I’m currently leading a membership class at our church that has got me thinking about the overall purpose and value of formal church membership.
Too often, however, church membership gets perceived as an administrative detail for the benefit of the institution. Whether it’s the hoops to jump through (membership classes!), a narrow theology, mode of baptism, a pushy leader, or an overbearing bureaucratic structure, there are many reasons to be skeptical about church membership.
But cut through the misconceptions and bad experiences and I think there is still great value in formal membership. And I say “formal” because many people contribute to churches without formally becoming members - in practice they belong just as much as formal members. But such commitment and involvement - call it “informal” if you want - shouldn’t lead us to drop the practice of membership altogether.
First, we need to remember what church membership actually is. I like how my denomination’s confession of faith puts it:
The church is a covenant community in which members are mutually accountable in matters of faith and life. They love, care, and pray for each other, share each other’s joys and burdens, and admonish and correct one another. They share material resources as there is need. Local congregations follow the New Testament example by seeking the counsel of the wider church on matters that affect its common witness and mission. Congregations work together in a spirit of love, mutual submission, and interdependence.
Second, we need to remember the value of marking significant occasions in our lives. Graduation ceremonies, wedding vows, birthday parties - all these things mark important events in our lives. But we do them for more than just to have fun. We have ceremonies to place specific moments and values into the broader context of our lives and what we value overall. We gather with others to recognize and remind ourselves who we are. We look back on those markers as reminders of where we’ve been and how the past shapes where we are going. Formal membership, if done well, has the potential to be one of these significant markers in our lives - a chance to say life and faith isn’t just about me, but about God and others (Mt. 22:36-40).