowledge.

    The difference between a wolf, a seeker, an infant believer and a committed disciple is discovered not just in a single confession, but also in the daily walk. By walking side by side with those who show interest, we will not only discover wolves (and can deal with them in a Godly way), but also encourage faith, build relationships, discover gifts, and find opportunities of meaningful service.

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