Church Membership: Do I Stay or Do I Go Now?

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on September 11, 2013.]

One of the topics I  teach on regularly at Southeastern Seminary and in local churches is the nature of church membership. When teaching on membership, I’m frequently asked two questions: 1) What criteria should I use when deciding whether or not to join a particular church? 2) What criteria should I use when deciding whether or not to leave the church of which I’m a member? I answer by sharing four criteria for each question. I list them below, in the order that I personally prioritize them.

Criteria for Joining a Church

1. Doctrine: What does the church believe about primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines? How clear are they in their doctrinal commitments? Do you share the church’s core beliefs? Are you willing to submit to the teaching ministry of the church when it comes to (presumably minor) doctrines where you might disagree?

2. Emphases: Does the pastor (or pastors) emphasize text-driven preaching and teaching? Does the church emphasize discipleship, accountability, and spiritual formation for all its members? Does the church emphasize personal evangelism and global missions?

3. Geography: Do you live close enough to regularly worship with this particular body of believers? Do you live close enough to regularly serve alongside the members of this church? If you live more than 20 minutes away from the church’s gathering place, are you willing to either drive frequently or relocate closer so that you can be vitally involved in the body life of the church?

4. Preferences: Are you comfortable with the church’s approach to music and worship? Are you comfortable with the church’s approach to age- or gender-specific ministry? Are you comfortable with the general ambience or atmosphere that is being fostered by the church?

Criteria for Leaving a Church

1. Geography: Have you relocated far enough from the church’s gathering place that it is no longer possible to be meaningfully involved? (e.g. you move across town)

2. Doctrine: Has there been a change in the doctrinal convictions you hold or those espoused by the church’s leadership that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the church changes its position on female pastors, baptism, speaking in tongues, or eternal security)

3. Emphases: Has there been a change in the church’s emphases that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the pastor has abandoned text-driven teaching and preaching or the leadership refuses to emphasize evangelism and missions)

4. Preferences: Has there been a change in how the church handles some of your preferences that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the music style has changed, the children’s ministry strategy has changed, church gatherings have become more or less casual than they were)

I am convinced that one of the reasons we have so much church-shopping and church-hopping in American evangelicalism is because we tend to join and leave a church based more upon our preferences rather than other matters that are more important. Perhaps better ordering our priorities will help us to be more discerning in pursuing and/or ending church membership.

Some of you may quibble with me over where I rank some of these matters–there is room for debate. Nevertheless, I hope you find these lists helpful.


Tell Me Your Story of Jesus: Testimonies and Church Membership

Southern Baptists have always treasured the doctrine of regenerate church membership. Insofar as it is humanly possible, a church’s membership should be comprised of authentic believers. Of course, there are a million different ways to undermine regenerate church membership, even in a congregation that affirms the doctrine in principle. It’s important that every church have certain policies and procedures in place to help gauge the spiritual state of prospective members, even if we never get it perfectly right on this side of eternity.

Over the years, I have been a part of a couple of churches where prospective members never had to share a conversion testimony as part of the membership process. In one of those churches, you literally just had to walk the aisle and verbalize to a decision counselor that you were a Christian who had been baptized. I eagerly acknowledged I was a baptized Christian, even though at that time I could not even explain a basic gospel summary. I just knew I had grown up in church, believed that God and Jesus were real, and hoped I would go to heaven when I die because I was a pretty moral kid.

In the ensuing years, I came to faith in Christ, was biblically baptized, and became a member of a healthy church that required all prospective members to share their conversion testimony. It wasn’t enough to answer a couple of questions; you had to tell your story of Jesus and summarize the good news. I can remember working as a decision counselor and being a bit embarrassed to be asking a seminary professor who wanted to join our church to share his personal testimony. I told him it felt a little awkward and apologized to him. He told me it wasn’t awkward at all, he loved sharing his testimony, and he was thrilled our church was asking that of him as a potential member. It was a great testimony.

As one of the elders at First Baptist Church of Durham, it is a great privilege to regularly interview prospective members. Part of that membership interview includes hearing personal testimonies. I have heard some great stories of God’s grace in the past few years. One young lady grew up as a pastor’s daughter, was saved as a young child, struggled with a call to missions as a teenager, and is now married to a man who desires to be a pastor. One brother is a converted hippy who was radically saved in his mid-20s and has been teaching men’s Bible classes for many years. His wife, another converted hippy, grew up with terrible parents before she was introduced to a Heavenly Father who adopted her into his family.

One woman grew up in Brazil, was converted in college, but then was part of a quasi-evangelical cult for a couple of years because of poor discipleship; the Lord eventually rescued her from that group. Several brothers are former drug addicts or alcoholics, some of them homeless and living at a rescue mission before the Lord saved them. One husband and wife were both raised in Christian homes and have loved the Lord for the vast majority of their lives. Many folks came to America as international graduate students before they were introduced to the gospel through an ESL class. One young lady was raised in a very strong Christian home, became a teenager, and realized she had to own her parent’s faith as her own.

I have no doubt that some folks who are false believers occasionally join our church—such is life in a fallen world. But I am convinced that requiring prospective members to share their testimony with a pastor (and requiring public testimonies prior to baptism) helps to safeguard the principle of regenerate church membership. It also allows pastors to rejoice with prospective members at how God has manifested in grace in their lives. I would strongly encourage every church to require a full conversion testimony and gospel summary as part of the membership process.