How to Talk about Membership on the West Coast
“I think the word member just sounded silly, like a ritual or a box to check.”
I received that comment a couple of years ago following a class for new members at our church. Perhaps you’ve heard similar sentiments. Maybe you’ve picked up on the spirit of that comment even if you’ve never heard it out loud. As our church has emphasized membership over the last few years, I’ve encountered questions, concerns, and objections. And as I interact with other pastors in our area, one question seems to trump all others: “How do you talk to people about membership in a way that overcomes the barriers?”
I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest my whole life. I’ve never pastored in any other region of the country. But as I’ve had the opportunity to cross paths with pastors from different locations, I see distinct cultural elements of the PNW which may indicate trends on the West Coast generally. Our pioneering spirit can become suspicion of authority. Our passion for personal expression can morph into a commitment to personal preference. Our willingness to break tradition sometimes turns into an unwillingness to recognize or affiliate with any tradition. Like an unseen river current, these trends subtly tug people away from a biblical commitment to the local church.
So, how should we talk about membership on the West Coast? Let me offer three ways that have proven helpful within our body over the past few years.
1. Talk about the essence of membership, not the process.
Whenever we speak of membership, we should make clear that we’re talking about the essence of membership, not the process. When I talk with Christians who resist church membership, they’re often not resisting the Bible’s vision of a member. Instead, they’re objecting to the process we use to identify and affirm them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should jettison processes altogether. We need classes, interviews, and applications. I’m saying most people resist because they believe that’s all we mean by membership. We need to speak clearly about the essential, biblical nature of a local church member, and then we need to show how our processes serve the very essence we teach.
Hopefully, you’re pursuing a more robust view and practice of membership within your church because you want to be faithful to Christ. At the end of the day, that’s what membership is. Jesus called us to love one another and so prove to be his disciples (John 13:34–35). That love gets fleshed out in local churches. In other words, our lives together as members constitute (at least in part) what it means to live faithfully as a Christian.
Church membership is the weave of relationships and responsibilities that every Christian is called to. Paul taught that believers are “members of one another” (Rom. 12:4). They offer care, concern, and connection to a specific group of other disciples (1 Cor. 12:24–26; Rom. 12:15). Members commit to meeting for mutual encouragement in the gospel, prayer, and participation in the Lord’s Supper (Heb. 10:24–25; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:17–34). They labor, speak, and pray for the growth and maturity of others (Eph. 4:15; Col. 3:16; Eph. 6:18). Members commit to watching over one another so that the lies of sin don’t take root in another’s heart (Heb. 3:12–13). They even do the hard work of loving confrontation to restore a wayward brother and protect the church (Mt. 18:15–20; 1 Cor. 5). And in it all, they follow and submit to under-shepherds who will give account for their souls (1 Pet. 5:1–4; 1 Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:17). When we talk about membership, let’s make sure our people understand that this is what we mean. Our processes only serve God’s vision for a local church.
2. Talk about it often.
If you want to make sure your flock won’t understand membership, then only talk about it when having a membership class or members’ meeting. Let your people begin to believe voting is the sum and substance of their role. If you do this, then membership will become imperceptible within the church.
But membership shouldn’t fly under the radar; it should be inescapable. It should permeate the life of the body from week to week. We ought to regularly celebrate and recognize the vibrant ministry of our members to one another. Elders should explain how their work of teaching, equipping, and leading prepares the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11–12). Pastors must preach with an eye toward corporate application focusing not merely on my life, but our life. Celebration of the Lord’s Supper should draw attention to the unity of the whole body (1 Cor. 10:16).
Even the more formal aspects of membership—meetings, discipline, voting, decision-making—should be set against the backdrop of our commitments to one another. In fact, they help us to carry them out faithfully. No one in our churches should be able to escape the glorious reality of members who understand and faithfully steward the calling to be members of one another.
In other words, our problem is not that we talk too much about membership; it’s that we talk too little about it.
3. Talk about it as discipleship.
When we begin to see the essence of membership before the process, it will naturally change the way we speak about it. Membership is the network of relationships and responsibilities God has called us to. Those relationships and responsibilities carry out Jesus’ command for us to love one another. For these reasons, we must view our conversations about membership as discussions about discipleship.
A Christian’s heart desires to please God and obey Christ (Jer. 31:33; Rom. 8:4). A pastor’s heart desires to teach and build up the flock into Christlikeness and fullness of joy (Eph. 4:12–13; 2 Cor. 1:24). Patiently teaching people to live in obedience as members of a church, then, is not a burden but an opportunity for God’s glory and their good.
Your location may not have all the same barriers to membership that mine does. But I’m sure no church has ever fully escaped the subtle undercurrent pulling people toward isolation and indifference. To fight against this, let’s talk about membership in ways that help God’s people do what they most want to do—love one another, and so prove to be his disciples.