As a church starts up one of the questions that is often asked, and needs to be, concerns the value of formal membership. Should a church have people formally indicate their membership of the church? Other questions follow – if it ought to have a formal membership, should it happen early on in the life of the church? And what titles are best to use – ‘member’ or ‘partner’ or …?

Generally the issue of formal membership has been answered somewhat differently in the life of churches. Some have very loose membership processes that only seem to relate to an annual meeting where various decisions are made. Others have far more stringent processes that include classes and interviews and signing.

What is best in the context of a church plant?

Theologically there is no question that membership of a church body is not only important but essential. To come to Christ is to come to his body. Conversion is to be baptized into the very body of Christ and become a member with other Spirit believers. There is a real sense in which membership isn’t one aspect of the Christian life but right at the heart of it. So much of the glory of the gospel is that it not only brings peace between us and God but also between ourselves and others. The gospel ends the curse of sin that has scattered us and now works to gather us. Further, the New Testament expects that this spiritual membership would be expressed in practice by genuine participation in the life of a local community. Maturity is expressed in this corporate life. Part of being formed in Christ is being formed together in Christ (Ephesians 4). Membership is part and parcel of our life as believers. And although it goes beyond the evidence of the NT to insist that there was a formal membership process when a Christian joined a local church there are hints that there was some form of identifying membership. So 1 Corinthians 5 speaks of putting out of the fellowship and also gathering as if there were clear boundaries to the membership.

At the very least therefore, in any church, and certainly in the start up of a church plant, one dimension of our ministry needs to be focused on opening people up to the reality of what they are and what they ought to be in Christ. We are members of one body. And we therefore have God-given obligations to that body. These obligations ought to be expressed in a local assembly.

But what of expressing this in a formal way by signing a document or by enacting some other ritual to mark a person’s membership?

In the case of the church plant which I oversaw, this question was in part answered for us. As an independent church we needed to establish a legal entity so that our church could function at the intersection between the spiritual entity called church and the social and political reality of the world we live in.

As a quick aside, it is possible to operate as a group of people who simply gather as church, without ever incorporating. The decision to incorporate revolves around decisions concerning a church’s nature and structure. Does it want to (need to?) provide legal protections for its members? Does it want to own property as an entity? In noting this it is important to avoid the mistake of identitying the church with the legal entity known as an incorporated association, or company. The church is not the incorporated association. It is a spiritual thing that exists by virtue of the gathering of a group of people, by the gospel, around God’s word. It may have recognized officers and perform all the roles necessary for a church but never legally incorporate (it may even marry people although the marriage may not be legally recognized except as a defacto relationship). If it does incorporate, that incorporated association is set up to run certain of the affairs of the church. But it is not the church. Maintaining the distinction is important for a number of reasons beyond the scope of this paper.

In our case, we had an incorporated structure that existed within the structure of our church. This structure required formal, signed membership. We could’ve chosen to keep this very minimal – the only signed up members of the incorporated association were certain office bearers of the church. Or we could use this structure to facilitate a broader church membership. We chose the latter course. That is, we used the fact that we were required to have a formal membership for legal reasons to facilitate the creation of a formal membership for the broader spiritual entity called church.

In doing this, we were very aware that this would mean we now had two kinds of membership in our church – real and formal. A real member is a person who truly expresses what it is to be a member of a body of God’s people. They are regularly there when the body gathers. They care for the gathering and its health and growth. They serve the people of that gathering, they give financially to the gathering. They pray for it. On the other hand, formal membership exists where a person has signed a membership document.

It is of course possible to be a real member and not a formal one or formal member and not a real member. And obviously the most Christ honouring membership is the real kind.

So why create a formal membership?

In our case, we did it foundationally because of the theological discussion above, but also because of a series of pragmatic reasons – chief of which was the perception that, properly administered, formal membership would help us create real members.

The reasons for formal membership quickly outlined.

1. Formalising membership actually helps a person mature

It is the same with moving from dating a person casually and informally to formally stepping into a relationship. Once you make that step it helps the relationship deepen. It's like the difference between living together and marrying. Marriage (as a formal act of commitment) is scary because it speaks of a deeper and more serious commitment. But it also provides the basis for a deeper maturing of the relationship. It is the same with moving from informally being part of church (dating) and then formally joining (marrying?). It forces a person to think about what they really believe about church life and what commitment actually means.

In our experience, it has almost always been the case that the reason people are resistant to formal membership of churches is because deep down they actually don’t want to be so committed to a church. They want the freedom to come and go as they please. To put it negatively, there is a sense therefore that we are actually aiding people’s immaturity by not holding out to them the possibility or even the need to formally join a church.

Obviously this requires care and sensitivity in being applied. In our context we give people plenty of room to remain where they are until they are ready. So many are so far back that it freaks them out to think of actually formally joining a church! But by holding out formal membership as something to aspire to we teach the importance and seriousness of belonging. To do otherwise is to encourage church dating.

2. Formalising membership is a form of communication

It enables a person to let the leadership of a church know that they are now committed to this particular church and to say it in a way that they have total control over.

It is a sad truth that many people struggle to feel like they belong to a church and are really considered part of it by the leadership. Many feel that they only really are ‘in’ when they get a job in the church. It’s then that they feel noticed, or valued, or part of things. This can therefore mean people can go for many months or even years before feeling ‘in’. And worse, it actually ties membership to performing a job rather than grace.

By contrast, Formal membership actually holds out to a person the means by which they can say, in their own time and by their own choice, this really is now my church. It is their way to say to the leadership “I’m really with you in this”. This is especially powerful when the membership is warmly acknowledged by the leadership. Again, membership helps a person and is for their good.

It also helps the leadership – although for us this is a minor consideration. It can help the leadership know who they have first priority in pastoral responsibility to within a crowd of people. This doesn’t mean non-members aren’t pastored but it does create an appropriate level of priority. In this we use the illustration of the flags on the surf beach. The lifeguard on duty has a responsibility to help everyone on the beach if they get in trouble, but the person who chooses to swim between the flags puts himself under the care of the lifeguards in a focused way. We try and care for everyone, but are best able to serve those who formally commit themselves to our church.

3. It gives legal voting rights – to help the legal processes of church happen in a healthy way.

What ought membership be called?

In recent times, much has been made of using the language of partnership instead of membership. The thinking goes that ‘partner’ implies active participation rather than simply belonging. Some have gone further and suggested that ‘partner’ implies responsiblities whereas the language of ‘member’ implies rights. Consequently, in a desire therefore to encourage participation rather than passengers, many churches have adopted the language of partner. I think this is probably right but it is largely for these reasons we chose to stick with the language of membership!

We wanted to preserve the theological reality that our belonging to a church is by grace not works. That is to say, we are members before we are partners (using the nuances above). And it is out of the reality of membership created by grace not works that my sense of partnership grows. So, in a sense, we use the language of membership to teach the gospel.

When should membership become an issue?

How ought all of this be applied in a church-planting context? Should formal membership be established from the beginning? And in what form?

The answer is – it depends!

In our context we didn’t implement formal membership for some three years. This was in part because of the nature of our core group and the nature of our constitution as an independent church. We give a fair degree of power to the membership to direct and shape church, perhaps more than might be the case in a denominational church. The core group we drew early on were still differing significantly on exactly what form of church we ought to be. It is not at all certain we would’ve ended up a reformed evangelical church if we gave over membership too soon!

For some churches it might be wise to hold back on formal membership because it could well freak out the new converts starting to respond. It might be they are coming out of commitment phobia contexts and too formal a membership might smack of everything they misunderstand and hate.

Some of this can be managed by establishing different forms of membership.

One Church plant expressed a sense of formal membership by inviting people to sign a map of their region instead of a formal legal document.

This gave a great sense to joining but avoided all the freaky trappings of legal formality. People loved it.