Does Church Membership Matter?

by Mark R. Wenger – Pastoral Team Leader and Pastor of Administration, Franconia Mennonite Church

How does church membership work in Franconia Conference?  How do you become a church member?  What are the requirements and benefits?  What happens to membership when someone stops attending?  What theological understandings underpin church membership? These questions, and more, formed the center of a Faith and Life Gathering of about 30 Franconia Conference credentialed leaders at Salford Mennonite Church on the morning of May 9, 2018.

Framed by Romans 12:4-5, a panel of three pastors led the way into the maze of membership. Nathan Good from Swamp Mennonite Church described their annual membership Sunday where new members are received after a 10-week preparation class, current members re-affirm a membership covenant, and the congregation shares Communion together. This keeps membership and attendance numbers aligned.

Ken Burkholder from Deep Run East Mennonite Church highlighted the importance of a public commitment for becoming a member.  His congregation has a Membership Covenant in the By-laws but stated it isn’t referenced much.  Ken observed a “definite trend” of people who are active in the congregation, but don’t become members.  Others remain members on the books but haven’t been active for years.

Danillo Sanchez spoke about commitment patterns at Ripple in Allentown and Whitehall Mennonite Church.  Typical church membership that grants certain privileges doesn’t fit their context.  Yet in each congregation, participants sign a covenant that highlights three Anabaptist church distinctives.  This annual signing intends to keep commitment current and to remind people what it means to be part of the faith community.

Discussion around tables followed the panel presentation.  A recurring theme: Understandings and practices of church membership are changing.  Earlier, more standard patterns have morphed into contextualized and individualized approaches. Questions that were raised included: can someone who lacks an understanding of core Christian beliefs and practices become a member?  How about someone who is engaged in behaviors considered inconsistent with the Bible or the Confession of Faith? Churches with cemeteries face unique challenges.  Can someone listed as a member still claim a burial benefit ten years after ceasing to attend?  What does church membership mean?  Is it a shell without any filling?  Or an antique no longer relevant? Lots of questions.  Not many answers.

As a point of comparison, I recently joined the Souderton-Telford Rotary Club.  I needed a current member to serve as my sponsor.  Membership dues are payable every month.  I must attend at least two Rotary functions each month to remain a member.

I came away from the Faith and Life Gathering discussion on membership feeling muddled, even conflicted. I agreed with the pastor who said: “We are holding to what we believe, but we’ve become more flexible in our practices.”  But, when does changing practice reveal an implicit shift of core theology?

In my view, church membership and a covenant community remain a worthy investment for congregations.  Jesus and leaders of the early church raised expectations of godly living, while also setting people free from bondage.  A liberating gospel on one side, and covenanted discipleship on the other, are not contradictory.

Congregations that expect a lot of their members tend to be more cohesive than free-for-all associations.  When high-demand churches also offer transformation to participants and engage them in a clear mission, congregations flourish.

Church membership today doesn’t look like it did fifty years ago.  Our congregations are less homogenous; we move around more; accountability feels different.  But the human need for healing and hope, for encountering God, for belonging to a group, and for sharing in bigger mission remains the same.  In my opinion, the vision of church where “each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5) remains worthy of our best creativity and commitment.