In recent years, I have found myself in more than one church planning meeting when the conversation goes something like this: “How about (insert name) to (serve on this committee, be a Sunday School teacher, etc.)?” More frequently the reply is, “But that person is not a church member.” The objection is not based on prejudice but on church policy that requires individuals who fill certain positions in the life of church to be official members of the congregation. The interesting aspect of this is that other members of the planning group often do not know the person’s status until the person’s name comes up. Because the person is so involved in the life of the church, the others have assumed that they were “official.” They attend worship and participate as volunteers, their children are involved in church programs, and they may even be financial contributors—but they are not “members.”
To the best of my knowledge, the Bible never addresses church membership. Perhaps the modern church has been influenced by the American concept of voluntary association in which we, as individuals, choose the groups and organizations of which we will be a part as members. One unfortunate result of this attitude is that if we can choose to associate, we can also choose to disassociate. Perhaps this contributes to the migratory nature of many Christians!
The Bible does say a great deal about discipleship. During a Disciple Development Coaching retreat this week, I was reminded by my friend Mark Tidsworth that the church is called to make disciples rather than members. The biblical mandate is to grow disciples not to grow the church. We have often confused the two.
This has significant implications for the contemporary church, no matter the denominational identity. For example, most young adults and many median adults do not care about church membership. They are more motivated by investing themselves in a dynamic Christian community where they will be nurtured and given the opportunity to serve. I know of several people whose membership is still in a mainline church, but the only church they ever attend is a nondenominational church. Their “membership” is in one place, but their participation is elsewhere. One would hope that the church where they participate is also helping them to grow in discipleship.
As Mark Tidsworth has noted, “The new definition of success [for a church] is not running a good organization but developing disciples.” The important thing for today’s church is discipleship not membership.