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.