I’ve studied churches in the United States for almost twenty years. During those two decades, I’ve seen growing changes in church membership and assimilation processes – particularly among newer and younger congregations. Here are some of those trends.
- More churches are emphasizing membership, including requiring a membership class. More congregations are recognizing that the New Testament strongly implies that church leaders knew who their members were and held them accountable. Exclusionary discipline passages like 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 surely show church membership at that level.
- Churches are doing their homework before admitting members. No longer do some churches automatically accept members from other churches. Instead, they often check with previous churches to evaluate prospective church members. Some churches won’t admit members if they’re still dealing with anger or frustration toward a previous congregation.
- Some churches are requiring prospective new members to read books before joining. Typically, these readings are part of the required membership class. Two of the books I’ve seen required are Thom Rainer’s I Am a Church Member and Jonathan Leeman’s Church Membership.
- Churches are working to close the back door. They’ve learned that wide-open back doors result in poor assimilation rates. They focus on small groups and mentoring as essential discipleship strategies for closing the back door.
- Church discipline is assumed. They find discipline within the New Testament not as a punitive strategy, but as a means of redemption and restoration. In fact, they wonder why older churches have seldom carried out necessary discipline.
- Believers see themselves as responsible for, and accountable to, each other. My experience is that younger and newer churches have a helpful, growing understanding of what “church family” means. They may not always do “family” well while they’re learning, but they have the right goals in mind.
- Small groups are really “life” groups. This point relates directly to the previous one. In the past, small groups were more content-focused than relationship-focused. That’s changed as churches use small groups as the glue to connect members to one another.
- Among evangelicals, more regular observance of the Lord’s Supper is part of strengthening the church family. In my early Christian experience, our church observed the Supper once each quarter to avoid its becoming just a ritual. More churches now recognize that it’s possible – and perhaps even necessary – to share the observance more regularly as part of the church family tradition.
- Churches are still wrestling with membership issues. Issues like the content of a church covenant, the necessity of signing a covenant, and the process of church discipline are still being debated.
What other trends have you noted?