The Meaning of Church Membership

by New Church Starts

by Jim Ozier, Director of New Church Development and Congregational Transformation for the North Texas Conference (and Path 1 Associate)

Membership can be way over-rated.  Important, but over-rated.  Unfortunately, the allure of “membership” numbers has played a deceiving role within the United Methodist Church over the past few decades, especially when internalized as the “goal” of the church.

“Joining” is a goal, but better to focus on joining a movement. This is a journey and an adventure.

Even though a new plant is technically a “fellowship”, the Book of Discipline allows for people to “join” by joining The United Methodist Church.  Then, when the “fellowship” charters as a new United Methodist Congregation, the UM members go on to the new church’s rolls as “charter members.”

This allows for bookkeeping accuracy and for new members to sense a “place of belonging.”  In itself, this is good, but focusing on the “membership” too much can be bad. It can create a sense of “institution” which is not particularly appealing to the target audience of a new church.

Even though attendance and hands-on mission work are far more critical metrics than membership, especially in the early stages of a new church plant, the wise planter learns how to celebrate membership in ways that truly build up the body.

In a new plant, membership must be seen as part of a discipleship process and not the first step. As Bob Farr writes in his book Renovate or Die, “If someone were to join my church today, I would first want him or her to demonstrate regular worship attendance before he or she could join.  I want them to be in worship on a regular basis, plus be involved in three other things: a growth group of some kind, a hands-on mission of some kind, and a ministry service task of some kind.” (72)

To avoid the scenario in which somebody whom the planter may or may not even know appears at the end of the worship service to join (either because they’ve been inspired by the day or they want their kids to have priority sign-up rights at the midweek Mother’s Day Out, or for some other personal agenda). All of our new church starts begin the membership process by:

  1. Coffee or pizza with the pastor, so the planter gets to know them, and so they hear about the vision, mission, and expectations of the new church

  2. THEN some kind of short term membership/Discipleship class, led by clergy and laity

  3. THEN actual participation in some kind of hands on ministry, and/or some kind of discipleship group

So what do you do on Sunday morning when some appear (almost out of the blue) to join? The Planter says lovingly, “The Smiths are here to say they want to begin the process of membership. Won’t you show your support through your applause for them over the next several months; we’ll look forward to officially welcoming them into membership in the near future.”

Bluntly: If a the planter is convinced by his/her Annual Conference that the membership roll justifies continued financial support then the planter may well make “membership” too easy and begin the dreaded practice of having uninvolved people on the roll for bragging rights only.

How does your congregation define membership? What steps do individuals take to get there?