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Wrestling with ideas about church membership

One of the things we’ve been wrestling with as elders at Imago is the concept of church membership. Now, we all agree that membership is important, both for accountability for folks who are a part of the fellowship, and to provide accountability for the church leadership. But most of us come from Baptist churches where “membership” is too often considered a ticket to gripe and cause trouble at business meetings.

Our objectives for “membership” and the “membership process”:

  1. Provide a way for people to feel like they are a part of the congregation
  2. Provide a process whereby people can understand Imago’s distinctives, including doctrinal statement and leadership structure
  3. Create an environment where people come to think of “membership” as having responsibilities and commitments rather than “privileges”
  4. Keep the voting base limited to the core planning/leadership team, rather than the standard Baptist congregational democracy.
  5. Oh, yeah, and the end result needs to be church members, committed to service and under the authority of the church.

We have pretty well settled on a set of three “covenants” that might be looked at as “tiers” of membership, though we’re trying hard not to call them that.

Fellowship Covenant

  • I will support the ministry of Imago Christi Church with my regular attendance at worship services and other events sponsored by the church.

This one is pretty basic. This allows people who want to feel like they’re a part of a fellowship to say that yeah, they’re a part of the fellowship. I have really wrestled with whether or not this covenant should include a statement of accountability to the church. I am thinking maybe it should.

Ministry Covenant

  • I will support the ministry of Imago Christi Church with my regular attendance at worship services and other events sponsored by the church.
  • I will support the church with its financial needs as the Lord so directs me.
  • I will use my spiritual gifts in ministry opportunities of the church.
  • I will become better acquainted with ministry opportunities and strategies by attending planning and evaluation meetings of the church. I understand that I am able to contribute to the discussion at these meetings, but do not have the right to vote.
  • I will submit myself by being accountable to the leadership of Imago Christi Church.

Part of the commitment at this level would require completion of a membership class, which would include a review of the doctrinal statement. At this level we wouldn’t require that the person agree with the doctrinal statement 100%, but we’d ask them to identify any differences they have and discuss them with the elders.

People committed at this level would be able to assume responsibilities such as teaching children, assisting in (but not leading) ministries, and would be welcome to participate in business and planning meetings of the church, but would not have a vote.

Leadership Covenant

  • I will support the ministry of Imago Christi Church with my regular attendance at worship services and other events sponsored by the church.
  • I will support the church with its financial needs as the Lord so directs me.
  • I will use my spiritual gifts in ministry opportunities of the church.
  • I will attend and participate in the discussion at planning and evaluation meetings of the church and have the right to vote on any church business as prescribed by the church bylaws.
  • I will submit myself by being accountable to the leadership of Imago Christi Church.

At this level, we would require that folks agree with our doctrinal statement, have been baptized by immersion, and have completed the membership class. This level would also require the approval of the elders.

We’re still not sure when we’ll institute this process – I’m guessing probably in January. A year is plenty long for us to run with no members.

12 Comments

  1. I have really wrestled with whether or not this covenant should include a statement of accountability to the church. I am thinking maybe it should.

    Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. What’s the rationale for including accountability only in the two others?

  2. One of our other elders is very keen on having a level with a very low bar for people perhaps coming from the neighborhood or from the church that we’re replacing, thinking that they will just want an easy way to feel like they’re a part of our fellowship. I am thinking more and more that we should include the accountability clause there, too. Thanks for the input, Rae.

  3. I think it’s a good thing to wrestle through this topic. It is something that I often wrestle through myself. So my question is – Why have membership? I mean what does it really do? I always struggle when churches PUSH membership. Why do they do this?

  4. @serial yp: Good questions. I see value to membership from at least a couple of perspectives.

    1) People expect it. Now, that’s not always a great reason, but in this case I think it’s a good one.

    2) It’s a formal way to provide accountability for your congregation. Sure, you can say you’re gonna provide accountability even w/o membership, but as soon as the rubber hits the road and someone really has to be called to account, without membership in place, your accountability has no teeth to it.

  5. And wow, if I’m gonna keep posting here and want comment threads, I’m gonna have to improve the theme a bit. It’s all too much the same. /aside

  6. so are you talking more along the lines of church discipline?

  7. Yeah, that’s a lot of what I’m thinking. All three of us elders went through an icky church discipline situation in the past couple of years. I’m also not sure, without formal membership, what kind of legal troubles you’d have in such a situation if it ever, God forbid, went that far.

  8. Yeah I definitely understand from the perspective of church discipline. Without membership that one is a little hard to really implement and follow through on. And it’s not that I am opposed to church membership. Sometimes I just wonder about it or how it is used/ abused.

  9. @serial yp: How do you see/have you seen membership being abused?

  10. I have seen it being abused through the monitoring of what each member tithes – then the leadership approaches them and gives them an ultimatum..tithe or leave. I have seen the leadership leverage attendance with membership – i.e; “You haven’t been here for a few months so we’re dropping you from membership status” – I have seen it even when people are sick and really can’t make it.

    My favorite is, “Well we are members so our kids get to participate in the ministry teams over kids whose parents aren’t members.”

  11. Wow, yeah, those are abuses. I think, though, that the call then should be for reforms to the abuse, and not to just get rid of membership altogether.

    At Imago our policy is that the pastor and elders have no visibility to how much individuals give. The pastor prefers it that way. And non-attending members should be contacted not to pressure them, but to try to understand why they’re staying away, and figure out what can be done to better minister to them.

    I would be frightened to go to a church whose leadership used those tactics.

  12. Yeah – that was the church I grew up in. They no longer are doing those things and haven’t for some time. But for a while it wasn’t good at all.

    I agree with the giving. It’s an obedience to God thing not an obedience to the church thing. Pastors deal with enough crap with people the last thing they need to worry about is whether or not the Jones’ are tithing correctly or buying another boat and not tithing.

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