Church Membership for Dummies
By ray hollenbach
January 24, 2007
If you’re thinking about “moving your letter” to our church, don’t bother. It’s a pretty bad situation: we’ve been doing church for just over 10 years, and we still don’t have a clue about determining church membership.
Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride. If you want something well thought-out, go read Dallas Willard. I’m of at least six minds on the matter, and I’m the pastor.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sold out for the local church. I’ll show my cards up front: “me and Jesus” doesn’t cut it. I believe Jesus has called every authentic follower into relationship with a local congregation of believers. Please allow me to be rude: I believe if you’re not tied in tight with a local church, you are just plain deceived and open to significant danger.
But here’s the thing—we just can’t figure out how to do church membership. Some congregations receive believers into their church through baptism, others ask members to sign a covenant, and still others require a catechecism class and confirmation ceremony afterward. But none of those methods do it for me. Perhaps one is as good as the other—or perhaps one is as bad as the other.
The closest we can get to membership at our place is that we know it when we see it, and we know it when we don’t see it. I guess that’s pretty thin, theologically speaking. All across the U.S., church membership rolls are swollen with names of people who haven’t ventured into worship with their co-members in years. Their official pastor wouldn’t know them if they both met in a fender-bender. That’s thin, too.
Some of the New Testament models are challenging. The church is described as the God’s house, God’s field and God’s temple, and that’s just in one chapter (I Corinthians 3)! The New Testament images of the church are vivid and many. These passages convince me that the church membership is vital to a believer, like a heart or kidney. But none of the images help me determine a membership model.
Where’s the balance? Here are some examples I’ve witnessed:
**I’ve visited Pentecostal churches where church attendance is the standard. They literally take attendance and post it publicly. And why not? Corporate worship is vital to spiritual health. And yet …
**I visited a church in the Amazon basin of Peru where the local pastor asked me to visit a “backslider” and urge him to return to the fold. Turns out the guy was a baker who used a mud oven to ply his trade. He was a backslider because he skipped church two Sundays in a row to build a roof over his oven before the rainy season set in. At least the pastor noticed he was missing. And yet …
**I’ve visited large churches where the pastor and staff would have no idea whether or not I had attended in the last two months, much less two weeks. At least there’s freedom in a place like that. And yet …
**I’ve visited churches where new members sign agreements regarding doctrine, attendance, commitment or giving. Correct doctrine seems pretty important, doesn’t it? And I have no problem with measuring commitment by time, energy and money. And yet …
But I’m rambling. Trouble is, I can’t leave this alone because I know it’s so important. I’d like to get to the place where we settle it to our (and God’s) satisfaction.
I totally believe Jesus when He says, “you must be born again.” I believe Him so much that I think we really are born into God’s family. We don’t choose our family; our family chooses us. I wouldn’t let my four-year-old run away from home. I would go after her. And yet my 21-year-old is ready to leave home, marry and start a new family, and I’m all in favor of that!
I’m convinced that being a part of a church should be authentic, natural and organic. We should just know. Robert Frost said that home was a place where, “when you have to go there/They have to take you in.”
That’s as much as I’ve got. Perhaps the rest of you can set me straight. I’m willing to listen.