Book Review: Membership Matters, by Chuck Lawless
Editor’s note: Chuck Lawless responded to this review; you can read the response below.
Church is not much different from the gym. That’s how many Americans think. Just as many gym members struggle to stay committed to the club, so many churchgoers struggle to express commitment to the church. Year after year, they occasionally attend, always feeling guilty, yet perpetually unable to change their pattern of uninvolvement. The cycle of detached attachment continues.
In recent years, this cycle has received attention from those who have seen it firsthand. Pastors Mark Dever and Joshua Harris have each authored books addressing the membership problem. Now, Southern Seminary professor Chuck Lawless has joined the conversation on church membership with his helpful book Membership Matters. The book is based on research, lay interviews, and a survey of membership classes conducted by Southern’s Billy Graham School for Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth.1 The dean of the school, Lawless offers a short, practical book on membership that emphasizes the importance of a membership class and a ministry placement program for people who join the church.
Lawless targets two groups of people in his study: those who attend the church but do not join, and those who have joined the church but are not involved in it. The first group he represents by a fellow named Sterling: “Sometimes they are like Sterling. They are faithful to attend Sunday morning worship. They write a check each week to support the church. Ask them about their church, and they’ll gladly tell you, ‘We go to such and such church.’ Yet, they never join.”2 The “Sterling” group appreciates the church but does not want it to regulate their lives. Lawless represents the second group by “Paul” and “John”: “In still other cases, they are like Paul and John. They have signed the membership rolls of the church. What they don’t do, though, is get involved. Attendance does not lead to action. Church is more about receiving than giving, more about coming than going, and more about being served than serving.”3 The “Paul and John” group will join the church but not serve it. Each of these groups practices a formalized religion lacking spiritual health and commitment.
Lawless clearly perceives this two-pronged foil that affects many an American evangelical church. To address it he offers the following definition of membership: “Membership is a public pledge to find our role in the body, work alongside other members, and hold each other accountable to faithful Christian living.”4 Lawless proposes that churches can help members live out this definition by holding required membership classes and by connecting all members with some form of ministry per their spiritual gifts. He unfolds this simple proposal in nine chapters that tackle such subjects as the topics the class should cover, how to deal with members who are resistant to involvement, and what pastors of “effective churches” have to say on the subject. As a body of work, Membership Matters contributes helpfully to the current conversation on church membership. For its focus on membership and involvement, Lawless’s book is a significant help in directing a church toward a more biblical polity.
We proceed now to discuss the book’s strengths and weaknesses.
1) Emphasis on joining the church
The very focus of Membership Matters is excellent. Lawless understands the importance of church membership and makes it his business to advocate for it. From the beginning, he rightly diagnoses the culture of feckless disinterest that surrounds the church. He tenders a clear and compelling argument for its dissimulation. Put concisely, the biblical call to join the church must be heeded for the church if it is to gain health. Far from offering an innovative spin, a new pastoral trick, or a quick-and-easy philosophy, Lawless points church leaders to realize that the Bible already has the solution to stultified church life. It is membership—active, involved, committed membership. In an age when calling for personal investment of most any kind is unpopular, Lawless beckons his fellow evangelicals back to biblical polity in which individuals together esteem the church body through attendance and service. By drawing on the biblical ideal of membership, not the self-spun ideology of pragmatism, Lawless takes a bold stance. His courage and his polity are commendable.
2) Emphasis on serving in the church
Throughout Membership Matters, Lawless shows that he understands that churches do not ultimately seek members for members’ sake but for the glory of God as seen in a gathered body. Because members love one another, they serve one another, to the praise of the Redeemer. As Lawless writes on page 45, “Members who have no relationships and responsibilities in the church find little reason to stay—and the window of opportunity for getting them involved closes quickly.”5 Having seen many congregations where people adopt a spectator mindset and simply watch the church leaders work, Lawless urges the local church to subscribe to an involved membership that uses the strengths of every member to sow a harvest of plenty for the Lord of the church. As with the call to membership, this encouragement to church leaders to involve their members in the church’s mission is excellent and needed in our current day. Many churches are so eager for people to join the church that they fail to hold out strong expectations for their members and thus allow them to adopt a consumerist, self-focused mindset. In opposition to this “membership-by-any-means
3) Good practical advice
Lawless served as pastor of two churches and thus puts his pastoral experience and wisdom to good use in Membership Matters. To give one example, he encourages pastors to use the membership class as an opportunity for the pastor to connect with potential members. He observes that “In the relaxed atmosphere of a membership class, church members saw their pastor up close. They had permission to ask questions they couldn’t ask during a sermon. They listened as he prayed for them by name…In the end, the hours spent with the pastor left a significant mark in the lives of these class members.”6 In this and numerous other practical insights, Lawless argues for church leadership that is both interactive and people-oriented. The work here is subtle but potent. In the bustle of the local church and the desire to see the church prospering, church leaders may lose focus of the central concern of their lives: the welfare of souls. Lawless advocates a model of church leadership that is decidedly focused on people. His emphasis on people promises to help leaders look past their programs and philosophies to see their true concern, the spiritual health of their church members.
4) Focus on discipline and accountability
Consonant with a focus on member involvement is a focus on accountability. In the Bible, the church acts out accountability by practicing discipline on members who live sinfully (see Matthew 18). Lawless urges church leaders to ground the church’s life in a covenant that will concretize biblical behavioral expectations and function as the standard for discipline. Most churches who responded to the study “stressed expectations, but they hadn’t yet fully resolved how to hold their members accountable to the covenant.”7 In his gentle manner, Lawless pushes churches to hold out requirements, not expectations, before their members. Holiness is not optional for the church, and it is not optional for its members. Lawless boldly teaches this, seeking to guide churches back to biblical congregational life. His treatment of discipline should move many to think about the biblical picture of congregational life. Pastors do not simply set up a system, press “start,” and sit back. Pastors are those who shepherd souls to heaven. This work is extensive, and involves the difficult but essential matters of discipline and accountability.
5) Focus on discipleship and relationships
Lawless is known at Southern Seminary as a man concerned with the daily health of Christians. This concern comes through in his final chapter on discipleship, where he calls churches to a holistic discipleship program.
“Provide Christian education that includes basic doctrinal teachings, Bible interpretation, and apologetics. Build a small group system that includes spiritual discipline training and accountability. Promote ministry opportunities, and offer training for each specific ministry. Plan evangelism training sessions, followed by evangelistic and missions opportunities to put the training into practice.”8
The above passage covers more than an initial discipleship relationship. It provides a basic blueprint for healthy congregational life. Lawless has obviously given thought to the manner in which churches may train Christians to live godly lives. His discipleship practicum includes both instruction in doctrine and opportunities to apply that doctrine. Lawless gives a particularly good idea in suggesting a church teach a class on biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). This type of holistic discipleship that comprehends both theory and practice will do much to involve new members in the daily work of the church.
It is notable that Lawless’s plan cannot operate on autopilot. It requires a benevolent and committed interest on the part of church leaders for their members. The general picture of ministry as painted by Lawless is one requiring hard work and engaged care of the flock. The model of church life he proposes is a vibrant, active one that centers in the Bible and its application to all of life. It is a helpful, people-focused model, much needed in the church today.
1) Focus on numbers
Lawless offers much helpful material in Membership Matters. Yet there are a few aspects of the book one might tweak to make it even stronger. First, Lawless shows a strong interest in statistics. The pastors who contribute to the “Pastor’s Forum” of chapter eight are each identified not only by their name and church but by the amount of numerical growth their churches have experienced in recent years. Lawless includes such data to show that one can call for involved membership and still see people join the church.9 This is true—one can follow the Bible and add to the church. Yet there is an even stronger point to be made here, one that provides great comfort to nervous church leaders feeling pressure to grow their churches numerically. It is this: the crucible, the motivating principle, of all one’s ministry is not numerical growth. It is faithfulness. On the last day, the Lord God will judge the shepherds of His church by their faithfulness, not their membership rolls. Lawless surely believes this, but he does not clearly communicate it. May the church today regain this perspective.
2) Focus on programs
As Membership Matters develops, Lawless seems to equate congregational involvement with programs fed by spiritual gifts tests. But churches need not subscribe to a programmatic system to involve members in meaningful service. For example, in place of SHAPE, DESIGN, or BodyLife, all of which utilize spiritual gifts tests, and all of which Lawless seems to support, church leaders may simply hold out opportunities to serve, encourage members to serve, and then watch as the congregation fills its ministerial holes. Instead of this type of ministry placement, Lawless declares that the membership class “must offer opportunities to discover spiritual gifts and to learn about ways to use these gifts in the church.”10 Yet it can be said of spiritual gifts tests that they are self-directed and may do little to push people beyond their own conceptions of their abilities and gifts. Lawless’s encouragement of church leaders to personally evaluate and direct members to service is an excellent idea that befits the more organic and person-oriented picture of church life he offers in the book (see chapter six).
3) Overemphasis on relationships
Lawless shows throughout Membership Matters that he recognizes the importance of preaching and teaching. In a few spots, however, he seems to overemphasize the importance of relationships. In a section on small groups, he cites one pastor who prioritizes small group involvement over the Sunday morning service: “One pastor even told us, “If my members have to make a choice between hearing me preach and attending a small group, I want them in the small group.”11 Lawless offers no comment about this remark. But the choice is already made by the New Testament: Christians must “not forsake meeting together.” (Heb 10:25) This injunction almost certainly referred to the church’s primary service, the Sunday morning service that commemorated the Savior’s resurrection. Small groups are important, but they cannot and must not replace the hearing of the preached word, prepared specially for the instruction, correction, and encouragement of the body.
4) Excellence as the key to a healthy church
Many leaders today teach that without excellence, no church will thrive. Excellence is here defined in typically institutional terms and so refers not so much to having excellent doctrine or exegesis but an excellent church environment. Though Lawless surely understands that there is much more to a biblical church than this, he gives some credence to this ideology. Under a subject heading entitled “People Will Join Exciting Churches That Strive For Excellence,” Lawless quotes a pastor who encouraged all churches to make the membership class “a premier, high-quality event! The best teacher, the best child care, the best prepared materials, the best schedule, even the best snacks—all these set a high standard of quality for prospective and new members.”12 Lawless then asks: “If I were a guest at your church this week, would I sense that your congregation is committed to excellence?”13 There is some truth in this call to “excellence.” As Christians, we ought to do all things with excellence. This includes ‘child care’ and ‘snacks.’ And yet, though we give an eye to such things, we must never think that such details paint a full portrait of the biblical call to excellence. Biblical excellence extends beyond the practical workings of church into the realm of doctrine and its application.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION
Overall, Membership Matters contains much helpful material, including some very good practical suggestions related to membership classes and a very good focus on membership and church involvement. Readers unfamiliar with the idea of a membership class will certainly benefit from the text and all will benefit from hearing another voice summon the non-joining attender and uninvolved member to congregational service. Indeed, Lawless’s words can do much to put steel in the heart of a pastor feeling anxious about challenging his congregation to adopt a more biblical model of church involvement. Lawless’s book can also do much to foster discussion on church membership and service, topics that are often forgotten in a day when polity seems synonymous with impersonal pragmatism. With books like Lawless’s sparking important conversation among Christians, it may be hoped that many churchgoers will soon express commitment to church membership that, unlike gym membership, does not waver with the week or slip away with the season.
- Chuck Lawless, Membership Matters: Insights From Effective Churches on New Member Classes and Assimilation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).
- Ibid, 18.
- Ibid, 18.
- Ibid, 74.
- Ibid, 45.
- Ibid, 53.
- Ibid, 90.
- Ibid, 146.
- Ibid, 99.
- Ibid, 59.
- Ibid, 83.
- Ibid, 96.
- Ibid, 97.
A Response to Owen Strachan’s Review of Membership Matters
by Chuck Lawless
Seldom does an author get an opportunity to respond to a critique of his writings. Many times I have wanted to do so (especially when a reviewer seemingly misses the entire point of something I have written), but no opportunity is provided. Hence, I am grateful that 9Marks not only has allowed me to respond, but they also took the initiative to ask me to do so. That willingness, in my judgment, speaks highly of the 9Marks leadership.
I am equally grateful for the honest and thorough way in which Owen Strachan has reviewed Membership Matters. It is clear that he and I share a commitment to church membership with integrity. Both of us grieve the state of church membership in America. His recognition of the strengths and value of my book was both encouraging and affirming to me.
In those points of his review that I will address further in this response, I do so as one Christian brother to another, desiring to further discussion rather than to create division. In fact, I suspect that we agree more than disagree even in those areas of constructive criticism that he raises. With that in mind, I proceed with my specific responses to each of Strachan’s concerns.
First, he concludes that I propose that churches can help members live out my definition of church membership by “holding required membership classes and by connecting all members to some form of ministry per their spiritual gifts.” While that statement is true, it is also incomplete. Indeed, I speak specifically of four elements that I believe are necessary for effective assimilation into the church: expectations, ministry involvement, relationships, and convictional teaching and preaching.1 Each of these four areas is then addressed at some level throughout the book. Perhaps I did not provide sufficient emphasis on each one (for which I must take responsibility), but I do speak of more than just membership classes and ministry placement as the means to effective membership.
Second, I am not surprised that Strachan raises a concern about numbers, as this critique is often raised when doing such a study as this one. That question is a valid one, as far too many congregations are growing numbers through illegitimate means and a watered-down gospel. In fact, I agree with Strachan that God will judge shepherds on their faithfulness. On the other hand, just as Strachan fears that a focus on numbers may lead to undue pressure on pastors, I fear that an unwillingness to ask numerical questions sometimes leads to evangelistic laziness and apathy—all in the name of “faithfulness matters most.” Faithfulness surely includes doing intentional evangelism and grieving when our churches reach very few lost persons. Here, I side with Charles Spurgeon’s strong warnings against numerical idolatry while also recognizing that numbers do, in fact, matter.2
Third, I am unconvinced that the only means to move members into ministry is to “simply hold out opportunities to serve, encourage members to serve, and watch as the congregation fills its ministerial holes.” I would hope that this approach would work in all cases, but I have seen too many churches follow this pattern unsuccessfully. The church announces ministry openings, then encourages church members to serve—and yet no one steps to the plate. The result is often unfilled openings or misplaced members who serve simply because no one will do so. For that reason, I believe that systematic approaches such as SHAPE or DESIGN are beginning steps toward effective ministry placement.
These approaches are indeed program-based, but they also rightly challenge members to look holistically at how God has wired them and prepared them for service. Spiritual gifts inventories (some of which, I agree, are poorly designed and often misused) are but one component of this process. Done well—that is, under proper oversight by church leaders and undergirded by solid biblical teachings about membership responsibilities—tools such as SHAPE and DESIGN can be immensely helpful.
Fourth, Strachan is correct that I emphasize relationships throughout this book, but I am not certain that I overemphasize them to the neglect of worship and the preached Word. Unquestionably, relationships were central to the New Testament church, and those relationships were not limited to a Sunday morning worship service. Genuine, God-centered relationships are, I believe, part of the “glue” that helps church members remain faithful to the church.
To be fair, Strachan rightly criticizes my lack of response to the pastor who said, “If my members have to choose between hearing me preach and attending a small group, I want them in the small group.” The quote itself does suggest a wrong prioritization of the small group over preaching—as Strachan concludes. The pastor’s point was just the opposite, however. He wanted his members to attend both worship (where the Word is preached) and small groups (where more personal interaction allows the Word to be taught and reinforced). It was simply his experience that members who attended small groups first almost always soon connected with the worship service, while the opposite was not always the case; some worship attenders never joined a small group. Again, however, I take responsibility for not clarifying this pastor’s statement, thus leaving a wrong and unfortunate impression.
I suspect that Strachan and I will ultimately agree on the issue of excellence. Christians must do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), and doing so demands excellence. Biblical excellence does indeed “extend beyond the practical workings of church into the realm of doctrine and its application,” as Strachan points out. Practical excellence without doctrinal fidelity may produce an “excellent” local body that is ultimately short of being a New Testament church. At the same time, however, I fear that some churches that fight for doctrinal truth are also far too unconcerned about such issues as outdated buildings, unsafe child care, poor worship leadership, and bad Bible teachers. Practical and doctrinal excellence need not be exclusive of one another, and I think that Strachan and I would agree here. For more insight into my position on the importance of a solid doctrinal foundation in a church, I would refer the reader to my book, Discipled Warriors.
Despite the above noted responses, I welcome Strachan’s remarks and genuinely appreciate the spirit with which he has raised these important issues. I, too, want the church to view church membership as much more significant than a membership at the gym. That change may well occur as young men like Mr. Strachan lead the churches of tomorrow.