the shape of leadership

Does Membership Matter?

How membership can fuel your church’s health

Chris Railey on August 31, 2018


When was the last time you thought about membership? For some churches, it’s very important. But for others, it’s become an afterthought. I have not taken any serious poll on the matter. If I did, what do you think the results would be? How many churches actively pursue membership among their attenders?

Membership is not like it used to be. There was a time when people saw church membership as a sure sign of spiritual maturity. Membership in a church came with a certain respect in the community.

I believe in church membership. I have seen firsthand how leveraging commitment can increase your volunteer base, your giving and even your outreach efforts. Membership still has its benefits. What are they? And how can they help you become a better leader?

Members or Owners?

The transition away from membership in churches is likely due to a growing number of people moving from one church to another. They don’t want to feel tied down to one congregation. Why not attend multiple churches in my community? Why does my church need me to commit?

Those ideas are not only contradictory to the reality of what the Church is — the body of Christ — but they’re also counterproductive to each Christian’s spiritual growth. The local church is not just a group of people; it is a branch of the body of Christ in a specific community. Commitment through membership is one way to highlight unity in the Body.

When we view it properly, membership is also a powerful way to help your people grow spiritually. It has to do with the idea of membership versus ownership. When we can shift people’s thoughts along those lines, I believe we can begin leveraging church membership to help God’s Kingdom work in our world.

Whatever membership meant in the past, people understand it in a very passive way today. If you aren’t required to do anything to keep your membership, it isn’t helpful in motivating action. But ownership is a different story.

Owners have different viewpoints than members. Think of any other membership you have in life — such as a gym membership. As a member, you pay your fees and show up whenever you feel like it. But if you’re an owner, you have set times to be there. You must make sure the place stays clean and inviting. You’re looking to increase membership whenever you can. But you also have unlimited access to the equipment. Ownership has responsibilities and benefits.

The shift from membership to ownership takes these two things into account: What responsibilities do I have? And what benefits do I reap?

The local church is not just a group of people; it is a branch of the body of Christ in a specific community.

Benefits of Membership

Being a member of a church has many benefits. Signing a membership card will help you feel more connected to those with whom you worship. There is a shift that happens when you consciously decide to take that step.

Membership will make you feel like you belong to something bigger than yourself. There’s nothing that compares to joining the people of God at salvation, but church membership allows you to live that out in your local setting.

Members are accountable to one another. A commitment to join a church also means you allow people into your life. While just attending, you are essentially free to show up whenever you feel like it. But membership means someone expects you, and that expectation builds accountability. Another member may feel compelled to check in on you if he or she hasn’t seen in you in a while. And that accountability can reach into other areas of your life as well.

Church membership also promotes unity in the body. Once you commit, you are now part of a group who has a vested interest in the church and its leadership. You won’t put up with unfair criticisms. And you will find ways to connect with those who are different from you.


Membership also comes with responsibilities. Finally deciding to join a congregation means you are no longer church shopping. You may have spent some time looking at all the available options. Now it’s time to dig in and invest your time, talent and treasure.

But what are the responsibilities of membership in your church? Do you even have them? And if you do, how do you clearly communicate them to your people?

I would recommend coming up with a “membership covenant.” Instead of a simple card you sign, this covenant is a way to let people know exactly what the expectations are for them. By signing the covenant, they are committing to fulfill their end of the agreement.

What should you require of members? First of all, they should have an active relationship with Jesus. Church membership is unlike any other commitment in this way. It’s reserved only for those who have made a decision to follow Jesus.

Next, think of the most important responsibilities of a member. And frame them in terms of ownership. If a member was running the organization, what would they need to do? I believe at the top of the list should be consistent giving. Also, volunteering in a place of service in the church is essential. You can also include involvement in a small group, actively sharing your faith, discipling others or whatever other activities your congregation sees as essential to creating a healthy church.

Consider how you want to handle membership renewal. You’ll need to know what your church’s bylaws say about this, but there is a way to leverage membership renewal to help your church remain healthy. For instance, make membership contingent on fulfilling those obligations. And make it temporary, for one calendar year. That way, each January everyone in your church is recommitting to follow through on their responsibilities.

When we shift from passive membership to active ownership, we put the people in charge of the vision. You are still the driver, the director and the main decision maker. But your people are now invested. A congregation who has bought in to the vision and is sold out to fulfilling it can accomplish a lot.


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