The Dumbing Down of Church Membership: An Emerging Crisis in the Modern Day Church

In an effort to receive new members, many struggling churches in America have neglected the Biblical and historical model of what it means to be a member of a local body of believers.  Entrance into church membership ought to be covenantal, restrictive, and worthy of careful discernment. If a church becomes desperate to receive new members without a careful vetting path into membership, they neglect to protect the purity of the bride of Christ.  Rushed membership without a precise Biblical onboarding will result in future problems with maintaining the integrity of the local body, and ultimately could hurt the witness of the church. Rushed membership coupled with a lack of church discipline in a local church presents a potentially dangerous situation to the purity and apologetic of that congregation.

How did we get here? In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, iterations of the Church Growth Movement led thousands of churches into a marketing, seeker model of attracting new members in such a way that the focus morphed into an unhealthy “draw a crowd and fill the seats” praxis.  Not only is this dangerous, it also doesn’t produce long term disciple making results. In an effort to make the church as attractive as possible to unbelievers, it also led to a de-emphasis of the importance and sacredness of covenanting with a local church as a member. The mentality has become: If you like the services, ministers, ministries and facilities then come and join us! Fill out this card and you are on the roll! In so doing churches could take pride in the number of new members being added, however these new members often don’t join churches because they seek to covenant with other believers under the Lordship of Christ. They join because they enjoy the activities and relationships found in the church, much like they would join a community center.  My fear is that in an effort to find new church members many churches have lost the sacredness of what it means to be a member of the body of Christ.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that churches start placing the old church covenant sign back on the wall of their sanctuary.  If we are doing it right, we shouldn’t have to nail a lengthy worded sign to the wall of our church.  Through our polity and practice, it should be communicated to members and practiced through our pastors.  Church Membership is a Biblical idea.  While there is no one passage that thoroughly describes the expectations of church membership, there are many places in the New Testament where its importance is implied.  Ephesians 4 speaks of the work of the church as a united whole serving, loving and using their spiritual gifts in ways that are sacred. Paul beautifully expresses this idea, “Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Eph. 4:15-16).  He also says in 1 Corinthians 12:12, “The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ.” Each member is connected with one another just as the parts of the human body work in synch for the greater good. 

The First London Confession of the Particular Baptists in 1644 Beautifully illustrates an example of how the church has viewed the sacredness of membership, as article 33 states, “The local church is a company of visible saints, called and separated from the world, by the Word and the Spirit of God, to the visible profession of the faith of the Gospel, being baptized into that faith, and joined to the Lord, and each other through mutual agreement.” (Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, p. 65).  

Spurgeon’s six-step process of church membership is also worthy of consideration. Those six-steps included: (1) A prospective member must share a clear conversion testimony with an Elder of the church. (2) If the prospects testimony gives a clear conversion, his testimony is recorded in the Testimony Book of the church and a meeting is scheduled with the Pastor. (3) If the Pastor is satisfied, he will then in the context of a congregational meeting, nominate another member to investigate the moral character and reputation of the candidate. (4) The candidate is brought before the church and is asked to leave the room as the member gives a report of the findings. (5) The church then votes on the membership of the candidate.  (6) The new member, if accepted, is given the right hand of fellowship after baptism, and participating in communion. (https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/blog-entries/meaningful-membership-at-spurgeons-metropolitan-tabernacle/).

While this may seem extreme to us today, it was the standard of accepting new members for many, many years. This vetting protected the purity of the church and often, but not always, limited later problems.  I argue that many of the tragedies taking place in our churches with issues such as sexual abuse, moral failures, and incidents of disunity could be avoided by a return to the sacredness of church membership. How do we return to the sacredness of church membership?

  1. Church membership must be restricted to those with a clear Gospel testimony. As silly as it may seem to mention this, I guarantee you that thousands of people joined a church this past Sunday without articulating a clear Gospel-centered conversion. In speaking of the church Paul describes it as “one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all and IN YOU ALL” (Eph. 4:4-6).  Shouldn’t accepting new church members be, at the very least, an evangelistic activity? It should be more than just asking someone if they are a Christian when they approach the preacher during the invitation as they seek membership. It must be more than filling out an online form, or a 3×5 card. People who desire membership should enter a process, which begins with a pastoral staff member sitting down to listen to their testimony. 
  2. Church membership must be a mutualistic agreement. Using the phrase of the First London Confession church members ought to be, “joined to the Lord, and each other, by mutual agreement.” When you join a church you enter into a mutual agreement, first with God and with the other members.  Your church membership ought to emit God’s inner workings in your life and how that work fits into the beautiful kaleidoscope called the local church. As puzzle pieces are shaped to fit one another collectively painting a larger picture, so too are members called to connect in a mutualistic agreement to present a beautiful work called the Body of Christ. The church is one body under one Lord with a mutual calling to bring Him glory as it works in harmony to proclaim the wonders of Christ. Church members ought to share a bond of Spirit indwelled koinonia which serves as an apologetic Gospel witness to the world.
  3. Church membership must be a covenantal Relationship. Every church ought to view membership as a covenant relationship between members and God. While this arrangement is no longer common, it was the standard for centuries in the Christian church. It may well be traced to the German Anabaptists in the 16th century. If Costco and Sam’s Wholesale offer a list of expectations of their members, shouldn’t the church also require it? Maybe church members aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing because they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing. Every church ought to have a covenant that members agree to enter which first honors the Lord and second, offers clear Biblical expectations of church members. It is hard to practice church discipline and maintain the purity of the church if there is no clear articulation of the Biblical expectations of church membership. A church covenant also promotes unity, fellowship, and increased use of Spiritual gifts as members recognize that membership comes with expectations.

There must be a return to the sacredness of church membership to maintain the purity of the bride of Christ and offer an evangelistic Gospel witness to those who have long ago written off the church. It is more difficult to join the local YMCA, than to join many churches in our day. Without a clear Biblical process of church membership, the church will leave itself open to dangers and might well usurp its witness to a watching world.

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