Is Church Membership an Important Part of Being a Christian?
Pastors / Leadership
By Robert Hampshire, Crosswalk.com
Memberships are more common today than ever before. Everywhere from gyms, grocery stores, cell phone companies, media streaming platforms (such as RightNow Media or PureFlix), social media groups, community clubs, and, of course, churches have memberships that come with varying types of contracts and commitments.
While most people eventually seem to give in to whatever expectations these different memberships come with, some people are understandably hesitant to add yet another commitment to their plate.
According to a recent Barna poll, the ratio of people in churches becoming official members has been declining, especially between men and women in the Millennial generation and their predecessors.
This might be happening for a variety of concerning reasons, such as different priorities, changing social norms, commitment issues, or lessening religiosity among these younger adults.
But this trend may also be happening for reasons that the younger generation cannot necessarily be blamed for. For example, some churches put less emphasis on membership than they used to, so younger Christians have not been taught the value of membership (even though they are fully involved).
The plethora of memberships and subscriptions that people are exposed to now has “burned” them out on signing up for yet another membership, and many younger people are in a more transient season of life than their parents or grandparents were at their age because of changing jobs, school expectations, or the chasing of goals and dreams.
Nevertheless, many churches still promote membership to their newest guests.
What Is Church Membership?
In general, church membership is an official step of commitment to a church’s leadership and overall congregation. It is a motion of aligning one’s life to a church’s mission, values, beliefs, and vision. A member chooses to prioritize involvement, giving, service, and unity over their own conveniences.
Joining a church is supposed to be like leaving the stands and joining a sports team so you can go out to the court to start playing the game or like joining a spiritual family that provides local brothers, sisters, parents, and children not by blood or heritage but by the Holy Spirit.
Some churches even have certain “perks” for their members, like facility usage, wedding planning, cemetery plots, and discounts for an attached Christian school. In some churches, the only way to receive pastoral or deacon “care” is to be a member.
I am familiar with other churches that reserve their small groups exclusively for their members. However, other churches have no distinguishable difference between an attendee and a member.
Some churches have a detailed and intense process for joining their membership, while others have what I call a “good-ole-boy” system that involves a handshake, a smile, and a lot of assumptions.
Some people believe that church membership is the solidification of the most central practice of our Christian faith: gathering for worship and teaching with other believers.
On the other extreme, other churches totally downplay membership and have eliminated it from their church systems altogether. They would say that involvement, giving, and serving is “membership” enough.
What Does the Bible Say about Membership?
One common argument against the idea of church membership is that the Bible does not say anything specifically about it.
While that is true, we also have to be honest that there are many contemporary ideas, systems, structures, policies, and more that we use and enjoy today that the Bible does not mention.
This is simply because the “church” operated much differently in the early years of Christianity, as recorded in the New Testament, and did not exist at all in the Old Testament.
However, the Bible does give Christians today many different principles that help guide us in our understanding of what the modern church should be. This includes principles about what we now call “church membership."
For example, Paul declared in Ephesians 2:19-22 (ESV) that Christians are “no longer strangers and aliens, but… fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
This language drives home many facets of church membership, especially the community or fellowship side of it.
Paul explains this even further in Romans 12:5 by saying that we are“one body” in Christ and“individually members one of another.” Also, Jesus explains in Mark 3:35 that if we do the will of God, we are his“brother and sister and mother.”
These passages and the many other“one-anothers” in Scripture show us how Jesus’ ministry brings all people from all places together like never before through his shed blood on the cross.
Of course, if we were to look at the First Church in the Book of Acts, we would see a template for church membership that far exceeds any of the expectations of even the most committed modern church.
Just read the first few chapters of Acts and see the level of commitment they had to their leadership and to each other — even without an official membership role like we have today.
Why Is Church Membership Important?
Church membership as a routine or tradition is not important. Whether a church brings people up front to join or votes on new members with a private ballot, or has another process entirely does not matter.
Whether there is a list of perks for members is immaterial (unless, of course, the church ends up like a clique that treats non-members with disrespect).
What does matter when it comes to church membership is that there is a spelled-out process for everyone to join that makes sense (including salvation, baptism, and teaching), that there are clearly explained and doable expectations for involvement (especially in worship, small groups, giving, and missions), and that there is an agreement of accountability between the leadership and the membership as well as the membership to each other.
If there is no process, if there are no expectations, or if there is no accountability, then a church’s membership system will be severely lacking and possibly even pointless.
The local church (as a representative of the universal, invisible Church) is a family. For someone to commit themselves to that family is not only a worthwhile endeavor, but it is also biblical.
While we need Christ alone for our salvation, we need each other for our survival in this life.
For further reading:
What Does it Mean to Be a Member of the Church?
What Is the Meaning of the Body of Christ?
Does the Bible Say Christians Have to Attend Church?
Why Is Church Membership in a Decline?
How Can the Church Be More Like a Family?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/FatCamera
Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.