Writing the title of this post felt odd, because I have been a church member, of one sort or another, for my entire life with the exception of the past two years.
At my first church – my home church – membership came naturally, as a simple matter of course. It was the church I attended since my birth, the church where I became a Christian, the church where I was baptized and married. I knew, for my entire time there, that I’d never go anywhere else until I moved away: it was where I belonged, where my entire family attended, where my grandmother had been a charter member. And later on, as I became an adult, that membership became important in ways I hadn’t anticipated: it permitted me to be a part of church committees and, as a result, to have some say in what the church did and did not do. That was meaningful to me. It still feels like “my” church, and I suspect it always will.
When I moved after I got married, my husband and I found a church we liked in our new area, joined, and – after a few months – became members there. It felt odd, transferring our membership from our “home” church, but to us it was a way to signify our fresh start together: new life, new church home. Moreover, that church was heavy on the bureaucracy: to do just about anything, you had to be a member. So it made sense.
And then another move, and a third church. It felt right, seemed right, looked right: as before, we joined a couple of months in. It was just what you did. And when I look back, I realize that joining was something that I intended as a declaration of sorts: I am a serious Christian and not a Sunday Christian so I am proving I will invest here in this particular body and that I really, really care.
But that church didn’t work out. We found, a couple of years in, that it was heavy on the fellowship and light on the study; that no one in the congregation seemed interested in pursuing any meaningful friendships beyond a coffee date or a prayer breakfast; that our growth had been stymied. Eventually we came to the point of either changing church or quitting church. So we left and we found a new church.
And we have deliberately chosen not to become members of it.
The decision was at first an instinctive one borne of caution; we’d been hurt so badly by the previous church we’d “committed” to with membership that we didn’t want to make the same mistake twice until we were sure that we were sure. That instinct intensified when we saw the membership process for our church, which is both serious and solemn: the church prays over the new members and the new members pledge, in front of the church, to devote themselves to its well-being.
And you know what? It’s been a good decision.
I’m not saying that people should never become church members. My husband and I plan to, when the time feels right – when we know that this is the place where we’ll be settling. In the meantime, though, waiting on membership has been a boon for the following reasons:
- It helps us get a feel for the way the church handles people. At some of my previous churches, the congregation acted as though membership was practically a prerequisite for being allowed in the door. And the pressure to become a member was immense; I’ve been asked about it as soon as my second or third Sunday attending! What that says to me is that the church is a lot less interested in what I can contribute and where I am at spiritually than it is with pushing up those sweet, sweet attendance numbers. It’s telling.
- We can still be involved as much as we want to be. This varies church by church, I imagine, but in our church you can not be a member and still make friends, participate in fellowship and ministry events, lead a small group, tithe, take communion, join the choir, volunteer, teach…
- We’re learning more about what membership really entails. At our church, it’s been interesting for me to watch various “classes” of members be inducted as the seasons go by. Our church actually conducts light interviews with its prospective members before their joining, ensures that they are serving the church in some way, and sets up a series of classes for them to attend. It’s been helpful to know what will be expected of us before we commit.
- It’s kept us away from church business and politics. At many churches where I’ve been a member, my involvement on church committees and in church “business” – the sort that comes with longstanding membership – has exposed me to some ugly politics, some general nastiness, and the sinking feeling that manipulative scheming isn’t limited to corporate boardrooms. It’s nice to be able to read the church budget and to hear about the church’s plans without walking neck-deep into the mire.
My husband and I do intend to commit ourselves as members of a new church home when the time is right. In the meantime, though, I think that many believers would do themselves a service by getting out of the immediate-membership habit whenever they attend a new church. Looking for a church home is a lot like dating, and in both cases the rush to “make it official” can lead to bad judgment, missed information, and regrets down the road.
Every believer should have a place that they can call home, a place that invests in them, and a place into which they can invest spiritually, emotionally, and financially. In the meantime, it’s okay if you take your time finding out where that place is: sometimes waiting can be beneficial.