By Thom S. Rainer
There are some pretty strong opinions on church membership. I have heard some say that church membership should come with extremely high expectations. I have heard some indicate that membership should have little or no expectations. And I have even heard some state that membership in an institutional church has no biblical basis.
Not too long ago, I wrote a little book on church membership called I Am a Church Member. I have been blown away with the response to it, over 700,000 books sold to date. There is obviously a strong interest in this topic.
I am also seeing an early trend in one of the highest forms of expectations in the church: annual church membership renewal. Stated simply, the membership rolls are cleared every year. Everyone who desires membership for the next year typically agrees to a covenant of expectations.
I will continue to watch this emerging trend carefully. For now, let me share ten early thoughts on this church practice.
- The early signs are that this practice can be a healthy move for a church. Though the numbers of churches practicing annual membership renewal are few, there is indeed greater assimilation and more effective discipleship taking place in those churches.
- Proceed with great caution. Most churches are not ready for annual membership renewal. If you are a pastor and push it, you may find your job is not renewed instead.
- Incrementalism is necessary in most churches. You could simply begin by presenting a covenant each year for affirmation without making that a requirement for renewed membership.
- Membership classes are key. This process needs to be explained carefully to those applying for membership for the first time.
- Do not proceed with this process until you have seen it in other churches. Try to find churches that have moved to annual membership renewal. Learn from them. Revitalized Churches, a ministry out of Crestview, Florida, recently released a three-part video series by Ryan Whitley on the topic of annual church membership renewal. It’s an excellent resource for those who want to hear first hand from a church who made this change.
- Communication is vital. Of course, communication is vital in any situation. But an annual church membership renewal is a paradigm shift for most churches. The process may be painstakingly slow, with a lot of open communication needing to taking place.
- Younger churches tend to handle this change better than older churches. They do not have established traditions that offer resistance to annual membership renewal. In fact, it may work best in new church starts.
- Longer-tenured pastors are typically more able to lead this change. There has to be a high level of trust among church members for them to accept such a dramatic shift in church practice. Longer-term pastors have had better opportunities to earn such trust.
- Expect opposition. Annual membership presents significant change in most churches. Some members will not understand it nor support it.
- Follow-up is crucial. It is imperative that churches have a well-thought out follow-up process for annual membership renewal. For example, what are the plans to get with current members who have yet to elect to renew membership?
Meaningful church membership is critically important for church health. A few churches are addressing this trend by requiring members to renew their membership annually. It’s an early trend that bears watching. Let me hear your thoughts about it.
This article was originally posted on ThomRainer.com.
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.