What’s the Point of Church Membership?
By alastair bryan sterne
November 4, 2011
When I hear the word “membership” I automatically think of sales reps in swanky gyms wearing track suits trying to sell me a gym membership that is more than I can afford and something I will inevitably cease to use. It smacks of insincerity. We all have different associations with the word and the challenge for most of us who are postmodern or “post-postmodern” in our upbringing is caution, if not skepticism, of all labels and camps. Hence when we attach membership to our notion of church it brings up all sorts of red flags. Various academics speculate that it is for this very reason that church membership is declining.
The value of church membership is contested, as well as the theological or scriptural basis for such a notion. There are polarizing positions of rejection or acceptance and, of course, there are others who try to mediate a middle ground.
Those who reject formalized church membership rightly emphasize belonging to the universal body of Christ. They are also right in their concern that some forms of membership can become simply a formality and empty ritual without any true transformation. Indeed the size of a church’s membership says nothing about the spiritual vitality of its members. They could be on the cusp of flatlining.
Those who endorse church membership rightly emphasize that belonging to a localized expression of the body of Christ is a necessity, and that a formalized commitment brings benefit for the individual and the community as a whole. Sociologist Wade Clark Roof suggests that in light of the present decline in church membership and attendance, “churches will need to put new emphasis on touching peoples lives instead of gaining new members. These are two different enterprises.” Roof is right in emphasizing transformation. However, I think the transformative grace of Jesus that touches and changes lives also leads to a deep commitment to His body, the Church. I don’t think these are two different enterprises, instead one leads into the next.
I am about to plant a church with the Mennonite Brethren in Vancouver, B.C. One of the values of the denomination is covenant community. I think that covenant is an apt concept for how transformation leads to church membership.
Covenant as a framework
The drama of Scripture begins with a down-right beautiful, good and immodest creation. Humanity is naked and happy. Our relationship with God is intimate. He walks with us in our nudity. There is skin contact. It is hyper-personal. After our relationship with God was fractured because we decided to trust ourselves rather than God, we covered up. God recognized we had to cover up and He went ahead and made clothes for us. The intimacy of our relationship with God was tarnished.
Yet God did not cease to pursue us. God will not settle for tarnished intimacy and feigned vulnerability. Throughout the rest of Scripture God makes various covenant relationships with us. He intentionally enters into a commitment-based, formalized bond with people: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, not to mention national covenants with Israel and ultimately the New Covenant through Jesus.
You might not like formalized commitment, but the God of Scripture does. Apparently it plays a vital role in the restoration of our intimacy with Him.
Now, I am not going to advocate a specific type of formalized church membership, but some form of membership is healthy and we see this in a covenant God has given us for each other: marriage.
People who want to reject church membership altogether are in my opinion similar to those who don’t get married because its “just a piece of paper.” They say they don’t need to formalize their commitment to one another. But the whole experience of getting married is not just about the event, the open bar and a piece of paper that collects dust in your closet. It's about making a commitment to another human being before God and before your community. A relationship plateaus until a covenant is made.
The marriage covenant illuminates our discussion because no matter where you land on the church membership debate you will agree that the body of Christ is also the bride of Christ (c.f. Rev 19:7; 21:2, 9-10). Jesus loves commitment, and He wants to make His commitment to us known throughout the cosmos. It’s a public display of affection. He doesn’t want to just live with us and never formalize what we have. That’s not enough. He wants us completely.
Not just universal, but local
If the consistent biblical narrative insists that God loves formalized commitment, is it really a stretch to say that formalizing our commitment within a localized expression of the body of Christ is not in line with the heart of God? If we can admit we are a part of the universal body of Christ, then should it not have a localized and geographical expression? It is so important to live out our commitment to Christ every day in our local contexts. To simply say we belong to the universal body is not enough because it inevitably remains an abstract concept. It’s too easy, flimsy and ethereal. It can lead to inaction. It’s in the local church that we’ll actually have to begin the ongoing work of living out our commitment in a real and tangible way.
I think if we are honest with ourselves, it’s not just that we’re against church membership. That’s not the true issue at all. I want to suggest that we’re afraid of commitment and the restriction commitment brings upon our lives.
For example, if I commit to a church does that mean I have to stick it out with that church even when leadership changes? Even if the vision shifts over time? Does that mean I actually have to be accountable to others and let people speak into my life ... even when it's uncomfortable? Does that mean I actually have to consult my community before making major life decisions such as moving to another city or moving in with this person?
Perhaps the actual problem is that we don’t want to commit to a bunch of broken people who will inevitably hurt us and let us down. So we settle for tarnished intimacy and feigned vulnerability. What we’re really saying is we’ll take Jesus’ willingness to love us and meet us in our mess, but we don’t want to extend that in a committed and consistent way to others. Hence, it’s more convenient to belong to the universal body as a concept. I can pray for faceless and nameless Christians around the globe (which of course is a good thing), but it doesn’t inconvenience me like when a single mom in my community calls me because her babysitter bailed at the last minute and she needs my help.
Commitment to a church community is a healthy corrective to our hyper-individualistic (and let's confess, narcissistic) tendencies. Yet the commitment is not only communal. It is also personal. There isn’t true belonging if it is only a dead formality. If we make a commitment to a community of faith it means we are committing to following Jesus together, which also means you are committing to follow Jesus.
When we encounter the transformative grace of Jesus, He changes us. Our intimacy and relational connection is restored with God and with others in the body of Christ. We become reflections of Him as image-bearers. If He’s committed to us and uses the metaphor of marriage to express how deep His unfailing love for us runs, then at the very least we should reflect the same type of commitment to His body, the Church.
Alastair Bryan Sterne has a master's in Biblical Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the pastor of St. Peter’s Fireside, a church plant in Vancouver, B.C. He is still waiting to say something original on Twitter.