Taking Church Membership Seriously
Why it's time to raise the bar.
An interview with Ken Sande
Membership is not all that important at our church, about a third of respondents to a recent Leadership Weekly poll said. While 38 percent said attenders were frequently urged to join, and 34 percent said the membership appeal was occasionally given, the remainder said their church placed little or no emphasis on membership. That trend, according to many experts, is a mistake, the costly result of a casual, come-as-you-are attitude.
The church should be less like a cruise ship and more like a battleship, says Ken Sande of Peacemaker Ministries. Rather than emphasizing their casual atmosphere and fun activities, Sande says it's time for churches to raise the bar, to focus on a serious mission, and ensure that every person aboard serves a vital function. To make the shift, Sande says we must recapture the importance and meaning of church membership. If nothing else, emphasizing membership can protect the church from the growing threat of lawsuits.
Can you give an example of how deemphasizing membership can be perilous for a church?
I counseled a church where an attender used his relationships within the church to persuade people to invest over $2 million with him. The money was never returned to the investors. The church leadership struggled to respond because the man was not a member. If they said something publicly and warned the congregation about his actions, they risked a lawsuit for slander and defamation of character.
The church leaders finally asked the man to leave, but said nothing to the congregation. As a result he continued to scam people in the church for another year. When the victimized members discovered that church leaders knew about the man's actions but failed to publicly warn the congregation, they in turn threatened to sue the church for failing to protect them.
Several courts have ruled that churches may not discipline people who have not specifically consented to discipline. In this case, church leaders could not publicly warn the congregation about the man's actions without threat of a lawsuit because he was not a member, and had not consented to discipline. By not emphasizing membership, the leaders were prevented from fulfilling one of their most important biblical tasks—protecting the flock.
Why are more churches no longer emphasizing the importance of membership?
First, we've given in to our culture's antagonism toward commitment and accountability. Like parents who are afraid to discipline their teenagers, church leaders are afraid they will be unpopular for emphasizing commitment and accountability.
Secondly, there is a concern that if we create a barrier at the front door to the church, not as many people will enter, and the pressure leaders feel to grow the church is enormous today. But what we don't realize is that by not emphasizing membership we may have a wide-open front door, but we also have a wide-open back door. Numerical growth is really not helped by deemphasizing membership.
Many see membership in the church as similar to membership in other community organizations. How do we help people see it differently?
It requires very good teaching, and we need to use the terminology found in the Bible rather than our culture. The Bible speaks of the church as a family, or the household of God. If we emphasize this family language it will help people see that church membership is not like joining a country club, it is about joining an organic family.
The concept of the Body is also very helpful. The church is called the Body of Christ in the New Testament, and you don't just casually amputate a thumb. In fact, if the thumb is hurting the whole body goes to its aid. This metaphor shows the commitment, the accountability, and the interdependence of the church. Church leaders need to draw these concepts from scripture and clearly teach them.
How can leaders ensure that they have protected the church legally through a membership process?
You must achieve what lawyers call "informed consent." If you can show your people know what your church's disciplinary practices are, and that they have consented to them, that is a virtually ironclad defense against lawsuits.
You can achieve informed consent in a few ways. First, maintaining an attendance for the membership class so you can prove who has received the teaching. Second, a higher level of proof is to have new members stand before the church and actually verbalize membership vows and commitments. A third level, which gives you the best protection, is a signed membership covenant.
What should be included in a membership covenant?
The covenant itself can be kept fairly simple. A statement as basic as, "I have received a copy of the church's policies of redemptive discipline, and I consent to be bound by them" is sufficient. The church needs to have their disciplinary policies outlined somewhere and accessible to members, but the covenant only needs to refer to this other document to secure informed consent.
Apart from securing legal protection, what else is vital to include in a membership process?
At my church we have a twelve-week membership course, and our first priority is making sure a person has a credible profession of faith and understands the gospel. We also cover the theology of the church, our polity, our vision, how we handle conflicts, and an understanding of church discipline. Finally, it is helpful to discuss expectations for members regarding giving, respecting leadership, and serving in the community.
The membership process will be different in every church, but it is important to treat it as a significant event. When we treat it casually it sends the message that membership is casual. We highlight membership by having a special service, a membership Sunday. It is a serious ceremony that communicates the importance of membership.
What about retrofitting? How do churches with loose membership expectations, or none at all, begin to change and achieve informed consent?
Retrofitting requires a process that may take one to three years of educating the church to think more biblically about membership. I recommend preaching from Deuteronomy where there is a restatement of the Law.
Our church did this. We said to the congregation, "Times have changed from years ago when you could have a loose relationship with the church. Our society and our laws have changed. It's time for us to renew and tighten up the covenant."
Our people were very responsive to that because we took the time to educate them. We held a congregational meeting where revised bylaws and policies were presented, along with new procedures for accountability and conflict resolution. We met in small groups to talk personally, and over several months there was a lot of dialogue. That culminated in a church meeting where the new policies and bylaws were accepted. At that time we handed out a new membership covenant to be signed.
The last thing we did, to make sure we had informed consent, was send out a letter to everyone who did not sign the covenant. It said, even though we have not received a written covenant from you, we will interpret your continued attendance at our church, beyond a specified date, as your affirmation and consent to these policies. We didn't have a single family leave the church.
An attorney and engineer, Ken Sande is founder of Peacemaker ministries, a mediation and counseling service for churches and couples. www.hispeace.org
Do you have a question for Ken? Write to us at Newsletter@LeadershipJournal.net.
Click to read Ken Sande's recent articles on church discipline.
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April 18, 2005