Meaningful Membership & Shepherding the Saints
Let’s begin with a parable:
A man had a hundred sheep, and one of them had gone astray. As he sat out to leave the ninety-nine in search of the one he paused and thought for a moment. Wait, maybe I had ninety-nine to begin with. He turned back and went about his business. The End.
Meaningful church membership is essential for shepherding because it gives shape to the flock and lets pastors know who they’re responsible to care for. Church membership isn’t just a useful tool in the pastoral tool belt; it’s the tool belt itself. In other words, meaningful membership doesn’t exist alongside things like prayer, accountability, sermon application, and discipleship as a way to shepherd; rather, meaningful membership is what makes all of those other things possible.
Consider these ten ways meaningful membership has enabled the elders at my church to shepherd our congregation.
(1) Meaningful membership identifies whom we’re responsible to shepherd. You can’t shepherd a nebulous mass of humanity. You might argue that you can shepherd some of that mass. But, there will surely be people on the fringes who go unnoticed and uncared for. Meaningful membership helps us shepherd by delineating exactly who it is we’re meant to be overseeing, so that God’s sheep receive the care they need.
Meaningful membership makes pastoring a personal task. A list of names on a paper doesn’t make membership meaningful. The import for shepherding comes from what we know about each one of those names. As people become members we hear conversion stories and we come to know where they’ve struggled and what repentance has looked like in their lives; we regularly receive prayer requests and check in to see how they’re doing. Our shepherding has been greatly helped by knowing which specific sheep we’re meant to shepherd and by knowing specific things about those sheep.
(2) Meaningful membership provides a prayer list. Pastors should understand that one of their primary responsibilities is praying for their congregation. Of course, we pray more widely—for visitors, for non-Christians who attend our church, for other churches in our city, and so on—but we have the unique responsibility and privilege to pray for those under our care.
A defined membership allows us to regularly and systematically pray through our entire membership. My pastoral assistant collects prayer requests from the next section of our membership directory and we pray for each person one by one. This practice mutually encourages both elders and church members alike. It reveals to the elders where there are needs, joys, struggles, and opportunities to serve. It reminds our members that we care, we’re praying, and we’re available to help.
(3) Meaningful membership focuses our discipleship efforts. While we can proclaim the Word of God to and pray broadly for all who attend our Sunday service, we can’t intentionally disciple everyone. Meaningful membership, however, focuses our discipleship efforts so that our elders aren’t expending all their energies with folks who may just be passing through. That’s not to say we never counsel or invest in someone who isn’t a member. But membership enables us to pour resources into equipping the saints who are truly covenanted with our local church.
(4) Meaningful membership reveals those who might be in danger. As the parable above illustrates, without meaningful membership, it’s far easier for someone to wander off into trouble. If someone visits my church and then disappears, I assume that they’re in another church or they were temporary tourists in our city. Or maybe they were just curious non-Christians popping in for a week. But if a member disappears, it shows up on our radar pretty quickly and we’re able to check in and see how they’re doing. With meaningful membership, it’s clear when someone begins to neglect the gathering. (Heb. 10:25)
(5) Meaningful membership reminds us that assurance is communal. The fact that we have membership at all reinforces the reality to our church that the Christian life is not meant to be lived in isolation. We need each other. And none of us has the authority—or distance from the deceitfulness of sin—to declare ourselves to be walking in a manner worthy of the calling with which we’ve been called (Eph. 4:1). Our security will come as we’re exhorted by brothers and sisters every day until glory (Heb. 3:13). Shepherding is enhanced and sustained as the church does its communal work of assurance.
(6) Meaningful membership shapes sermon application. Knowing who “we” are has the very practical shepherding benefit of directing sermon application toward a specific group of people. Shepherding can’t be limited to pulpit ministry, but neither can it be conceived of apart from the preaching of God’s Word. As pastors, we write our sermons with our membership directory open, considering ways a particular text will interact with our particular people.
(7) Meaningful membership supports service in the church. Church members bear the privilege and responsibility of serving in the church. Thus, meaningful membership encourages people to serve and gives our deacons and other leaders a pool from which to recruit help. The shepherding that takes place through small groups, children’s ministry, hospitality, discipleship, and so on is all aided by meaningful membership.
(8) Meaningful membership diffuses the work of shepherding. All of our members have publicly declared their faith in Christ through baptism, given a testimony to how they came to saving faith in Christ, and clearly articulated their understanding of the gospel and its power in their lives. Thus, when someone on a Sunday morning wants to know more about Jesus, or be prayed for, or wants to talk about how the gospel impacts their life, I can point them to just about any member of our church with great confidence.
As pastors, we don’t have to be “the answer men” who bear gospel ministry alone. No, it’s the church that is equipped to do the work of ministry (Eph. 4:1–16). Ensuring that our members understand the gospel and have a credible profession of faith greatly (and rightly) eases the burden on the elders by letting the church do the ministry it’s meant to do.
(9) Meaningful membership aids financial stewardship. Church members bear the responsibility and privilege of financially supporting the work of the local church where the Word of God is ministered to them. If a Christian is never challenged to join a specific local church, where should she give her money? If a Christian jumps from church to church, which elders should he consider worthy of double honor? And if a church allows people to come and go as they please with no formal commitment, then how should the elders and deacons go about setting a budget for the operation and mission of the church?
All of this impacts shepherding more than you might think. Adequate meeting space can be purchased or rented for worship, counsel, classes, and pastoral study. Pastors can receive salaries so that they can give their attention to the ministry of the Word and prayer. Money can be allocated to help those who are in need. Such financial stewardship—and the shepherding capacity that comes with it—is weakened in a church without meaningful membership.
(10) Meaningful membership extends pastoral care to departing sheep. Intentional covenant membership at our church helps us walk with church members as they leave our church—whether that’s in the unfortunate case of church discipline, the bittersweet case of relocation, or the exciting case of missions or church planting. First, we know they’re going out from us because we knew they were of us. You can’t shepherd someone into a new season if you never knew they considered themselves a part of your church. Second, we can shepherd someone by proclaiming the gospel and lovingly calling for repentance, as in cases of church discipline, or by praying for and helping the relocating member find another gospel-preaching church where they’re going, as in cases of relocation.
We could say more. These ten ways just scratch the surface of the great blessing meaningful membership has been to me and my fellow elders. I pray you’ll experience these same benefits at your local church.