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 (“Purge the immoral person from among you”) can only be obeyed when the “you” of the church is clearly defined.