Considering 7 Membership Exceptions
Normally, the members of your local church should be willing and able to attend regularly (Heb. 10:24–25), and to serve and build up the body (Rom. 12:3–13; Eph. 4:15–16). But pastors know that life is not normal. Pastoring is as much about the exceptions as it is about the rules. So what do you do about people who either are members or want to join, and are willing to attend regularly, but are not able?
In this article, I’ll consider seven circumstances, some of which overlap, that constitute exceptions to the rule of regular attendance. In each of these cases, I think it is possible, and very often advisable, for such people to be church members in good standing. For each case, I’ll offer a few reflections on when I would and wouldn’t recommend that those folks join your church, and give a few suggestions about shepherding these individuals well.
I see little direct biblical teaching on these issues, so we’re deep in pragmatic waters. Virtually all I have to offer are prudential recommendations. Tweak the circumstances and I might tweak my counsel. Without further ado, here are the seven “membership exceptions.”
1. COLLEGE STUDENTS
College students are tough because some of them split their time almost 50/50 between their hometown and their college town. Generally, I would counsel them to join whichever church they’ll attend more frequently. A church should exhort college students to seize this unique season of life for ministry by both joining a local church andsharing the gospel on campus.
Pastor, exhort students not to substitute a parachurch organization for the local church. The sooner they commit to a faithful body of believers, the more they’ll tend to grow during these crucial, catalytic years.
What about “associate membership,” where students remain members of their home church and are members, but not fully, of yours? I’d advise against the practice. Associate membership usually carries some limit on the associate member’s accountability and responsibility in the second church. And I don’t see biblical warrant for giving the title “member” without some of its constitutive roles. So I’d encourage students to be members of one church, and keep up as much involvement as they can with the other.
2. WORK CONFLICTS
Talk about a can of worms. Medical residents, shift workers, salespeople, and a thousand other jobs. If a Christian’s job prohibits them from attending church at all, that’s a serious problem. They should be actively working to rectify that situation. And I generally wouldn’t encourage you to take someone into membership whose job categorically prohibits them from attending. But with that backstop in place, I think there’s lots of room for flexibility. To whatever extent someone can influence their work schedule or seek a new job, encourage them to maximize their ability to be at church. As long as that’s someone’s desire and aim, and as long they have even an irregular ability to attend, I’d probably take them into membership and pray that the Lord will realign their circumstances.
Encourage your members to specially help those whose work schedule makes their attendance irregular. Perhaps an irregularly-attending member can listen to a recording of the sermon during the week and meet up with another member to discuss it and pray. Maybe it would be especially encouraging for that member for another member or elder to come visit them at their work, as a visible display of Christ’s outgoing love for his people.
3. EXTREMELY SHORT-TERM RESIDENTS
By “extremely short-term,” I mean months, not years. One way to serve those with extremely short tenures in a place is not to have a needlessly long membership process. I’m a firm believer in careful membership practices, but if your church is in a fairly transient location, I’d encourage you to feel a healthy pressure not to have joining your church take too long.
But beyond situations where joining is logistically impossible, I’d encourage you to proactively work against the common idea that there must be some “minimum tenure” in order for church membership to make sense. Our church in Washington, DC is full of people who are on Year Six or Ten of a Two Year Plan to be in DC. And we have plenty of members who didn’t join the church for two or three or four years, precisely because they were “only going to be here for two years.” So, in preaching and teaching, in public prayers, and in private counsel, I would encourage you to encourage people to take root in a church quickly.
If someone can get through the membership process, we’re happy to take them in. Even if they plan to move mere months after joining. If they join us, then we can help with the handoff to their next church. And who knows, they just might stick around.
Military are a special case because of both frequent, regular moves, and the possibility of deployment. Some military families may bounce from place to place without ever joining a church, but some of our most committed, fruitful members are military families.
The liability of frequent moves can become an asset when it pushes them to plug in quickly. One of our elders, who was a career military officer, told me, “If we don’t get the pictures up on the walls within two weeks of moving somewhere, we know it won’t happen.” So, instead of never digging deep into the life of a church, that family has been diligent to dig deep quickly, and whenever the military has taken them somewhere new, they’ve left good spiritual fruit behind.
5. THOSE HINDERED BY INFIRMITY
Illness or age can physically disable someone from attending church. If a current member has physical difficulty attending, I would encourage you as a church to coordinate whatever help for them you can. And if they’re completely unable to attend, I’d encourage you to pray for them, regularly have folks check in on their needs, and encourage members to visit them.
What about someone who wants to join your church, whose infirmity prohibits them from attending regularly? Or even at all? If they could attend even irregularly, I think it’s a fairly easy decision to take them into membership. If they can’t attend at all, I think that’s a harder decision, but I would at least be open to welcoming that person into membership, and encouraging our members to bring the fellowship of the church to them as much as we can.
Practically, one way we highlight such members is by having a section in our membership directory called “Members In-Area Who Are Unable to Attend.”
6. MEMBERS OUT OF THE AREA
This is another section of our directory. It can include everything from college students home for the summer, to deployed military personnel, to members who have moved away and haven’t yet joined a new church.
For those who intend to return: pray for them, encourage them from afar, keep up-to-date on their whereabouts. For those who don’t intend to return: with whatever gentleness and patience the situation calls for, proactively pursue their resignation as they pursue membership in an evangelical church where they now live.
7. SUPPORTED WORKERS
Here I’m thinking of cross-cultural gospel workers who, for a variety of potentially legitimate reasons, remain members of your church while serving elsewhere. We expect all these members to be actively participating in a local church in their context, even if they remain on our rolls.
We list these in our “Members Out of the Area” section, as well as in a “Supported Workers” section. There’s a lot more to say about how churches can care for far-off supported workers, but for now I’ll close with this. By keeping such workers in our membership directory, we as a church are committing to pray for them regularly. And in a highly transient church, keeping those faces and names before our members, who then keep those workers before God’s throne in prayer, is a huge part of how we sustain and grow our support for those workers over the long haul.