It’s hard to know when and how a church plant should establish a formal membership.
At their inception, most church plants are not able to act as fully functioning congregations. In the absence of formal church membership, the church cannot exercise church discipline or administer the Lord’s Supper or baptism in a biblical way. So planters should feel a burden to establish membership as soon as it’s doable.
But what does it look like to move from a start-up to a congregation with membership?
THE BENEFITS OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP IN A CHURCH PLANT
Some church planting strategists teach that membership is tangential to the goal of church planting. After all, church planters should be calling people to participate in the life and mission of the church. That participation, they argue, is best manifested in actions, rather than formal membership agreements.
But establishing formal membership provides at least three benefits for a new church:
1. Membership Calls Attenders to Ramp up their Commitment.
First, establishing church membership calls regular attenders to ramp up their commitment to the church.
When a planter begins a new work, a number of people will likely begin to attend in order to check out what’s going on. But it can be difficult to know whether those people can be counted on to take part in the life of the church.
Establishing church membership gives those people a “fish or cut bait” moment. It removes ambiguity about their relationship to the congregation. And it calls them to commit fully to the work of the church.
2. Membership Increases Accountability.
Second, establishing church membership increases the accountability among the congregation and between the congregation and the leadership.
Membership requires commitment, and it clarifies in biblical terms what it means to be a part of the church. When someone moves from being a visitor to a member, they are promising to love and care and pray for the other people in the church.
Membership also enables planters to know who they are responsible to care for and oversee. And it enables planters to hold people accountable to their commitments.
3. Membership Enables the Church to Fulfill its Biblical Responsibilities.
Third, establishing church membership enables the church to fulfill all its biblical responsibilities.
Without church membership, baptism and the Lord’s Supper lose an important part of their meaning (baptism as the means of entrance into the covenant community and the Lord’s Supper as the sign of ongoing participation in that community). In addition, commands like Hebrews 13:17 (“Obey your leaders”) and 1 Corinthians 5:13 (“Purge the immoral person from among you”) can only be obeyed when the “you” of the church is clearly defined.
WHEN TO ESTABLISH CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
The timing for moving to church membership will vary depending on circumstances. If the plant goes out from an established church and has a sizeable core group, it may be wise to immediately recognize the people in that launch team as the membership of the new church. If a planter is working in a “parachute plant”—where he goes into a location with no team and every member is a new convert—some time may have to pass before he is able to constitute the church and formalize membership.
Here are four issues that the planter should be aware of as he seeks to establish membership, listed in descending order of importance:
1. The ability to discern the credibility of the people’s profession of faith.
In order to have a church, you need Christians. And so a planter looking to move towards formal church membership will need to be able to discern that there are people in his meeting who are genuinely converted. This means that the potential members must understand what it means to be a Christian, be able to give expression to their faith, and have adequate time for their faith to be shown in a changed life.
2. Agreement on a statement of faith.
Though no church has unanimous agreement on every doctrinal issue, a congregation should have a baseline of consensus on essential issues such as the gospel, the Scriptures, the nature of the church, and the nature of the Christian life. It is important not to wait too long before establishing a statement of faith, because you may find it difficult to achieve a consensus once the church is larger.
At the least, you should make your doctrinal convictions widely known from the outset of the plant. For example, if you are a Baptist, and you know that when the church constitutes it will be a Baptist church, it’s good to make that clear from the beginning. I would suggest that you take your trendy new church name and affix the word “Baptist” to it, giving you something like “Kairos Baptist Church.” Otherwise, you might wind up in a bait and switch situation where people have become involved in the life of the congregation but may not be able to join it because of doctrinal differences.
Also, I would recommend using a statement of faith that has stood the test of time rather than writing your own from scratch. It shouldn’t be hard to find one that will fit the bill. If you can’t find one that works for you, you are probably either a heretic or “just one of those people” (if you catch my drift). Your wife can probably help you determine which.
3. Agreement on a church covenant.
A church covenant is an agreement that defines the responsibilities and privileges of membership. While it is not absolutely necessary to have a formal document that outlines these things, there is a reason why churches have benefited from spelling out these responsibilities in advance. At the very least, the new members of the church will need to know what is expected of them.
4. Church bylaws and governing documents.
While few things are as boring as church bylaws, it is helpful to have them in place when you institute church membership in your plant. In this way, the means of taking in and removing members in clearly established. It is also a good idea to establish at the outset how leaders will be recognized and how decisions will be made by the membership.
As a planter, you will need to decide which of these four things you need before you are comfortable establishing church membership. Once you have those things in place, you should move forward.
Church membership may not seem very important at the outset of a church plant. But at some point in the process, the congregation will need to know who “they” are, so that they can fulfill the biblical commands for the church.
Originally published at 9Marks.org