5 Essentials for Meaningful Membership

By Mark Hallock

Many dying and declining churches have lost sight of what membership should look like and how members should function within the church. These churches can be quick to lower the bar of membership just to keep people around, but this ends up backfiring for the health of the church.

To correct this, one of the first things that we must do is evaluate the membership process and instate a new strategy that is in line with where the church is headed.

Let me offer five essentials for effective, meaningful church membership.

1. Update the membership list

The first thing we must consider is “who’s in and who’s out.” It’s not uncommon to see declining churches with 200-300 names on the membership rolls when only 20-30 people are involved in ministry or even showing up. The congregation needs to think about the people who are never there, who aren’t a part of any ministry and who aren’t contributing gifts for the good of the body. Are they really members of the church? What does it mean to be a member? That’s one of the first leadership challenges and should be used as a teaching opportunity to help our congregation to see that they need to be honest about who is in and who is out.

This may involve many conversations where we call folks who are failing to show up. We should visit with them and let them hear the new vision for the church, along with words to this effect: “We’d love for you to consider being part of this, but we also recognize that you haven’t been around for a long time. Perhaps you found another church, and that’s great. We just want to define the relationship. No hurt feelings, but it seems to be clear that at this point you’re probably not going to be a member of this church any longer.”

If you don’t update the membership list, it could come back to bite you when it comes to congregational votes. We’ve all heard horror stories of a church having a critical vote and suddenly 100 people show up who haven’t been around for years. These non-attenders sway the vote and hinder what God is doing in that congregation, hurting the direction where the church is moving in order to reach the community with the gospel.

2. Develop a new membership process

Once we have updated the membership list, it’s time to develop a new process for membership. When we launched a new membership process at Calvary Church Englewood, we asked all the old and new members to be part of it. We would say, “we’re trying to do membership in a new way with more intentionality, so here is the process we’ve developed.” It is important to have everyone on board with the new process.

Here is our model for membership at Calvary Church Englewood. You may adopt it, adapt it or use it in any way you feel would be helpful to get your church headed in the right direction.

­— Covenant membership class. We invite people we have shepherded and gotten to know well to take part in a membership class. It is important to know where they are with the Lord and take into consideration if they are ready for membership. Are there some sin issues or other struggles we need to help them wrestle with and work through before membership? Many churches do it differently, but for us it begins with a covenant membership class.

— Meeting with a pastor. The hope is that a pastor has already met with them before the class. If for some reason that hasn’t happened, we will make sure that there is an intentional meeting with one of our pastors to hear their testimony, to hear the story of their life, and to cast vision for what our church is about and what it means to be a member. Before an individual or couple joins our church, we want to make sure it’s crystal clear what they are signing up for.

— Baptism. We believe in regenerate church membership. That means a member of our church needs to be saved, redeemed by Christ and confident that He is the Lord and Savior of their life. If they have not been baptized at that point, we encourage them to be baptized.

— Signing the church covenant. In the first part of our membership covenant, we make it clear that there are certain commitments the pastors are making to members. It outlines the terms of how we will be loving them, leading them, feeding them, protecting them and praying for them. The second part of the covenant makes it clear that our members are committing to serve one another and the congregation. There are other commitments as well, such as lifestyle commitments, commitments to being in regular worship, and a commitment to being part of a community group.

Again, we need to ask the question, what is the difference between being a member of a church, and just being an attendee? The answer should go back to commitment. We are not trying to force anyone to be a member. Membership is something individuals need to aspire to and, in aspiring to it, we will assume they know they need accountability, want encouragement and want to go all in. At Calvary Church Englewood, we want to make sure the bar is raised so membership actually means something. The covenant helps us to do that. It gives us some form of real accountability and it allows us to help measure growth in a person’s life.

— Being sent out as missionaries to the community. When new folks join our church and we have voted them into the congregation, we commission them as missionaries to their communities during a Sunday morning worship gathering. We want to make it very clear that this isn’t joining a club, but rather they are going all-in with their commitment to our local church and, in doing so, they are going on mission to our city and our community. The congregation comes around them and prays over them. It’s exciting! I think it helps members see that this isn’t just a passive thing, it’s an active thing. Jesus is calling me to go out on mission, and to do this as part of the body, not just by myself.

Those are the five steps that we take in the membership process at our church. Perhaps some of these steps will be helpful to you. It is important to have a clear process that people can follow to become members of our churches.

3. Emphasize the commitments being made

When the member signs the church covenant, they understand that there are certain commitments that the church is making to them, and there are certain commitments that they are making to the church. What about ongoing encouragement and accountability? This is where the shepherd’s philosophy of ministry comes into play. The pastors, elders, deacons and leaders are in the lives of the flock and have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on with them. This is essential to help our members continue to grow in their commitments that they have made and to make sure that we, as leaders, are following through on our commitments to them. What you don’t want is for the covenant and membership process to be the end.

Many churches start with a similar process for becoming a member. The problem is that once people become members, they are in and that is the end of the story. Over time, either the leaders didn’t follow through on commitments or the people started to drift, and now their churches have 200-300 members who aren’t a part of the church anymore. This is the ongoing work of the shepherd: to help people follow through on their commitment in church membership.

4. Shepherd your members well

How are we going to carry out the encouragement of members and their commitments? How do we help them and remind them of the commitments the church has made to them? This is shepherding. It’s being in the lives of the sheep, and we need to have a method and a strategy for doing that well.

5. Keep the membership list updated

When folks leave the church, it needs to be very clear that they have left. This information needs to be shared with the other members of the congregation. Let them know that people have moved on or that they are attending a different church. Then update your membership list.These are the five essentials for effective membership in a local church. I encourage you to prayerfully think about this in your church. Have conversations with existing members and other leaders. Talk to pastors of other churches that are doing membership well. Learn as much as you can.

Membership will be a key ingredient to the long-term health of your church.

This post originally appeared on Mark’s blog.

Published August 22, 2023

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Mark Hallock

Mark Hallock serves as the lead pastor of Calvary Church in Englewood, Colorado. He also serves as president of the Calvary Family of Churches, a group committed to planting and replanting churches for the glory of God (thecalvary.org). His great desire is to see the gospel transform lives and neighborhoods through the planting of new congregations, along with the revitalization of declining congregations, throughout the city of Denver and beyond. Mark’s favorite hobby is hanging out with his wife, Jenna, and their two kids, Zoe and Eli.