The meaning of membership

Jan 2015    

On a typical Sunday, there will be three categories of people making up the church congregation: members, non-members with no church affiliation, and non-members who belong to another church. There is one more category, but they are not in church. They are the missing members.

Where have the missing ones gone? Some may be happily attending another church. Others may have stopped going to church.

Those in the first group might have heard God’s call to leave. Or perhaps they found another church more ‘ministering’. Or maybe they left because they were angry with someone.

The second group could have wandered from the faith, or be prevented from attending church because of illness or special circumstances.

This latter group, the church must restore to faith and fellowship, through prayer and pastoral care. But what about the first group?

In many churches, 10 to 30 per cent of their missing members have long settled in another church, Methodist or otherwise. Yet, they want to maintain membership in the church they have left. Why?

Some find it too troublesome to make a transfer. Some have pragmatic considerations, e.g. to get their children into Methodist schools. But most, I believe, remain members for sentimental reasons. “This is the church I grew up in.” “This is where we were married.” “I still feel somehow connected.”

Interestingly, our Methodist Book of Discipline (BOD) notes that “absentee membership is not good for the individual or the church, and that it is essential that we recognise that the care of souls and building up of the whole church is more important than retaining membership in a particular congregation, whether for sentiment or other reasons”.

The BOD has much to say about the meaning of membership, but here’s a summary:

*Our membership is realised in the local church. In other words, being members of the larger Methodist family does not make commitment to a specific congregation unnecessary.

*There is a difference between baptism and membership. That’s why we give different certificates for each. If baptism signifies justification, then membership is about sanctification. Another word for this is discipleship. Membership is discipleship made practical and possible.

*Discipleship cannot happen without commitment to a specific group of believers. As members, we promised God and one another our “prayers, presence, gifts, and service”. “Presence” is church attendance. When a member is permanently absent, what does that say about his or her discipleship?

Perhaps that’s why the BOD gives specific instructions on what to do with missing members. The process focuses on care and restoration, but provides for discipline. Discipline means that those who are persistently absent could see their membership removed.

Pastors and leaders are usually very careful about removing members, and understandably so. Yet, to avoid the issue of membership serves only
to undermine its value. Discipleship has a cost, and the cost is commitment. Churches that condone a high percentage of absent members would, I suspect, also experience low levels of commitment amongst attending members. Why? Because the unspoken message is that membership means little.

If my points resonate with you, here are some suggestions:

*Request your pastor to preach about membership.

* Have members renew their vows annually.

*Conduct regular membership exercises to find out who is missing. Care for those who need care, restore those who have drifted, and remove those who have moved on.

*Make the membership preparation process more stringent. If membership is about discipleship, then counting the cost is surely needful (Luke 14:28).


Picture by justinkendra/

The Rev Lai Kai Ming is Pastor-in-Charge of Pentecost Methodist Church, and Chairperson of the Trinity Annual Conference Board of Youth Ministry.


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