“We have a membership roster of 1300 people at our church,” I was told in the first church I ever worked at. I was a youth ministry intern making $300 a month (just enough to support my Chipotle habit). “Wow!” I thought, “that’s incredible!” The only problem was the weekly attendance was less than 700. What’s more, upon further examination, the membership roster included people who had moved out of state, youth who had graduated from high-school and were gone, people who hadn’t donned the doors of the church for years, and even some parishioners who were in glory.
Now, the other churches I’ve worked for haven’t been that extreme, but still left something wanting when it came to the involvement of the membership. The question that struck me during that summer, and which still reverberates in my head to this day is: what is the best practice for a church wanting an ‘active’ membership rather than a ‘passive’ one?
I never had a role in forming such a foundational process in any of my vocational ministry experience until I planted a church. So, when it came to creating the membership philosophy in our church, I wanted to try something different. We kept the idea of propagating an ‘active’ membership in the forefront of the discussion, and we landed on a process that isn’t practiced in many churches: annual membership renewal.
Annual membership renewal is the process whereby every member (our process of membership is another matter) is given the opportunity each October to renew their membership. We are convinced of the biblical president of membership to a local church, and while we don’t see textual evidence of an annual renewal, we believe regular membership renewal is a helpful tool for accountability to both members and leaders.
We see three primary movements in the annual renewal process.
First, annual renewal gives our members opportunity to review the membership covenant they have agreed to. This is an opportunity for the member to do some introspective work.
Am I growing in my personal holiness?
Am I using my gifts in ministry?
Am I pursuing intentional relationships with non-Christians?
These are just three of the questions we ask of our members, coinciding with our membership covenant. Members review themselves and respond. Where there are members not living up to covenantal standards, it allows for the leadership to support, resource, and encourage each member towards the standard we have all agreed upon.
The second movement encourages the member to reflect on how our church and leaders have served the body. One of the struggles every church faces is how to effectively create feedback loops for congregants to voice their thoughts on the state of their church. Annual membership renewal allows for just such feedback.
Are we offering preaching that stays faithful to sound doctrine in the Bible and meaningfully connects with my life?
Are the elders leading the church well?
Where would you like to see improvement at our church?
The answers to these questions have been eye-opening, and aid the leadership in keeping an accurate pulse on what the members think, see, and sense concerning the overall direction of the church.
NOTE: this can be a painful exercise, because most churches ignore where they are weak, preferring to lavish in their success, and hide their shortcomings. Inasmuch as we want to be encouraged in our work, it is invaluable to know the congregation’s real thoughts about the state of things. This helps us immensely in setting goals for the coming year.
Finally, we ask our members to recommit to another year of membership with the church. They re-sign the membership covenant, and are ‘in’ for another year. We have had some opt-out of membership during the covenant renewal period. In those cases, we have a meeting with every outgoing member to ask questions, learn from our mistakes, ask forgiveness when needed, and encourage the individual to find a gospel-centered church where they can be a committed member.
While there is no perfect process, and, in my opinion, enough liberty given in the New Testament for a diversity in practices concerning membership, annual membership renewal has served our congregation well in our short history. It has kept our membership active, and has effectively encouraged our members to be the most committed part of our congregation. Yes, it is a higher bar of membership, but the result is men and women who know what they are committed to, who they are committed alongside, and to what end we are all moving towards.
Chris Martin is the lead pastor & church planter of Fathom Church (http://fathomchurch.org/), an Acts 29 church, in Littleton, Colorado. He and his wife, Maryse, have one daughter, Harper. You can contact him on at firstname.lastname@example.org