By Eddie Lowen
Not long ago, removing my wallet from my pants pocket became difficult. That’s a good thing, right? On Subway restaurants’ TV commercial, a thick wallet is evidence of frugal spending and increasing net worth. Dave Ramsey likes fat wallets.
However, my wallet was gaining girth from items other than legal tender and dead presidents. Membership cards were to blame. Multiple membership cards. Some were plastic, others card stock. I emptied my wallet and discovered nearly a dozen membership cards to seemingly every organization in our city and beyond. A sampling of my memberships includes:
Sam’s Club, which will not allow me to enter the building without a membership card. If my membership lapses, I must first go to the confessional booth, known otherwise as “customer service,” where I pay penance.
The Oaks Golf Club, which sounds elitist, but isn’t. Membership at The Oaks costs a whopping $8 more than a round of golf. It offers golfers who can’t or won’t spring for a country club membership the chance to say, “I’m a member at [mumble, mumble].”
Barnes & Noble, for which the annual membership fee seems to come due every three weeks. On the upside, this one saved me a lot of money—until I bought a Kindle.
Marriott Rewards, which tracks my hotel stays and gives me points that can be redeemed for something genuinely desirable, every five to seven years.
Blue Cross, which is the most expensive membership I have, by far. When the high premiums make me sick, I can go to “Prompt Care” for treatment (and a bonus virus).
Sparkling Clean Car Wash Frequent Wash Club, where I often receive an extra “stamp” (like the ones we used to get in our library books) when the manager is in a good mood. He treats me well; I wash my car when it doesn’t really need it. It’s symbiotic. And I get to talk to the macaw while I wait. Yes, the car wash macaw has trained me to speak.
For each place of business or organization, the definition of a member is completely different. For some, the standards are embarrassingly low. For others, the guidelines are stringent and the fees very costly.
The overuse of the membership concept is one reason church membership can be so vexing. Based on their varied experiences and opinions, many people in your fellowship are defining membership for themselves. So, I suggest we ask and answer three questions to dispel some of the mystery about church membership. Here’s how I worked through it.
Should a church have members?
As in other areas of church practice and policy, the Bible seems to give congregations latitude to answer many membership questions for themselves. And since a lot of church leaders see weakness in their church’s membership strategy, we should work for improvement.
Some conclude church membership is a man-made and unfortunate practice. Perhaps, but the term appears in the New Testament in the context of local church participation! “You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord” (Ephesians 2:19-21).*
There’s that word: members. And it definitely suggests that first-century believers and church leaders could distinguish committed participants from seekers, which seems essential from a biblical point of view. Here’s another way to say it: membership allows leaders to know for which believers they will give an account to God. And, second, membership allows Christ followers to know which leaders they are called to obey and honor. Whether you call it membership or partnership or participation, something must identify the context in which these commands are obeyed.
Who is being identified in Hebrews 13:17, 1 Timothy 5:17, and 1 Peter 5:1-5? Church membership allows us to answer that question.
What should church membership never imply?
Despite the significant level of autonomy I referenced earlier, there are some things membership (or its alternative) should not convey in a healthy church:
Membership does not include special privileges. Our culture views members as those with exclusive access or status. But church membership should never be an excuse for elevating my wishes over those of others. Christ calls the church to serve, not to subjugate. The intent of Jesus is in sharp contrast with worldly ambition. Philippians 2:3 reads, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.”
The elitist view of church membership thinks, Now my preferences will be prioritized over those of nonmembers. But the biblical view of community is this, I want to seek and save the lost, as Jesus did. I’ll put others first and derive my joy from seeing them receive what they need.
Church membership does not denote ownership. Some clubs and organizations offer “equity memberships.” Equity members purchase a percentage of the club, which makes them owners, in the same sense that corporate stockholders are owners.
Recently, a pastor friend told me someone angrily left his church and demanded a refund of his giving! He viewed himself as an owner with equity holdings. When a leadership decision disappointed him, he asked to cash out. That’s sick, but similar to how many believers think about their churches. Church staff and elders are also susceptible to this distorted way of thinking. Let’s chisel something into our hearts: we’ve been grafted into the body of Christ, who retains 100 percent ownership, including us. We are bought with a price. Colossians 1:18 says, “Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything.”
What should membership entail?
We can teach our people that membership means three things, at least.
It means I bear partial responsibility for my church. If my church needs something, I have an obligation to meet the need in proportion to how God has equipped me to meet it. If my church has a vision for ministry, I am called to be involved if my gifts fit the need.
To benefit from a church’s staff, facilities, and events without praying, giving, and serving is no different from walking out of a store with items for which you haven’t paid. If you’re able to support the church in those ways, but do not, it is stealing. Maybe that’s why God used the robbery metaphor when speaking through Malachi about tithing. Pastors should not be afraid to preach this principle.
Membership means I am accountable. If you place membership with a church, you are surrendering your right to speak and behave as you wish without being accountable. You are also inviting fellow church members to depend on you to be devoted and authentic.
Membership means I matter. Although some people have unreasonable expectations of their churches, every member has a right to expect the church to care about him or her. In Acts 6, some widows were being neglected because of their race. They called out to church leaders for a remedy—and they received it. This is a rare moment in Scripture when a complaint in God’s community is validated.
Even sincere leaders can overlook needs and miss the chance to love people as God intends. If it ever happens to you, find a humble, gracious way to ask a church leader if your expectation is reasonable. Because you belong to the flock of Christ, someone should think it’s important to shepherd you.
*All Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation.
Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian in Springfield, Illinois, and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.