Church membership reimagined


Some in my Southern Baptist denomination are calling for more stringent church discipline. That’s mostly because we can’t find about half of our 16-million members. Obviously, some of our folks don’t take church membership very seriously. The logical thing to do to solve that problem is tighten up — enforce church discipline — make members tow the line. But, that’s the wrong approach.

My solution? Do away with church membership all together. There is no biblical basis for “membership” in a church, and it’s largely ineffective today. The alternative is to create “participants” — one church calls them “partners” — people who connect to a church by participating in some or all of the things a church does.

For instance, some will be interested in worship. Others will take a course in parenting. Others will help in the food pantry, or whatever your community ministry is. Others will want to bring their children to an afterschool program like AWANA or Pioneer Clubs. Some will volunteer to help in the community garden. Some will be involved in more than one aspect of church life, others will not.

By creating “participants” churches no longer have to press people to “join.” We can then focus on building The Kingdom, rather than our own kingdoms. The objection, of course, is that people will not take church seriously if they don’t join. But, most don’t take membership seriously now, so I’m not sure we’ll lose anything. Plus, there is a difference in “belonging” and “joining.” You’ve probably experienced people who joined, but never really belonged. They soon disappear. By contrast, participants would feel they belonged to their interest group — or else they wouldn’t come.

By identifying them as participants churches will free people to experience the ministry of church in various ways, without pushing for a premature commitment. As for leadership, cream always rises to the top. Churches will easily identify potential leaders by their enthusiasm, commitment, and involvement. Potential leaders are then invited to join the “leadership development team” to be formed as leaders in the congregation.

Finally, most churches connect professing faith in Christ and joining the church. In the South, “joining the church” is actually code for becoming a Christian. By unbundling conversion and membership, churches make clear that commitment to Christ is our first priority, with participation in a community of faith as its natural by-product.

Local church administration will undergo a significant revision in this century. Would your church give up its membership rolls for the participant concept? Or, is this a really wacky idea? I’d like to know what you think.

13 thoughts on “Church membership reimagined”

  1. If church membership were done away with in lieu of a more open concept what distinctions would be made for leadership? It some ways it reminds me of a the “Half-Way Covenant”. Not that everyone who is a member is actually a Christian and I am aware of that but this sounds like there would be more attenders who feel no need to become a Christian.

    We need to do something about the number of church members who are MIA. However as someone who grew up in a generation with little or no discipleship I think that we must emphasize discipleship.

  2. You mentioned that most churches connect professing faith in Christ with joining the church, yet earlier that there was no Biblical basis for membership in the church.

    What about the teachings of the Body of Christ. Doesn’t Paul teach that the church is the Body of Christ? And if it is, how can one be a part of the Body of Christ (a christian), apart from the Body of Christ (the church)?

    I agree that we need to do more to get those who are missing back into the church, more importantly, we need to help those who have joined feel welcome so they feel they belong.

    Thanks Chuck, you’ve got us thinking again…

  3. Hi, Dee,
    I agree that discipleship is needed. But, discipleship and “discipline” as it’s being talked about are two different things. I am not advocating that folks be allowed just to participate without ever hearing the invitation to accept Christ, but I am advocating that we invite others to participate in the life of the church. As they join us in church-related ventures, they feel a sense of belonging. Belonging then can lead to believing, as George Hunter puts it in his book The Celtic Way of Evangelism. Thanks as always for your comments.

  4. Hi, Sdygert,
    My point, and obviously I did not make it well, was that the distinction between “joining the church” and becoming a Christian have been blurred. By doing away with the formality of “church membership” conversion becomes the life-changing event. And, I’m not saying that new or old converts shouldn’t be part of a church — they should. But, you can be part of a group without an official membership protocol resembling a civic club. Belonging to a group does not require a formalized membership process. Thanks for your comments and for helping me clarify.

  5. Chuck,

    I understand that discipline and discipleship were not being used in the same way. Nor am I convinced the current way of joining a Baptist church is working. We work with the college ministry in our church. Most of the students who come are not members. Many of the members do not come regularly because they have either been promoted up or they are away at college.

    The matter of church discipline also raises some questions. I know it has a place in the church. Although I have seen it abused too easily. It started out being used for a valid situation but degraded to a personal vendetta against those the “power brokers” didn’t like.

    I have wondered it maybe we make joining a church too easy that some don’t take it seriously. Also, I have always been concerned about the number of members who confuse church membership with salvation.

    Not familiar with that Hunter book. I will try to find it. Since the store closed I don’t have as easy access to books.

  6. Dee, I agree with you that we have made joining a church too easy. That’s my point. We’ve already lowered the bar, so let’s do away with “formal” membership all together. We’re not doing that at our church yet because it’s hard to change the way people think. But, I am moving to create participant groups, hoping these will work as I have outlined above. You’ll enjoy the Hunter book — great insights into both Celtic Christianity and what works today. -Chuck

  7. Chuck,

    I’ll be interested to hear how this works for you. Only read one Hunter book and that was required for seminary. Didn’t like it very much. Thought that Little’s “How to Give Away Your Faith” is a better book.

  8. i personally think that increasing the disciplines or getting rid of membership altogether are both wrong ideas.

    first, if you get rid of membership…you lose the “screening process” for hands-on ministry. paul talks to “know those who labor among you” and without membership, anybody could take part in it. that is a big problem in churches like ours (slightly over 500 “members”) where we have a serious city of witches (who like to secretly infiltrate churches come to find out) next door and a bunch of “believers” looking to jump from church to church with their “platform for ministry”. there has to be something that helps control the flow of who’s ministering. for example, we have “altar workers” who help and pray for people repenting and get saved. this is not a thing we want anybody of the street doing. we want members who have been approved (meaning their not from a split in a church…running to our church our of offense and bitterness, and they are not from a cult)

    but on the other hand, you don’t want to beat to death and wear down your VOLUNTEER members and workers. if you make the rules for all the absent non-committed people, the ones who get hurt are the ones doing their jobs. if members aren’t coming to church already, how is disciplining them going to help them return? i can speak for myself…if i am apathetic towards someone…them rebuked only pushes me farther away.

    what i think may be a solution is what my church does…constantly talk and teach about membership. most people don’t know what membership is, it’s privileges and it’s Biblical requirements of faithfulness and joining the vision of the church and leadership. they don’t understand the need because we haven’t taught about it.

    i believe if we teach people the way to go, they will more joyfully go that way than if we keep them ignorant and just beat them down the road. lol 🙂

  9. Thank you for saying that “membership” is non-biblical. You are absolutely right!

    What happened when someone believed on Jesus? They were almost immediately baptised and they were automatically “members” of the church. (And the best evidence we have regarding baptism is that it has been replaced today by the “sinner’s prayer” as the initial public display of one’s belief on Christ.) So yes, becoming a member of the church is easy today, but it’s actually easier from a biblical perspective.

    And as for the whole “participant” conception. You are almost right on target! In the first-century church, every-member-functioning was beyond common place! That’s why Paul exhorted the believers in nearly 60 “one another”s throughout his letters. Also, the way you describe how the “leaders” appear – you are dead on! The best evidence that we have about how elders appeared in the 1st century church is by their actions. When an apostolic worker (like Paul) laid hands on them, they were simply acknowledging their functioning in a public manner.

    However, like I hinted at, you stopped a little short. Please hear me out because I will be misunderstood by a great deal of people. First, I have many friends and family members within the modern institutional church. Second, I was raised a Southern Baptist. Third, I led music for my “home church” for a time and I also led music for a large youth group (~300 kids). With that said, I have firmly concluded that the problem with the church today is actually the institutional form and esp. the clergy/laity split.

    Right now, here is our typical view of “church”: We get up on Sunday morning and go to church. We go to Sunday School and then to “big church,” or the worship service. We hear a few announcements, shake a few hands, and then we all stand and sing some songs together (usually 3-5). Then an offering is taken and maybe a special music selection by the choir or a soloist. Following all of this is the main focal point of the service – the sermon. A pastor gets up and delivers the sermon and then offers an invitation. Another song might be song and then we head out the door for lunch as Wendy’s or grandma’s (if we’re lucky, it’ll be the later!).

    I said all that to ask you this: How much of that reflects the biblical idea of church? I’ll just list some things without going into too much detail. This response is long enough as is! First, the whole concept of “going to church” is all wrong. We are the church! The church should not be confused with a building, an organization, or denomination. Second, the concept of a worship service built around a sermon cannot be biblically defended either. The church met to edify one another. Thirdly (and please down hunt me down for this one), the pastor and esp. the single pastor POSITION is not biblical. The functioning of a pastor is, but it is different. Anyone can be a “shepherd” when they FUNCTION as a shepherd (aka pastor). All of these things have their foundation in pagan ritual.

    Am I saying that all of the above is sinful? Absolutely NOT. I love my chair I’m sitting in right now. It was invented by a pagan culture. This just leads me to the last question for you: Is mass-producing Christianity actually benefiting the church as much as it is harming her?

    I love it when I hear of someone who is serving the church. Usually it is pastors and I love a great many of them. But Christianity is a priesthood of all believers.

    God-bless,
    – Dave

  10. — Inno, thanks for pointing out lifechurch.tv. I knew I had seen the term partners somewhere, but couldn’t recall.

    –Matthew, sounds like your context requires some sort of screening process. I’m not against that at all, but it needs to be meaningful, as you point out. You remind us that we all serve in different settings that demand flexibility to deal with specific issues.

    — Dave, I agree! Are you amazed? I don’t disagree with anything you said, I just didn’t want to dump the whole thing out at once. And, making the transition from traditional to NT functional is difficult. So, we’re trying to take one step at a time, building some “structures” alongside existing and familiar ways of doing church. Anyway, I agree and thanks for saying what needed to be said. Go, brother!

  11. Great post, Chuck!

    I’m with on you on the lack of biblical basis for local church membership, so we did away with formal church membership about a year ago. We stress involvement in the community of faith and the concept of body life. We regularly emphasize the necessity of functioning within one’s gift and the importance of commitment to one another. To us, that’s a much more biblical approach.

    As for finding leadership, we do that through our small groups. If a person isn’t committed to a small group, then they’re probably not ready to lead in the “big” group.

    If the church would return to a relational model as opposed to a business model, I believe we would be much more effective for the Kingdom.

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