Does Membership Matter Anymore?

April 15th, 2014

Recently I 've been struggling with the idea of becoming a member of a church.

Don't get me wrong, if someone wants to join my church, I'm honored and have them sign up for a new members class. But those moments don't happen much in our community. And those who do want to become members are usually longtime churchgoers who are transferring their membership. (They still have to go through our new members class.)

I know that as a pastor I probably shouldn't have thoughts like this, but I can't help but think: Is membership to a church still an important part of one's faith journey today?

A lot of younger folks I've worked with and ministered to have no interest in “joining” a church. They feel that they still are a vital part of the community and give their talents, time and gifts to the community the best they know how. And they feel that they can do this without receiving a certificate that “officially” acknowledges them as a member.

My thoughts on membership could be based on the fact that I moved around so much as a kid. I don't really have a hometown, because we never stayed in a place more than six years. Since getting married, my wife and I have not stayed longer than 2 1/2 years at a church. It also may have to do with how little some churches “value” membership. As Pastor Mike Slaughter once preached, “We've lowered the bar of discipleship for the sake of membership.”

Some churches have no requirements for joining. They are so eager to pad their membership rolls that if anyone feigns the slightest interest, *boom* they're members. Some churches have little to no expectations of their members. In fact, they don't like to use the word “expectations” as it makes us uncomfortable to think that God would have expectations from us and from our church (Micah 6:8, anyone?)

In some cases, membership only seems to benefit the ego of the collective local church. Talking to folks from other churches, the question “How big is your church” is bound to come up in the conversation. With my United Methodist colleagues, the answer is always, always, this: Membership number first, then actual attendance, and usually the two numbers differ vastly. “We have 700 members, and 150 in worship on Sundays.”

I stopped saying, “So, your church is [attendance number].” Because the response is usually defensive, “No, we have [number] members.”

I already have a hard time networking and making connections, I don't need to be a jerk on top of that.

So how important is it to be a member of a church?
Does it benefit the church more, or does it benefit the member?
Should I even be using the word “benefit” when it comes to membership?
Do nondenominational churches value church membership as much as local churches of the UMC do? Does becoming a member prevent people from becoming chronic church shoppers?
Is membership vital to one's faith journey or is it simply overrated?

Joseph Yoo is a Ministry Matters contributor and pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara, CA. He is the author of Practical Prayer and Encountering Grace from the Converge Bible Studies series. He blogs at

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