Friday, November 04, 2005

Membership Issues

This post dovetails with my last post, Success, and expands upon a post over at Wesley Blog on the problem in many churches of membership rolls being packed with people who rarely, if ever, set foot in the church building. Some churches never have to deal with such issues. The Church of God, Anderson, Indiana, has absolutely no church membership. Sometimes I envy that position. A friend of mine is a transplant in a COG,AI church and I keep asking him, "Hey, have they made you a member yet?" I don't get a huge guffaw from him, but we both smile at the whole issue.

The truth is that church membership these days isn't seen as any great advantage. Perhaps if you want to serve on the board or take some special ministry position, you'll need to take on membership. More often than not though, folks don't see the point. I understand that mindset. I've often said that if you're looking for an advantage to church membership, I can think of none aside from voting in church elections. Big whoop.

But the part we forget is that church membership is a priviledge. An agreement to become a church member is to say that not only do you identify yourself through Such And Such Church, but you choose to participate in that church's ministry -- using the advantage of the organized church to help you serve God. It's not about the priviledge of membership, it's the priviledge of joining together with like-minded believers to accomplish the work of Christ. Of course, if you're not interested in accomplishing the work of Christ, then membership probably holds no appeal for you.

And so these days, we see fewer people interested in becoming new members and plenty of people wanting to hold on to their membership status. Check the membership roll of most any mainline or evangelical church and you'll find a large percentage of members who don't darken the doors of the church except Christmas, Easter, and perhaps Church Election Day. The responsibilities of membership mean nothing to them -- their care is only for a rank of priviledge when they decide to use it.

A couple of years ago, I decided that we needed to weed out a few names from the roll at my church. I had been the pastor for over six years, and I figured if I hadn't met any of these people, then they probably have no business being on our membership roll. So I sent a letter to a dozen or so strangers telling them that since they don't attend anymore I was assuming they have become a part of another church. I told them I was removing their names from membership working from that assumption. I did give them thirty days to get back with me if they wished to remain on our rolls. Surprisingly no one got back to me.

What I did was rare among churches. Rarer still are the churches which actually follow church discipline and on a regular basis remove members who are not a part of the church. Why is it so rare? For one, churches are afraid to tell people that they aren't living up to their end of the bargain. We certainly can't tell them they aren't behaving as members should, can we? Most of the time, those people won't accept that reasoning. I have read obituaries of people whom I know were not members of a particular church, only to read about their "current membership" in Such And Such Church right there in black and white. Membership means little more than a private identification with one particular church -- whether the church is let in on the secret or not!

The other reason why churches rarely purge the membership roll goes back to the idea of success. If the denominational leadership sees a church's membership numbers fall off, it is assumed that that church must have a huge problem. Membership is a boasting point for many churches. In the post at Wesley Blog, some of the discussion focuses on the United Methodist claims of a certain number of members worldwide. Most everyone would admit that those figures are horrible indicators of church attendance, but still some will view membership as a good barometer of church health. Pastors and church boards avoid purging the roll so the church itself won't be called to account. That's a pity because to my way of thinking, a church who will purge the membership roll is probably healthier than most. At the very least, that church is taking on an issue where too many denominational angels fear to tread.

So is there a solution? I'm not sure. I think a church should present the priviledge of church membership and not downplay it, but at the same time uphold certain minimal standards to maintain membership. The solution I've dreamed up is the renewable church membership. Instead of assuming that a member will remain an active part of the ministry of the church until his funeral, set up a membership agreement that will expire at the end of two years. After that time, another agreement can be signed provided the member hasn't fallen into an unnecessary inactive mode. Members who joined for status or in a rush of temporary conviction would have to re-examine themselves periodically. Churches would have a good reason to make sure all members have the opportunity to use the gifts God has given them. And membership rolls would be free of those who haven't met the pastor after six years.

Curiously, my own denomination has taken this same approach with local churches within the denomination itself. The churches must now sign a two year covenant to remain a part of the organization. Of course I had this idea first, but never put it into force. I should have copyrighted the thing and sent church headquarters a bill! But the idea is the same -- push the realization that a committment to membership in a local church or a denomination is an ongoing relationship, not a one shot sign-up.

My advice for people considering church membership is simple: make sure you can live within that church and under that church's authority, and live up to what you promise for as long as God gives you the strength to do it. Being a church member is a priviledge. I consider it a priviledge to serve along side the members of my church, working to bring glory to God and be His hands and feet on this earth.

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