For The Someday Book

The Meaning of Church Membership

Posted on: May 25, 2010

What does it mean to be a member?  Why does it even matter?

The question came from a woman who had returned to our church after an absence of more than 25 years. She had been baptized, confirmed and married at our church, and several of her children were baptized and even confirmed with us. No one in the church remembered her from those years, except the one neighbor who had invited her back. She had approached me to talk about how to get more involved in the church, and we were sitting on her back porch having that conversation. I had—carefully, gently, so as not to hurt or anger her by telling her she was no longer “on the rolls” as a member—invited her to renew her membership in the church along with several others who were joining for the first time.

Her question did not surprise me, but its directness confronted me with my own questions on the subject. We live in a world where loosely-organized and constantly changing social networks are fast becoming our norm for community. Institutional distrust is at an all-time high, and people will avoid church ties just because the church is an institution. Membership organizations of all kinds are losing ground as younger generations may be interested in participating, but not joining or holding office. Most people visiting our churches either have a spiritual journey that crosses multiple ecumenical (and even interfaith) lines, or no history of Christian faith at all. This context has a dramatic impact on the meaning of membership.

People come to our churches seeking faith, community, a chance to serve and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. In my church and many others, our first step in answering their quest is to offer them membership. The returnee who asked me the question sought all of those things, and as I sat with her on her back porch I tried to make membership the answer to her query. After all, my pastoral training has taught me to grow the church and get people to become members. Membership is about belonging to the community, I said, because we take care of one another. Reaffirming your membership vows means reaffirming your commitment to follow Christ and grow in your faith. It is promising to serve Christ by attending and supporting the church and helping us together serve the community. Joining our congregation links you up with the wider United Church of Christ and the church universal, God’s presence in the world.

In reality, though, I knew that she could find all those things through simple participation in my church, with or without ever becoming a member. I can say with some confidence that our church is a place where her spiritual quest can find support and fellow sojourners. We are a vital congregation, and we offer multiple ways to deepen your faith, connect with other people, find ways to use your gifts and talents in meaningful service, and be a part of something bigger than yourself.  But none of those activities require membership.

What would membership do for her? Let her vote in congregational meetings and hold some elected offices reserved for members. Most of our ministry teams are open to all for participation, regardless of membership status, so there is little added benefit to becoming a member. It might make her feel a greater sense of official belonging, but we have had plenty of people become members who never feel like they really belong. Beyond that? I can’t quite come up with much more that membership would do for her spiritual quest.

On the other hand, I could quickly and easily generate a list of ways that her becoming a member would benefit me, the pastor. Clergy have long been taught to measure our job performance by the number of new members added to our community, so there is a great benefit to me in getting someone to sign on as a new member. The church would grow, in a tangible way that I could report on next year’s yearbook forms and in my next job search. Membership also belongs to a care-taking model of ministry, where the pastor-as-shepherd is responsible for the well-being of the sheep. Membership helps me know who I am responsible for and who I am not, who I need to visit in the hospital and who I can put off, who I need to call when they stop attending worship and who I do not. Encouraging her to become a member helps me a great deal.

The church benefits from her membership too. People would see her participate in the public rite of membership, and see the church growing in numbers. People in the pews feel good when new people (or, in her case, returning ones) join the church—it gives them a sense of pride that other people want to be a part of their community. The church can look to her for financial support, and ask her to help in leadership and service. Again acting in the care-taking model, they will know that she is “one of us” and needs us to look out for her.

While membership does a whole lot to benefit the pastor and existing edifice of the church, I’m not sure what it does to build the church of the future or nurture future disciples. I’m still not satisfied that membership might play any significant role in a person’s quest to know the God of Jesus Christ.

Do not misunderstand me—I believe we still need a faithful path for people to commit themselves to the church. Faith grows by commitment, leadership and accountability. The church should be creating communities where people can make deeper commitments, be held accountable in their Christian walk and grow as leaders and witnesses. I just don’t think membership does those things, and I’m not sure exactly what it does do.

I have encountered some new churches that have engaged a different model of membership. Everyone that participates in some way—attending worship, volunteering in a service project, showing up for a fellowship group—is considered a part of the community. As individuals get more involved, they are invited to make a specific, holistic commitment to the congregations. Some churches call them “covenant partners” or “discipleship leaders.” These people make promises that include things like continuing to grow in their faith, supporting the church financially and with their time, participating in mission and service, and sharing their faith with others.

These churches, however, have already abandoned a care-taking model of ministry, and replaced it with a missional spirit where the pastor is a visionary and inspiring spiritual leader. They usually fall outside mainline denominations, where membership numbers hold the key to representation in regional bodies and polity power. They are newer and younger, so older generations who have held membership status in the church for decades are not displaced. I think it would be difficult to make the transition in our established churches, because people would perceive it as the creation of separate social strata in the church. (Of course, there are already social strata in the church, but we don’t like to talk about that.)

I am increasingly convinced, however, that church membership is a concept that has outlived its usefulness. We must begin to create richer, more nuanced and more open ways of understanding our church communities. We must rebuild our congregations on the model of mission outposts, rather than the model of social clubs and mutual aid societies. We must imagine new ways of making decisions and governing ourselves at the local and denominational level that are based on participation rather than record-keeping. We must measure our ministries by the fruits of the spirit taking hold and transforming lives, rather than the number of people who exit or enter our registry. Changing the meaning of membership is part of the wider cultural change taking place in the church, and it will require a generation or more to unfold.

But we have to start somewhere. Sitting on that back porch, having tried my best to make traditional membership the answer to her spiritual quest and to explain membership in some meaningful way, I finally gave up. “You asked a really good question–and a tough one,” I said. “The church that you grew up in has changed, and the world has changed. We don’t place as much value as we used to on having our name counted on a list as a member of the church or the Elks or the Masons or anything else. But we still have those old systems in place, until we figure out a new and better way. There is a lot of conversation right now about what role membership plays in the church. So maybe you can think about joining as a member of the church, and together we can figure out what that will mean.” In the end, she did. Together, I hope we keep the conversation going and figure out what it might mean.

16 Responses to "The Meaning of Church Membership"

Thank you for this thoughtful post that expresses eloquently many of my thoughts. I agree that membership is antiquated. It truly seems that it is something the church borrowed from Western culture, and yet, there are those who would be appalled that membership could be considered irrelevant. There are also many who derive comfort from being on a church membership list because it provides security reminiscent of the selling of indulgences to guarantee salvation. So keep thinking and writing and sharing what it might mean!

Thanks for the comment. I had never considered the connection to selling indulgences–that’s interesting. You’re right that some people feel like their continued presence on our membership rolls is like a heavenly insurance policy. There’s so much theological un-teaching to be done there…

Great post. I love the answer you came to with her: let’s work it out together.

Very interesting question, and your thoughts about it are not ones that mostly would’ve occurred to me, so thank you.

What does occur to me is to wonder if the act of commitment to membership–however one defines “member” or makes that action–has value in and of itself for the individual. Does it change one’s mindset about the level of commitment to the congregation, this particular part of Christ’s body gathered, to say, “I belong here. This is my family, for better or worse”?

That’s exactly the question–and a good way of phrasing it. The idea of belonging/commitment has always been how I understood membership, but it was clear to me in this conversation that that concept didn’t really mean much to the woman I was talking to. I think us “church types” probably put a lot of value on it, but I’m not sure that those newbies who are joining do–so I still wonder how we make it (or something else) meaningful for them.

Thanks for the conversation!

Thank you so much for this thoughtful post. As someone whose has had “a spiritual journey that crosses multiple ecumenical (and even interfaith) lines,” I’m really grateful for how respectful you are of that reality. I love that your pastoral response was to be in conversation with the woman about membership.

One of my hurdles in thinking of membership (and surely it comes from that broad formation) is that I agree with some traditions on some issues, and with others on… well, others. I’m not sure a denomination would be OK with my agreeing to disagree on anything.

Well, I think I want to invite you to check out the United Church of Christ, which prides itself on theological diversity and openness to people of questioning, seeking faith! We believe God is still speaking, and we don’t have all the answers.

But, to your question, I meet a lot of people who have exactly your concern. Joining a church somehow has become synonymous with a doctrinal assent, rather than a faith commitment to a community. People can be reluctant because they may not share adherence to the whole doctrine, or because they fear their questions of faith will no longer be honored, or because they maintain an openness to God’s revelation beyond the means of that church.

It’s that concern that makes me want to emphasize more permeable boundaries of who’s “in” and who’s “out” in the church–not just members vs. non-members, but a sense of community with all those who participate at whatever level of commitment.

Thanks for your thoughtful reply!

I found myself thinking about this question the other day while visiting with a “newish” family in my office. I am pondering the same directions you are and I especially appreciated this sentence, “We must imagine new ways of making decisions and governing ourselves at the local and denominational level that are based on participation rather than record-keeping.”

When I was in seminary the first time around, I read The Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren. I’m not a Warren fan, but there were some interesting things in that book about what membership means. He comes from a model where much is expected of a member and where it is truly a way of making a commitment. I sometimes fear that in our more open and welcoming churches (like mine) we actually do our new members a disservice by NOT expecting much from them. One of the ways we love people is by having hopes and dreams for who they will become. When we just say, “everyone’s welcome, you don’t have to do anything but just be yourself and say, I’d like to join!” do we actually cheat them out of an opportunity for more meaningful growth and commitment?

Thanks, Caela.

I totally agree about the importance of encouraging a real faith commitment from people. Part of learning to live as a Christian is getting along with people, and hanging tough and being loving through conflict. The church is a great venue for that growth–and we are infantilizing people if we do not ask them for that serious commitment.

That’s why I am attracted to the high-demand membership idea, like Warren’s (even though, like you, I don’t see eye-to-eye with him most of the time). But how can we make that transition in an established congregation?

The voting thing is tricky, too. Not sure how to work that yet.

Thanks for the conversation!

Great post, and one I”m often faced with, also. I love your answer (and I’ll be borrowing it, I’m sure, if you dont mind) – I often talk about covenant, and about being totally present to the relationships/community we have now. I also like Caela’s comment. Thanks for this conversation!

Of course–covenant! Being UCC, I should have thought of that word and its meanings for church membership. That would have added much to the original conversation, and the blog reflection on it.

Thanks for the reminder, juniper!

Great thoughts…in the wake of the PC(USA)’s recent revamping of our “Book of Order”, our elders are asking this very question…who “belongs”, and what does that mean? Covenant and Community are words that are coming very much to the fore. I appreciate your reflection.

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I work in the church office and I am consistantly confused about the Membership process. I am a younger generation and to me if I go to worship service every Sunday and volunteer and donate time, then I consider myself a member. But working in the church office has brought me much confusion, the pastor here will ask me if someone is a member (because of a certain circumstance) (death, wedding etc.) and the question always baffles me. Especially, if that person has been coming to the church regularly (is the pastor not going to perform the services as if they were a member). I did eventually become a member, only because I was told that I was not a member even though I’ve been coming to worship every Sunday for about two years. I was confused then and I’m still confused

Thank you Carol. After reading all of these answers above your question, the bottom line is just what you asked, “will you treat me differently if I am not a member of YOUR church vs just being a member of God’s church?” I see this conversation started many years ago and you never got an answer to your question, so I doubt anything will become of mine, but it is a question. I just feel that I am a member of THE church of God and I do not have to be a member of YOUR church of God. Being a member does not tie my hands to the pews. I can leave if I wish too. So what is the need? If it is voting, then I understand. But I attend bible study, Sunday School, I clean the church, a converse with the pastor, I am on the prayer chain. Am I less because I won’t become a member?

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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