When leaders think about growth in the church, very rarely do they think about membership. I have yet to meet a Christian that does not desire to be a part of a church that is thriving and vibrant. But if you desire your church to grow, perhaps consider taking a closer look at your membership. What does membership and church health have to do with one another? I would argue, everything and I hope to demonstrate that in this article.
You Are What You Eat:
Your physical health is often a reflection of your diet. If you eat a healthy diet, your physical health will reflect that. If you eat poorly, your health will also reflect that too. Like how our diet determines our physical health, your church health will often be determined by the members of your church for better or for worse. If a church is careless with who is admitted into membership, it will ultimately affect the health of the church. Consequently, it can severely hinder their witness to the unbelieving community, which is why many often are critical of the church of hypocrisy because its members live no different from the outside world.
Over the years, I have heard many horror stories of churches that have been ravaged by gossip, church leaders that were involved in illegal activities, leaders that plot against their pastor, and members that have divided the church by introducing false teaching. I am certain there are more horror stories out there. Sure, maybe these are some of the worst of those stories and might not be issues that your church has dealt with. Perhaps the issues in your church is less severe. Maybe your church struggles with inactive members. If that is so, my guess is that you are not alone in this struggle as there are other churches that have long standing non-attenders. In a recent survey on church attendance, the report shows that only half of church members attend actual worship services on Sundays. Where are all the other members? Is it possible that every week, half the members of any given congregation are all either elderly, sick, or out of town? Surely that is not the case. Many churches struggle to make ends meet due to a lack of giving. Many pastors and church leaders dread being a part of a nomination committees because it seems like there is no one willing to serve. These issues are often a barometer of a church’s health.
The church is far from perfect, and these ongoing struggles is a constant reminder of that. In one sense, they point to the reality of sin that cannot be escaped; at least on this side of eternity as Christians continue to wage war against the old man. In another, it shines light on the deficiency of discipleship in the life of a church. I would like to suggest a third possible explanation; many churches have been careless with membership and, thus, their enrollment is made up of both believers and unbelievers. If the church is to grow, perhaps church leaders need to take a closer look at their membership because, after all, you are who you take in.
The Nature Of The Church:
It is through hearing the gospel, believing upon that message, and repenting of sins that a person crosses from death to life. He who puts his faith in Christ has been born again and is a new creation. No longer are they a sinner, but a saint and have been adopted as a child of God, becoming a part of the family of God, which is the church. This new status comes by faith in Christ alone for no one can claim to be a part of the church if they are not connected to the vine (Christ). Yet, God intends for those believers to be gathered in the context of the local church because union with Christ also unites us to his bride. “The church is the people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and have been incorporated into his body through baptism with the Holy Spirit”. The church is not a building, but a people that has been redeemed by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. A person is a part of the invisible church through their regeneration, which is evident through their pursuit of membership and participation in the visible church, which is the local church.
Our membership should be consistent with our theology of the church. The New Testament presupposes that the church is made up of believers, and our membership roll should reflect that. Since the church, by its very nature, is a regenerate community, that means that only believers should be accepted into membership. Obtaining membership in a church should not be automatic or as simple as filling out a membership application. I understand that evangelism is hard and difficult, and so when churches hear that people are interested in joining, many leap for joy (as we should) and try to expedite the membership process in order to assimilate them into the church. But hold your horses! I would argue that more harm is done than good. A person should not be admitted into membership on the condition that they have family members in a church. Only believers who have professed faith in Christ, having been baptized, and show evidence of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit should be accepted into membership. All of this stands on the premise that the local church is fundamentally a regenerate community.
Practical Steps Towards Membership Reform:
So where do we go from here? First, membership reform must begin with the preaching of the gospel. Unfortunately, many congregations can go for long stretches of time without hearing the gospel explicitly. It is through the Word that God not only brings life, but also sanctifies life in his church. If you believe that the power of God to save is by His Word, preach the Word to your congregation!
Churches would also be wise to slow down their membership process at least until they are able to discern whether a person is a believer and if their profession of faith is credible. This is an act of stewardship for the elders and, simultaneously, the congregation. Membership interviews is not a time to evangelize to potential members. Instead, the goal should be to discern whether a person is who he/she claims to be; a born again Christian. In order to do so, ask potential members to articulate the gospel. Ask them to share their testimony in order to see whether there is any evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. The goal is not to admit the spiritual elites or the perfect, but to ensure that the person is a believer for "[no] one is righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10)!
This also means that membership should be on an individual basis. Only a believer should be admitted into membership, which means that the practice of taking entire families into membership should cease. Not only does a church water down their witness, they provide false assurance to the unbeliever. We’re born into the church through faith in Christ, and not based upon others' profession of faith.
Update your membership roll and make sure that all the sheep are accounted for. Pastor(s)/ elder(s), get to know your members and commit to praying through the membership directory regularly. Figure out who has been missing and follow up with them to see how they are doing and remind them of the importance of gathering with the church and encourage them to do so. If they are unwilling, simply ask if they are still interested in being a member. If pastors/elders are unwilling to do this, maybe they should think twice before allowing someone into membership. By nature, an elder is an overseer of the flock. Perhaps church leaders would not be so quick and, consequently, more careful about who they would admit into membership if they were reminded that they will have to give an account for the souls they've shepherded to God.
I do not want you to walk away thinking that church attendance is all that there is to membership or that it is the end goal. There are plenty of members that attend regularly who do not engage the members of the congregation nor give their resources to build up the church. The reason why believers are commanded to not forsake gathering with the church is because they simply cannot fulfill all the “one another” commands that are found in Scripture. Church leaders should remind the members of their God given responsibility to one another, which begins with prioritizing the gathering of the saints, but does not end there. God has gifted the church with leaders in order to equip the saints for the work of the ministry until it reaches maturity.
The church is a regenerate community and our membership should reflect that biblical reality. Any inconsistencies between our theology and practice will severely stunt the growth of the church and negatively affect their health. Church leaders, in order to protect the gospel, fulfill the great commission, take a closer look at your membership.
Tou Ger Her (BS, Multnomah University) is a husband to Susie and a father to two wonderful boys. They have faithfully served in pastoral ministry for nearly 5 years and will graduate with an MDiv from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY in December 2020. Tou Ger and his family are passionate about seeing the truth of God proclaimed to the ends of the earth.