Invested Relationship: Working to find a common definition and understanding for local church membership.

Invested Relationship: Working to find a common definition and understanding for local church membership.

Invested Relationship: Working to find a common definition and understanding for local church membership.In 2015, in an article titled “Membership Matters,” Ed Stetzer reflected, “Bring up church membership and watch people squirm. It isn’t that people in culture are against membership as an idea—Costco seems to be doing well. Perhaps it is because church membership is not often defined well.” [1] In that article, Stetzer also writes, “But in the New Testament, people in churches are recognized as being in some sort of community. It’s just that the reality is how community is expressed in Scripture has fallen on hard times over the last couple of thousand years. Membership is often misunderstood, misapplied or not applied at all.” [2] In many churches, the conversation of membership can certainly make people uncomfortable. A lot of the discomfort around membership is certainly because it is misunderstood, misapplied, or not applied at all. Perhaps, too many of us have allowed church membership to be understood only through the lens that we wish it to be understood.

Pastor Matt Chandler in an article, “Is Church Membership Biblical?”  highlights his personal journey to grasp church membership. He found himself wondering if local church membership was even a good or biblical thing.  However, after scouring some biblical passages, Chandler realized that “it becomes clear that God’s plan for his church is that we would belong to a local covenant community of faith. This is for our own protection and maturation, and for the good of others.” [3] I love the way he relates to us his understanding of membership. He understands that it is a faith-based community that we belong too. He also understands that it’s God’s desire that we belong to such a community so that we can exist in an intentional commitment relationship to other followers of Jesus – for our accountability, for our own discipleship, and for the sake of others discipleship, accountability, and growth. In many ways, this is exactly the type of community in which Jesus modeled with his twelve disciples. Chandler goes on to write in the end of that article, “Local church membership is a question of biblical obedience, not personal preference.” [4] If there is such a misunderstanding, misapplication, and confusion around local church membership then it makes me wonder if most of us can actually see church membership as an act of God-directed intentional commitment to a relationship with each other.

Invested Relationship: Working to find a common definition and understanding for local church membership.It was this confusion that really led author and researcher Thom Rainer to poll churches and followers of Jesus to find out what they really understood about church membership. In response to his findings, he published his best-selling 2013 book, “I Am a Church Member.” In an interview with Jonathan Merrit, “Rethinking church membership: An interview with Thom Rainer,” about his book he wrote, “My research shows that most church members do not have a biblical understanding of church membership. The church, for many, is a place to go to be served rather than to serve.” [5] With 70.6% of America self-identifying as Christian, [6] it should be alarming to think that the majority do not have a healthy understanding of church membership.

Personally, even though I am the Pastor of East Petersburg Mennonite Church, I am far from being someone who thrives on programs, institutions, and structural systems. In fact, to be transparent I find programs, institutions, and structural systems to often be a distraction, distortion, and detour from what Jesus had intended when he called his followers to be His kingdom-community. Church Membership certainly sounds like something that belongs at the center of programs, institutions, and structural systems. We know that membership is already at the center of other institutions – our favorite grocery stores, our gyms, our local gas stations, libraries, our insurance companies and even our financial credit unions.

It was a few years ago when we were planning and preparing to be church planters, that Katie McLain and I wrestled with what church membership would look like if we church planted. Admittingly, at first, I was sure that it was not something I would observe, practice, or institute. One could argue that church membership, as we traditionally practice it and understand it, does not appear anywhere in the Bible or Jesus’ teachings. To be fair, they would be right. However, despite my personal predisposition against overtly-institutional things, I have come to affirm, see the importance of, and practice local church membership.

There has already been a lot of scholarly ink spilled over explaining church membership. I will not even attempt to compete at their level or with their exhaustive work. In fact, the articles and resources that I named and referenced earlier in this blog, are really great starting places to explore further. Likewise, I will not try to even explain my own personal discovery through this topic. As they say, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” [7]

However, I think it is essential for us to understand that church membership looks nothing like the membership we hold in our favorite grocery stores, our gyms, our local gas stations, libraries, our insurance companies and even our financial credit unions. Membership of that nature has nothing to it besides signing your name on a dotted line. In membership like that, there is not an investment, commitment, accountability, or covenant to grow together. As I stated earlier, if the church used membership in that way, it would be a distraction, distortion, and detour from what Jesus had intended when he called his followers to be His kingdom-community.

The only sort of formal membership that the New Testament lays out is around how followers of Jesus make up the body of Christ, or as sometimes referred to as “The Universal Church.” As pointed out by GotQuestions.Org, “The universal Church—the Body of Christ (Romans 12:5)—is composed of all true believers in Christ, and local churches are to be a microcosm of the universal Church. As believers, we have our names written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 20:12), and that is what is most important.” [8] There are many biblical experts however that do explain that several New Testament passages do seemingly hint at an assumed or expected formality of local church membership in addition to Universal Church membership. Regardless of those arguments, I think most of us realize we cannot really “presently belong” to something so large, scattered and ambiguous. Again from GotQuestions.org, “However, it is also important to commit to a local church where we can give of our resources, serve others, and be accountable.” [9] Church membership is a way of identifying oneself with a local body of believers and of making oneself accountable to proper spiritual leadership. Church membership is a statement of solidarity and like-mindedness (see Philippians 2:2). Church membership is also valuable for organizational purposes. It’s a good way of determining who is allowed to vote on important church decisions and who is eligible for official church positions. Church membership is not required of Christians. It is simply a way of saying, “I am a Christian, and I believe this church is a good church.” I might even add to that by saying it is also a covenanted commitment to be part of that “good church.” To do that, it takes commitment, intentionality, presence, and relationship.

Invested Relationship: Working to find a common definition and understanding for local church membership.
Invested Relationship: Working to find a common definition and understanding for local church membership.

As the Pastor at East Petersburg Mennonite Church, I am really excited to be working with individuals that are trying to explore, understand, and define this idea of an invested and committed relationship together. Over the past year, East Petersburg Mennonite Church has made some minor but significant changes to affiliation, structure, and by-laws. Currently, we are also looking at why and how we do church membership. We realize that church membership is misunderstood and that it needs to be defined. We realize that church membership makes individuals uncomfortable, but that cannot stop us from both understanding it and modeling it with healthier practices and rhythms. It is a matter that needs deep prayer, research, and discernment. During this journey, our church and the Church Board enjoyed studying the book, “I am a Church Member” by author Thom Rainer. It has always been the desire of East Petersburg Mennonite Church to have its members actively engaged and invested. We see membership as an active and regular expression and commitment to attendance, community, accountability, growth, investment of one’s spiritual gifts, and discipleship.

 

Membership is a covenant. There are many practical and theological ways to explain what Covenant is. However, in it’s simplest form covenant is an invested relationship with each other. It is a commitment and agreement between two parties.

Recently, in our meeting minutes for our church members, our Church Board shared our common understanding of church membership. It is important to notice this is not policy or finite, but a fluid and working understanding. That understanding reads,

“East Petersburg Mennonite Church understands membership to be a relationship of trust and commitment between followers of Jesus who are committed to their local expression of the body of Christ, committed to the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, and actively invested in its efforts discipleship and mission. In addition to being committed followers of Jesus, we desire members to be in regular attendance, investing their spiritual gifts, being accountable to each other, and committed to growing as disciples and in their discipleship of others.

It might not be exhaustive and perfect, but it certainly has some depth and clarity in its brevity. There are eight traits and qualities that are captured in this concise communal understanding. It is these eight things that seem important to me. It is these eight things that make me believe in practicing church membership.

  1. It is about a relationship of trust and commitment to other Jesus followers.
  2. It is about being committed to a local expression of the body of Christ.
  3. It is about being committed to our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.
  4. It is about being actively invested in our efforts of discipleship and mission.
  5. Membership is about being actively engaged with our presence.
  6. Membership is about being actively engaged with using our spiritual gifts.
  7. This type of community is about learning to be accountable to each other.
  8. This type of community is about being committed to growing in faith together as followers of Jesus, but also it is a commitment to discipling others to do the same!

If church membership is anything less than this, what does it communicate and what does it accomplish? These eight traits remind us how we are committed, or intentionally invested, together for the sake of God and his Kingdom. For me personally, there is nothing more beautiful than thinking about a church community that understands who they are, why they belong together, and what they are to do together. May the church grow in understanding of membership, may we find it applied correctly and practiced fully with intention and honor. That’s my dream. You can’t play a game of baseball, if you don’t know who is committed to being on your team. Membership helps us find who is on our team, and willing to play.

  1. How do you define church membership?
  2. What would you change about our understanding?
  3. How have you experienced church membership in other contexts?

 

References/Footnotes

[1] Membership Matters: 3 Reasons For Church Membership. Ed Stetzer-David Iglesias-Sam Kim-Brian Stiller - http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/july/membership-matters-3-reasons-for-church-membership.html

[2] Membership Matters: 3 Reasons For Church Membership. Ed Stetzer-David Iglesias-Sam Kim-Brian Stiller - http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/july/membership-matters-3-reasons-for-church-membership.html

[3] Is Church Membership Biblical?. Matt Chandler - https://www.9marks.org/article/journalchurch-membership-biblical/

[4] Is Church Membership Biblical?. Matt Chandler - https://www.9marks.org/article/journalchurch-membership-biblical/

[5] “Rethinking church membership: An interview with Thom Rainer.” Rethinking church membership: An interview with Thom Rainer, Jonathan Merritt, 31 Mar. 2013, religionnews.com/2013/05/31/rethinking-church-membership-an-interview-with-thom-rainer/.

[6] Religion in America. Pew Research Center, 2018, Religion in America. http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/

[7] "Ain't Nobody Got Time for that." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGxwbhkDjZM

[8] Why Is Church Membership Important? GotQuestions.org - https://www.gotquestions.org/church-membership.html

[9] Why Is Church Membership Important? GotQuestions.org - https://www.gotquestions.org/church-membership.html

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