What is Church Membership?

It is biblical and valuable!

What is church membership?

The topic of church membership has garnered great interest among Evangelical circles in recent years. Surely, all would agree that a discussion of the meaning and value of church membership can be rewarding in the context of any local church. And yet, it does seem that some local churches are hesitant to think critically about their own practice of church membership. This article is, in large part, a plea for local churches to think about the concept of church membership and the right practice of church membership in their specific context.

Biblical investigation, historical study, and personal introspection are all great efforts when addressing church membership and related topics. When church history agrees with Scripture, we may gain insight from the application of biblical truth in a context that is not our own.  When church history diverges from or unnecessarily exceeds the teaching of the Bible, we are better equipped to learn how we may avoid these mistakes ourselves by learning from others. Of course, the question is not ultimately, “How did people do church membership in the past?” The question is, “How should we do church membership right now?”

Church membership has lost its value.

To say that the value of church membership has diminished among the majority of Evangelical churches today is not to say that church membership is not valuable.  My statement is about the perception of many Evangelical church members, not the actual value of church membership.

It seems clear to me that many Evangelical church members (especially in the Southern Baptist Convention) perceive church membership as having little or no value whatever in their daily lives. The statistic of members to regular attendees is sufficient to illustrate the perceived lack of value among Southern Baptists. There are about 15 million members among SBC churches, but only about 33% of these can be found gathering with fellow members on any given Sunday.

If one does not think enough of church membership to worship regularly with fellow members, then one does not value church membership.

The reason I have begun by articulating the problem (namely a devaluation of church membership) is that I believe this current situation is one of our own making (speaking of Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals). I, therefore, believe that the solution is achievable by those same ones who have created the problem. We must resolve to carefully and diligently practice biblical church membership.

We have largely made church membership a consumer-driven category, much like any other social or service-oriented organization. Church leaders look for new and innovative ways to cater to the taste-preferences of their target audience, and then create organizational structures by which they seek to achieve maximum saturation of their niche market.

Many church leaders hope to draw in an ever-larger crowd by targetting and winning an audience, much like corporate marketing specialists.

All of this feeds into the self-centered idea that the customer is king and the whole organization exists at the behest of the customer. At the end of the day, church members think of the church as an institution which exists to serve the felt-needs of its members. Church members think this way because the church leaders taught them to do so by their own words and actions.

The result of this kind of practice is an appalling lack of accountability, authority, and discipling. In fact, such things are considered abhorrent to the marketing and consumer-driven structure. Accountability, authority, and discipline would undermine the foundational values of any customer-centered organizational model.

Church membership is thoroughly biblical and highly valuable.

In contrast to this modern invention of church growth techniques, the Bible actually presents a simple and God-centered structure and purpose for church membership. It seems clear to me that the purpose of church membership is articulated throughout the New Testament in the form of commitments and responsibilities.

Here are some of the commitments I find in the New Testament.

  • The individual Christian must commit to other Christians (Col. 3:12-17).
  • The individual Christian must submit to the oversight of church leadership (Heb. 13:17).
  • Pastors/elders commit themselves to the task of lovingly shepherding (leading, teaching, loving) a particular local assembly of Christians (1 Pet. 5:1-5).
  • Christians must join together for mutual support and accountability (Gal. 6:1-2).
  • Under the care and instruction of godly leaders (i.e. pastors/elders), a congregation must strive to grow in spiritual maturity and in its ability to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-16).

The biblical understanding of church membership makes clear the distinction between the people of God and the rest of the world. Those who enjoy new life in Christ are trained and corrected so that they may flourish in their new life. Those who resist the disciplines of Christian living are rebuked and held accountable for opposing the very practices that produce greater life in all who follow Christ.

In the practice of biblical church membership, Christians are distinguished from the world, and Christians grow alongside one another in grace and love.

The results of practicing biblical church membership are increasing spiritual health, progress in personal holiness, and growth in effective Christian witness to the world. The gospel of Christ, which asserts that blessed transformation is at the heart of God’s gracious plan for sinners, is made visible among congregations like these.

May God revitalize, reform, and renew Evangelical churches to reflect the purity and love which Christ said would mark His disciples in the world (Jn. 13:35).

Church Membership means more than you probably think.

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another…” (Colossians 3:11-13).

The local church is an organization unlike any other. In fact, when we really understand biblical church membership, we just might find that it is a basic longing in every human heart.

Writing to the “church” or the “body of Christ” (Col. 1:18, 24) in Colossae, Paul says “Here there is…” no distinction of ethnicity, socio-economic status, or even religious hierarchy. Rather, Christ is the tie that binds all those who love and trust Him. Our Western/American culture seems painfully aware of the natural desire we all have for true human equality, but there is a unique harmony among Christians in a healthy local church.

Furthermore, these “chosen, holy, and beloved ones of God” are called upon to patiently and compassionately and humbly “bear with one another.” Only where Christ is king, and sinners are honestly loving and submitting to Him is such a command even possible. The healthy church family unites around their common love for Christ, and they appreciate and practice meaningful membership as they bear with one another toward Christian harmony and joy.

The Southern Baptist Convention & Local Churches Must Change

As we think about our own local church (her challenges, goals, and resources), I believe it may be quite helpful to put things into perspective. We are a Southern Baptist (SBC) congregation, and we have been since 1919. We are also a rural congregation of about 110-150, depending on the Sunday. These metrics place us in the heart of the SBC.

Our church’s membership (more than double our average attendance) is numerically larger than 60% of all Southern Baptist churches (see charts and data HERE). That means we are in the top 40% of SBC churches right now. This may be one way of reminding ourselves that we are not an insignificant congregation.

However, as you may or may not know, a church’s membership roster is not always an accurate measurement of actual involvement. Our own members-to-attendance ratio (not quite 3:1 right now) is not unusual among SBC churches. In fact, churches across the SBC have been actively raising the expectation of cleaning up and maintaining more accurate membership rolls (see the 2008 resolution HERE). I have been slowly-but-intentionally doing this hard work among my congregation.

While numerical involvement is certainly not a trustworthy measurement of spiritual health, the numbers do not look good for our church or for the SBC in general. Even with our padded membership roster, the trajectory is downward.

The president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary recently wrote about the current state of affairs among the SBC (see article HERE). He pointed out that the 2015-16 Annual Church Profile (ACP) reports marked the lowest number of baptisms since 1946, the lowest number of church members since 1990, and the lowest number of people in worship service attendance since 1996.

Dr. Kelly said, “Consider it official. The SBC is in decline, and it has been so for a number of years. The typical SBC church is struggling mightily to reach people for Christ in its city, town, or community, and it is struggling mightily to keep engaged the members it already has.”

While this is no encouragement to us, it does help us to take a breath regarding our own local “struggles.” Any time there is a perceived lack of success, the right thing to do is look for the hindrance. In our case, at FBC Diana, the decrease in membership involvement and lack of membership growth is certainly influenced by some local causes, but we are foolish to ignore the broader factors.

We do face the challenges of a small-town church who is experiencing a fairly dramatic leadership swing. The pastors before me, so far as I can tell, were men who loved Christ and loved this church family; but it is clear that the gifts I have and the things I emphasize are not the same as what they did.

Our many local challenges are significant, but they are not complicated, nor are they hard to see.

We live in a community full of people who think the local church is irrelevant. Those who still have a positive view of the local church, see the church very much like they see a grocery store… “The church that provides me with the best service and produce is where I will shop, but I will spend as little as I can to get what I want.”

People who faithfully commit to serve Christ in the common bond of the Gospel and in covenant with one another are extremely rare, and I praise God for each of those in my congregation.

So, what do we do? Where do we go from here?

Do we just keep doing the same old stuff, and watch the decline continue?

I don’t plan to… not by a long shot.

Dr. Kelly, the seminary president I mentioned before, said some other stuff in his article that I think is important to note in our attempt to make a plan.

He said, “Every strategy for evangelism from the first century until today assumes the life with Jesus is different from the life without Jesus. We must live distinctively if we are to be fruitful in reaching people for Christ. There will be no growth in evangelism without a growth in Christlikeness…

I could not agree with Dr. Kelly more. He is saying that we must live like Christians – distinct from the world around us – if we are to have any opportunity to tell people that Jesus and His Gospel are life-transforming. If our lives are not transformed, then we are lying, and the people we live with know it.

Distinct living is the mark of true faith, and we must be willing to acknowledge our sentimental notions of Christianity for what they are. Jesus said, “if you love Me, you’ll obey me…” (Jn. 14:15).

Dr. Kelly also said that once we establish ourselves as distinct from the world, we should intentionally engage our friends and neighbors with the Gospel.

He said, “Southern Baptists must be intentional in seeking opportunities to have Gospel conversations with people outside the walls of the church… It takes focused attention to make and keep evangelism a priority in your own life…” He went on to say that we all should be asking ourselves, “What is my plan for evangelism, and what am I doing today to execute that plan?”

Again, I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Kelly here. He seems to understand, as I do, that the “Come and See” model of evangelism is not the way forward. We do not see many people turning away from sin and trusting in Jesus through events or by simply attending a church service with a friend. While event evangelism has its place, and your friend may be willing to attend a service with you, it is not the primary way forward in our culture today. Instead, we should employ a “Go and Share” model.

Go and Share” is personally going to meet those who are not now following Christ where they are. And, we do this all the time… They are beside us at the ball fields; their kids and grandkids play with ours; they wave at us when we drive by their yard, and sometimes they even sit at our dinner tables.

The “Going” is something we already do, but the “Sharing” probably isn’t.

What is your plan for personal evangelism? When will you move the conversation from the weather to the Gospel? If you don’t feel equipped to share the Gospel, then when will you make an effort to become equipped?

What are you waiting for?

To quickly recap the plan being proposed here (both for local churches and the SBC generally), we must (1) live holy lives of gratitude before God, as we learn to trust and obey Christ all the more; and (2) we should feel the personal responsibility to share the Gospel with those we know.

One last thing will be the key to our success as a church family: We must pray.

We must pray like we believe we really need God… like we know that we cannot do this ourselves… like we are truly desperate to see people know and love Christ.

God is still in the business of saving sinners; He still delights in giving life to dead things, and He is still the gracious God who offers His salvation to all who will love and trust Him. God is also still in the business of shaping and shepherding saved sinners; He can easily give life to our church family, and He will bless our faithfulness.

 

He may or may not cause us to grow in great number, but He will most certainly cause us to grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ… I know He will because He has promised to do it (2 Pet. 3:18; cf. Rom. 8:29).