covenant vs membership

November 2, 2005 | 12 Comments

I’m recently become aware of two churches who are using the language of “covenant” rather than “membership” to define their church community.

In August, Dean and I had lunch with Caesar Kalinowski from Soma Church. They had just that week begun inviting their church community into a covenant relationship with each other. I can’t do a direct link to it, but the language of their covenant can be found through the navigation menu on their site.

Then, yesterday, I listened to the Members’ Meeting of Mars Hill in MIchigan. (SSSHHH, don’t tell them, because I’m not a member.) They too are beginning the process of moving away from the idea of membership to the language of covenant.

Since Pathways is brand new, we have nothing close to formal membership, and we haven’t even began to talk about it. I do like the idea of covenant over membership. “Membership” implies that someone is joining an organization. “Covenant”, however, emphasizes the fact that you are entering into a relational commitment with a community of people who are in mission together. Most churches are, in fact, a formal organization, but wouldn’t we be better off finding language to emphasize the relational perspectve rather than the institutional realities of a church?

  • We don’t have either… There are meetings for new (hmmm) “attendees” (for lack of a better word) who want to know more about the church and what they can do to participate, but that’s it. I’ve never been a big fan of the whole “membership” idea myself.

  • Tim,
    I understand some of the questions and concerns you might have about membership. Do you think those same concerns translate to the covenant idea in your mind?

  • Good insights, John. Terminology is very important. It conveys one’s philosophy,theology, and gives practical guidance.
    I like the thought of covenant. Many people today do not want to commit to anything, let alone the church. As a result when problems come, they quickly leave. To have a covenant conveys that a more lasting relationship is desired and expected. People break covenants, as in marriage, but not as easily as withdrawing membership.

  • Hey Joe,
    Thanks for the comments!

    Berto sent me a link to your blog a few weeks ago and I’ve enjoyed following along. I appreciate that you are publicly grappling with Borg. While I don’t agree with much of what he says, I think the evangelical church has been too quick to just shove people like him out of site. I’m glad to see someone with much more stature than I publicly interacting with his ideas.

    I had no idea you were on sabbatical in Longmont prior to reading your blog. I hope you are enjoying the time there. Say hello to Rick for me.


  • I think the greatest part about the “covenant” idea is that it is two sided. Both sides are held accountable for keeping the covenant alive. Good stuff.

  • Berto


    I am reminded of a church I visited a while back which only required an “8 hour commitment.” I believe 2 was for sunday service, 2 for small group, and 4 serving “in” the church.

    When I read this, I chuckled. Although their intentions may be good, I wondered if that’s what Jesus had in mind. Any visitor would think that following Jesus takes up less than 5% of their week. How appealing!

    And this whole time, I thought Jesus invited us to a deeper commitment. I believe his exact word was, “die.”


  • As Jesus followers are we not already bound in a covenant to other believers and to the greater Church?

    I understand, and personally yearn for, the need for smaller, intimate community, but I have grown cautious of setting requirements for membership, as well as covenant relationships within one unique church. This can lead to elitism and a disunifying sense of belonging to one church and not another.

    I imagine (albeit in utopia perhaps) that by living out the way of the Body we would naturally form covenant relationships with those geographically nearest and spiritually closest us. Thus disrequiring the need for any kind of set “membership” standards.

  • John,

    Maybe not — by I’m a fairly covenant-minded person. I can see that both words (or any word that stipulates some sort of commitment) might be scary to some folks. But, I think it’s helpful that you are thinking about these things with your community early on. If there are enough who appreciate the covenant aspect, then the rest will fall in line (of course, this may be something that works differently depending on the locality as well). If enough people attend who want to keep “church” as a surface relationship, then you will bump into issues no matter how you pose the idea of commitment.

  • Brandon,
    What is commitment to the church at large if it does not include commitment in relationships to those who walk alongside you in mission?

    I think I understand your caution that the local church has been overemphasized, but I hesitate to repond to that by striking away anything that might help define a community of believers who share locality. Wouldn’t this be “one unique church” in it’s rawest form?

  • John,

    I absolutely agree with you, but am I not automatically committed to those locally through the blood of Jesus Christ? I guess I consider it to be similar to that of familial relations. I am biologically committed to my family “community” as I am biologically committed to the Body of Christ since we share the same “blood.”

    So why does the local church need a piece of doctrine or a defined standard for what is considered a covenant relationship or church membership? Could it not simply be a part of the local church culture? Taught from the “pulpit” and demonstrated within the leadership of the church?

  • i like the idea of new attendees getting “jumped in”. much like the bloods and the crypts would do in the hood. it’s a lot more fun and it weeds out all the softies. just like john macarthur says, “believing is hard”. i would say it’s as “hard” as all my homies in the hood.

  • I’m still getting over my broken knees… The midwest is pretty tough after all.