I am amazed at the depth and breadth of ministry discussion that happens among Christian leaders online. A recent discussion was initiated by a friend with the status “How does your church define active membership?”* If you’re in a hurry to see what I mean, click this link to the see the entire transcript of the 64 responses on Google Docs. A little discussion of my thoughts on the opening question and some of the other conundrums follows in the rest of this post.

There are really only two reasons I can think of to even define “active church membership”.

  1. To track statistics. This is in fact one valid, although flawed, way to measure a congregation or larger group of congregations’ success. I don’t recommend it as a great starting point, because it’s far too gross of an instrument, even if you could define membership clearly and consistently. But denominations and talking heads use this all the time to gauge what’s working and who’s “winning”. Yes, I recognize the variety of theological and logical problems with the foregoing statements. You’ll have to just forgive me and remember throughout this that every one of these methods/reasons/etc is fundamentally flawed when taken by itself.
  2. To determine who has what “rights and responsibilities” as a member or nonmember. Because of legal and denominational requirements, for example, most congregations have to maintain some kind of a roll of membership. My community at Church of the Beloved recently was forced to establish membership for this very reason; otherwise they would not have been allowed to vote on whether to buy property. That said, unlike most congregations, we don’t expect exclusive membership, just that people identify in some way with the congregation, and have communed in the last year (and since we offer communion to all the baptized every service, a meeting after service is in pretty good shape).

Although the first of these is sticky because it is often misused, the second is by far the trickiest to deal with. Issues like who should be charged fees for weddings or facility use (see the discussion referenced above) often can become sticking points. On a more fundamental level, the issue is raised of what it means to be the body of Christ. Do we tear down any possible barriers to welcome and give of our “services” freely to everyone? If we do, do we run the risk of turning into a drive-by married and buried chapel? And is that worth it for the possibility of ministering to people who may not otherwise be exposed to the gospel? I’ve certainly known missionary pastors in Japan who have decided it is.

What about setting standards for membership that involve knowledge (like confirmation) or participation (like Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church, where members are expected to take classes and be part of the leadership)? Shouldn’t every member be a leader and every Christian a little Christ, at least if we take ourselves seriously as the people of God (the “Lay” or Greek la-os)?

Seriously, if you have a few minutes, read the discussion. And if you have a few more seconds, comment here or on one of my social networks about your thoughts on the whole question of membership or the role that online networking plays in collegiality among Christian leaders and others. Peace.

*This transcript used with permission and with all names abbreviated for privacy. Otherwise, it is unedited, so be prepared for some nerdy theology jokes along the way.