Enter the Conversation: Does Church Membership Still Have Meaning?

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At the church where I serve as an elder, Kelowna’s Trinity Baptist Church, we’ve re-opened the conversation surrounding the place of membership in the 21st century church.

In one of our discussions I was asked about when I became a member. Although I had received what we call in our circles, “the hand of fellowship” some 22 years ago, I shared instead about the day about five years later when I fully embraced the concept.

It was a Sunday morning, in the “milling about” time between our church’s two services. I was among just a handful of people still in the auditorium, when a 60-something year old gentleman, who had been talking with our music pastor, suddenly collapsed. Paramedics were called, but nothing could be done. He passed away from a massive heart attack right at the front of our auditorium.

I didn’t know the gentleman, but learned at the time from talking with the music pastor that this fellow was the only Christ follower in his family. His wife and grown children tolerated his weekly visits to our church, but they had no interest in his faith.

Someone found his contact information in his wallet and called his wife. The paramedics took his lifeless body to the hospital. The worship team prepared for the now-delayed second service. And I climbed into my car to drive home.

Two blocks away a series of thoughts suddenly gripped me:

  • In a few minutes his shocked and grief-stricken widow would arrive at the hospital.
  • She would have known that he passed away at our church.
  • With our pastors now fully engaged in our 2nd service, there would be no one at the hospital when she arrived.

“Someone from our church needs to be there for her,” I said to myself.

And I knew that the “someone” would likely have to be me. I wasn’t a pastor. I wasn’t on our church’s “visitation committee”. But none of that mattered.

I swung my car around, headed for the hospital, and found the widow sobbing alone next to the lifeless body of her husband. As she lifted her head and saw me standing there, the next words out of my mouth defined my place in the life of my local church.

“My name is Scott. I’m from Trinity.”

Is membership, in the traditional sense, an out-dated concept? Perhaps. But what I discovered that day is that there comes a moment in the life of every person connected to a local group of believers when a line is crossed. It’s the moment when you realize that you don’t simply attend the same services, share the same beliefs, or even serve on the same ministry teams. It’s the moment when you realize that you are a full participating minister, sharing in the responsibility for all that God seeks to accomplish through that local group of believers.

For me, that moment arrived in a hospital room with a grieving widow.

Let the conversation continue.

What does church membership mean to you?

the author

Scott Cochrane


  1. At our church (which is only three years old) we have found membership to be an incredibly helpful tool. We use it as a tool for personal spiritual growth and accountability. We make a much bigger deal about the commitments than the privileges. We make people renew that commitment annually. And we frame it as joining a team not a club. In a club the point is to be in, on a team the point is to show up, go hard, and play your position.

  2. AJ, great insights. I really like the idea of focusing on spiritual growth and accountability. I’d be interested to learn how you, and others, leverage the sense of accountability in membership. For example, how clearly are the expectations laid out? Are their consequences for not meeting expectations? etc…

  3. When I was baptized as a 14 year old, membership was the 2nd step of the process… but they went hand in hand… baptism meant membership. I have always valued membership. I want the Body – the leaders, the people, the conference to know that I am ‘all in’. They can count on me, they can call on me… and vice versa. Our church has about 1300 adherents and about 400 members… that puzzles me. I’m grateful for Scott’s and AJ’s comments. It is similar to the concept of living together vs getting married… does a piece of paper really make a difference. Well YES… because it is so much MORE than a piece of paper! But how to verbalize it? How to cast vision for it? This is a challenging topic.. thanks for a place to dialogue about it!

  4. Bev, I love your comment about being ‘all in’. It seems that the idea of declaring ‘you can count on me’, as you’ve suggested, is very counter-cultural. But the idea you’ve expressed is central to how the church body needs to function.

    I think this leads to a broader question; How can churches fight against the cultural tide and instill that sense of ‘you can count on me’ within its people?

    Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  5. Hi Scott,

    We lay out the expectations very clearly both both by document and in a podcast of the day we launched membership that we require people to listen to. It’s spelled out word for word with definitions and examples given. if you are really interested you can find them at http://www.deepwaterchurch.com/onceyourehere/#Membership

    As for enforcement we occasionally cross reference things like our list of members and list of people actively serving to see if any of our members need a little help keeping their commitments. We also require an annual membership renewal and there is some accountability that goes with that as well. People who aren’t keeping the membership commitments would need to show us a clear plan to change that in order to recommit for the next year.

  6. AJ, you guys put the ‘commit’ in ‘commitment’! I’m not only going to check your link, I’m going to pass this along to the team from our church looking at updating what we mean by membership. Thanks!

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