What is an “Ideal Church Member”?

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Jesus said, “Go and make disciples.”  You’ve heard it.  You’ve studied it.  You’ve preached it.  But, have you ever defined it?  What, exactly, is a “disciple”?

May I suggest that, for all practical purposes, a “disciple” is synonymous with an “ideal church member.”  Or, at least, it should be.

If you agree, then try this exercise with your church leaders: List the qualities of an ideal member of your congregation.  How should such a person act?  What should he say?  How should she feel?

Once you have listed the qualities of a disciple, examine your church’s programming to see how—or if—you are helping people reach this ideal.  After all, it seems reasonable that church activities should lead people toward some goal…

Here are nine characteristics I suggest could begin your thinking about the characteristics of an ideal member in your church …

An ideal (assimilated) member:

1.   …understands and identifies with the goals of your church.  Goals are what church leaders have determined to accomplish in the coming year.  How many of your constituents could list at least two of your church’s goals for the coming year?  (Perhaps a prior question would be, “Does your church actually have specific goals for the coming year?”)

2.   …attends worship regularly. It’s hard to imagine an assimilated member who is not in worship regularly; it’s a key part of being part of the body of Christ.  And, by the way, a change in worship attendance is the first sign of a person beginning to drop out of church.

3.     …feels a sense of spiritual progress.  The Christian life is like Pilgrim’s Progress…journeying toward the goal of being  like Christ.  Members who do not feel a sense of spiritual growth will begin to wonder whether the benefit of being involved in church is worth the cost.

4.   …has taken a formal step of affiliation with your church.  While some churches are de-emphasizing formal membership, there are good reasons for people to make a public commitment to Christ (i.e., baptism) and to His Church (i.e., membership).

5.   …has friends in your church.  On average, active church members have over seven friends in their church; drop-outs had less than two (before they left).

6.   …is using his/her spiritual gift.  From an assimilation perspective, giving one’s time and talents to Christ through the church is even more important than giving one’s money.  Plus, a role or task in the church provides a great opportunity to make friends (see #5).

7.   …is involved in a fellowship group.  The facts are clear: people in small groups seldom drop out of church.  Groups are one of the best ways to build strong bonds among members.

8.   tithes to your church.  “The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being” (Lk. 12:34  The Message).  Assimilated members are financially committed to the ministry of Christ’s Church through their congregation.

9.   …is witnessing to friends and family.  As we saw in last month’s post (“The Disciple-Making Silver Bullet”), the Gospel travels best through social networks of friends and relatives.  An ideal church member and Christian disciple is regularly and intentionally sharing God’s love with people in his/her oikos.

Now what? 

Here’s how to increase the number of people in your church who demonstrate these characteristics:

1.  Create your own list.  Discuss with others, pray, and then decide what ideal (and measurable) characteristics you would like to nurture in your members.

2.  Review and re-design your new members class around this definition.

3.  Evaluate your present constituency through the lenses of your definition by using a chart like this:

4.  Develop plans for the coming year that will move your members and attenders toward this ideal.


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Charles Arn About Charles Arn

Dr. Charles Arn has been a leading contributor to the conversation on church growth/health for the past 30 years. His newest book, What Every Pastor Should Know, will be published by Baker Books in 2013.


  • Eddie R.

    Shouldn’t the first thing on the list of an ideal church member be something like “is looking more and more like God?” This list is nice if we want to focus on institutional growth, but leaves a lot to be desired if we’re actually looking to make disciples. Didn’t Willow Creek learn this lesson a few years ago?

    • Charles Arn

      Good point, Eddie. I quote John Stott in my recent book (What Every Pastor Should Know; Baker Books), when Stott gave his final address in Keswick, England. He said: “I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth. Here it is: God wants His people to become like Christ. Christ-likeness is the will of God for the people of God.”

      The list of characteristics of an “assimilated member” in this post focuses on sociological criteria rather than theological ones. Both are important, obviously. However, I think the “sociology of assimilation” is often overlooked. I have seen pastors/churches assume that a common faith is all the newcomer (either “transfer” or “conversion”) needs to be assimilated into the church. So, they focus ONLY on theological concerns and assume that since “we’re such a friendly church” that the newcomers will be assimilated. More often than not, when theology is the only focus of assimilation…the newcomer drops out within the first year.

      You might be interested in reading my observations on “Why Do People Drop Out of Church?” in another blog (http://wesleyanseminary.wordpress.com/2011/10/09/why-do-people-drop-out-of-church-charles-arn/). Of all those who drop out of church, over 80% leave in the first year. And, far and away, the predominant causes are relational, not theological.

      • Eddie R.

        Thanks Charles, and I think I understand what you’re trying to get at. Even so, your second paragraph reads: “May I suggest that, for all practical purposes, a “disciple” is synonymous with an “ideal church member.” Or, at least, it should be.”

        And the rest of your article describes a disciple as someone that joins with a group institutional goal, among other things institutional.

        I don’t know that looking like God is a theological question; it certainly has sociological implications that go far beyond membership buy in measures.

        I understand the value of congregations and group membership – for both the disciple and the congregation. I don’t however equate “ideal” group membership to discipleship. The issue with people who drop out in the first year may well be relational, but I suspect that the relationships are person-to-person rather than a generic group membership.

        Get people connected to people and they’ll stay (unless you really tick ‘em off). Get them attached to programs and group membership and that’s what they’re going to major in, rather than transformation.

        My work in the counseling world teaches us similar things. A therapist can use just about any intervention she might care to use. But real change happens, and consistent session attendance occurs only if the client feels a relationship to the therapist. If that relationship isn’t there, clients don’t come back to be “run through a manual.”

        The list in your article is OK from an institutional perspective and would be valid for any corporate organization. Every corporation I know has a mission statement and wants their employees to buy into it. If the employee feels a personal connection with the company’s mission, they stay (so the argument goes). So, we measure how well the employees identify with the mission statement. There are clear parallels with your other points. The issue though, even with the corporate view of buy in with the mission is that what really gets employees to stay is their coworkers and the support they feel from management. Surely there are a number of influences, but personal, one-on-one relationships get people to stick around.

        Corporations aren’t about transforming lives or maturing disciples. Churches are, and the ideal disciple isn’t described in your list.

        At least as I read it.

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