Why is church membership important? Why not just do away with membership and let people be involved as they so choose?
It’s true that some people today are reluctant to make the commitment to join a church, perhaps because they are skeptical about churches and institutions in general, because they want the freedom to move easily if they become unhappy, or because membership just seems unimportant.
But membership is important and should be encouraged, not first of all for the church but for those who belong. For starters, membership addresses the basic human need to belong. People need connections with others and human interest in themselves. Membership is also important because promise making is important. One way to answer the question “Who am I?” is to ask, “What promises do I keep?” God made us to make and keep promises. But can’t someone make commitments and keep promises to a church without being a member? On one level, yes. But isn’t the church more than a collection of individuals making ad hoc commitments? There is an “us” to the church that is more than merely the sum total of “me”s. Isn’t this part of the mystery and glory of the body of Christ? In a culture that by and large wants to be commitment-free, could the interlocking commitments that go with membership in a church perhaps be one of the strongest witnesses to Christ in us?
The church to which I belong recently went through a building program that stretched our faith and our pocketbooks. The building program was necessary because of specific ministry commitments to which God has called our church. Without a strong sense of “us,” I don’t think our church would have made those ministry commitments and financial commitments. And now that it has made those commitments, our sense of “us,” of a called community, is stronger than ever. Church membership seems to be natural and important as we seek to be the community of belonging that is the body of Christ.
About the Author
Rev. Kathy Smith is senior associate director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, adjunct professor of church polity at Calvin Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin University. She is a member of First CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.