Make your membership count for something

When I first started as minister of our church it is safe to say baptism, membership, communion and church service bore no real relationship to one another. Not long before my arrival, a difficult battle had been fought over whether it was appropriate to insist that only those who had been baptised could become members. Whilst the church agreed that this should be the case, meaning one couldn’t become a member unless one was baptised, it did not mean that baptism brought one into membership.

This, in turn, meant there were people who had neither been baptised nor brought into membership happily taking communion and serving in the ministries of the church. We had those who were baptised but not in membership whose status was entirely indistinguishable from those who had not been baptised. We had a membership who were baptised but, short of being permitted to vote in members meetings (attendance at which was seemingly open to those who hadn’t joined in membership), were not obviously distinct from anyone else.

It may seem perverse but since we made membership a more stringent affair, we have found it has done nothing but increase the desire of people to join. We have grown more since we determined (because we see it in scripture) that baptism brings one into membership which confers the right to join in communion and serve in the church. It can hardly be surprising that if there is no discernable difference between members and non-members, few people will see the point of becoming members at all.

In our membership document, under the question what is the difference between members and non-members?, after an explanation of the difference by way of an extended analogy on the difference between family members and guests in your house, we note these differences:

In practical terms, there are three things we deem inappropriate for those who are not in membership of the church: The Lord’s Supper, input at members’ meetings and serving in the ministries of the church. The Lord’s Supper is not for non-members because it is an affirmation by the church and its members of commitment to one another in an ongoing covenant relationship ratified by membership itself. Members’ meetings are not appropriate for non-members because they are family meetings for those who have committed to the church and have a voice in its affairs. The ministries of the church are not appropriate for non-members because the church needs to be confident that those serving are true believers and it affirms this through church membership and the administration of the ordinances.

What this means is that those who have not been baptised and welcomed into membership at our church (or another church) cannot be participants in communion but may only observe, they can’t attend members’ meetings and add their voice to church matters nor can they serve in any ministries of the church. There is a clear distinction every week between those whom the church recognises as believers and those whom it cannot affirm this way. There is a definitive line drawn between the members who belong and those who are guests. There are obvious parameters laid out for those who cannot, or will not, join the church that limit how far they may be involved.

Some might look on and think that exclusive. But it has been our experience that it has actually created a greater desire in people to become a full and functioning part of the church. The sense in which people aren’t getting something that they want, or can’t access something they feel they ought to have, has created a much stronger desire to want to access it.

What is more, it has given greater impetus for important gospel conversations. All too often, we allow people to float around the edges of the church and are happy to leave them there. Otherwise, we are happy to simply wave people into membership for no other reason than they asked. But the most loving thing we can do for somebody who thinks they know Christ but has missed the glorious truths of the gospel is to help them see that, if they remain as they are, things are not alright. We don’t anybody any favours affirming them in their wrongheaded belief that they’re fine as they are when we aren’t convinced that is the case at all.

Granting people access to the Lord’s Table and letting them affirm promises that we seriously doubt are true for them is not loving and inclusive, it is destructive and cowardly. For fear of having an awkward conversation, we allow people to think they are in right standing with God when we have every reason to believe otherwise. And we have the audacity to call that love! When we allow people to serve and we let people join in all the things that members can also do, these are soft ways of essentially doing the same.

But even if you don’t buy that, the reality is that easy-entrism does not necessarily lead to greater numbers in membership. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously spoke about cheap grace – that low view of grace which does not lead to strong disciples but those who see no need to actually follow Christ at all. In the same way, if we have a low view of membership – cheap membership, if you like – we are likely to see the same dynamic. A church that asks and expects nothing of me, who will let me belong without responsibility, cannot be surprised when its members view the whole concept very… well, cheaply.

If we neither explain what membership is nor create an environment in which membership is any different to non-membership, we will find people see no reason to bother becoming members. If I can get all the benefits of something – without any cost, responsibility, effort or change on my part – why on earth would I join? If all we have to offer people is the prospect of a vote at members’ meetings that can be, let’s be honest, insufferably tedious, is anybody really going to bother joining? If they can chat to the elders anyway and make their views known, what have they really gained?

Of course, what should drive us is not pragmatism but scripture. When we look at the order of Acts 2:41-42, we see they believed, were baptised and then joined the church. We then see them devoting themselves to things of a church. Paul sees baptism and church membership as intrinsically linked in Romans 6:3-4, Tom Schreiner argues that the idea of unbaptised believers was just unheard of. This is rooted in Jesus’ own command to go into all the world and make disciples and then baptise them as the mark of their belonging to him (cf. Mat 28:19-20). This pushes us to view membership as contingent on baptism. As we look at Paul’s comments on discerning the body in 1 Cor 11 – and as we take into account the practice of just about all churches across all denominations save a handful of independents over recent decades – the historic practice of the church, of all stripes, was for communion to be given to baptised members and for service to be rendered by those who belonged to the church. It is why excommunication was, historically, such a big deal (even if not so much anymore).

So make your membership count. Give it value rather than just letting it act as something you can pick up and have when you feel like it that makes minimal difference to your life. Imbue it with real value.