Church Trends: The Decline of Meaningful Membership

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How do you know who is participant of a community, and who is an interested, but uncommitted observer? Within the practice of communal Christianity, churches have noted the distinction as one of church membership. But endorsement for the importance of membership is largely absent from churches today.

Though it may not be verbalized, in truth every church employs some type of membership standard. Membership, in its most basic definition, answers the question: “Does so-and-so go to your church?”

Even those who attend irregularly are categorized this way. “Yeah, she goes to my church, but she doesn’t attend very often,” or “No, he doesn’t actually attend, but he’ll show up occasionally.” Put another way, a member is someone who might get a few inquisitive questions by the pastor on Sunday morning after a couple weekends of missing church, while a non-member who hasn’t attended recently might be greeted with an enthusiastic handshake and a “Glad to have you back again!”

Membership, in other words, is all about expectations.

One church might have different expectations for its membership compared to the next church, but every church does separate members from non-members, at least informally.

But many churches today have avoided making membership a substantial talking point for those interested in joining. Someone might attend a church for a few years, and then out of the blue, the church announces that they’re updating their membership and everyone should fill out a form and have it turned in by the end of the next month to continue as a member (or start as one).

Other churches have altogether eliminated any mention or record of membership. No expectations are given, except for the unspoken agreement that you will attend (somewhat) regularly and that you won’t attend (somewhat) regularly another church. Other than that, it’s up to you to decide your commitment level.

The decline of membership in churches today might be linked to a stigma of being divisive or exclusive. “The church is not a country club!” is the anti-membership motto. And there’s some justification for suspicion. Membership, like any good thing, can be abused and twisted for despicable ends.

Others might wonder if church membership is even a concept found in the Bible. Like the term “Trinity” (God’s three-in-one nature) is not found in name within the Bible but is the clear concept drawn from all the textual data, so also the term “church membership” is not formally stated, but is what the historic church has used to refer to the picture the Bible paints about local communities of Christians.

Rick Warren, pastor and author of the best-selling The Purpose Driven Life, implemented meaningful membership since the beginning of starting his church in California, and has recently said, “If you’re going to build a healthy, mature church you are going to have to understand the meaning of radical membership.”

There’s a popular (and wrong) perception among many Christians today that the early church was completely organic in its relationships and did not become “institutional” and organized until decades later: there were only spontaneous gatherings to pray, no clear distinction of leaders, and unsolicited contributions of goods and services. But this is a caricature. The New Testament clearly shows there were particular qualifications for leaders to maintain and that men like Saint Paul were employed in circuits throughout the Roman Empire to solicit funds for famine relief efforts. Paul’s first letter to his protegé Timothy even notes the church kept a list of widows in the church who qualified for extra assistance from the church (unqualified, young widows were expected to work or remarry). Apparently, the first churches thought it necessary to keep an official list of names, even for something as small as financial support for widows.

In addition to the biblical support, there are practical reasons for having a clear definition of membership. First, Christians believe that pastors are largely responsible for the spiritual health of the flock (i.e. the members of the church), and pastors will have to give an account to God for those under their care. But if a pastor does not know who exactly is under his care, well… that’s sure to be an awkward conversation. It might be compared to a father who says to the police officer, “What? That boy was one of my sons? Sure, he ate breakfast with us a lot, went on a few family vacations, and we even took him to the hospital when he crashed his bike, but I just thought he was one of my son’s friends. Am I really responsible for him lighting Planter’s Hotel on fire?”

But meaningful membership also has that “define the relationship” moment where expectations are clarified and agreed upon. Members knowingly commit themselves to certain responsibilities to the church, which can involve attendance, serving, and voting. But it’s not a lopsided relationship; the church also commits certain things to the member. Often that includes guidance for life and faith, social support during tough times, and so on. Churches should also promise financial support to those “within the faith” so that Christians who risk themselves financially in their generous and abundant contributions to the poor and needy won’t go bankrupt when financial surprises hit them. (Never mind the  limited-government, fiscally-conservative Christians who attend churches that have no such commitments in place and the needy in their congregations must instead rely on government programs.)

“That church is a little too… traditional. The pastor’s main point? 157 characters! I can’t tweet that.” A recent parody video portrays a consumer-minded couple on a tv show called ‘Church Hunters’.

Unfortunately, many churches without meaningful membership practices also struggle to get their congregations active in serving and participating beyond merely attending on Sunday mornings. But why should they? Without formal membership expectations, the church has communicated that such spiritual consumers can be a healthy Christian in good standing by just showing up. In this model, serving others or learning more about their faith is good and perhaps even encouraged, but still optional.

There’s one more critical component of meaningful membership that is designed to empower and protect its community, and many Christians and non-Christians who have not seen it in action might equate it to purposely running over the neighbor’s dog. But that’ll be the subject for the next article.

Editor’s note: This post is the third in a series on church responses to national trends. Follow the links for the first (spiritual, not religious) and second (statements of faith).