Building Healthy Multisite Churches: Church Membership

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from Multisite Churches: Biblical Foundations and Practical Answers
by Dustin L. Slaton

A biblical view and practice of church membership is an essential health marker of any church. A basic definition of church membership is someone’s “formal commitment to a local church.”[1] Sadly, church membership and member participation has declined in the last fifty years, according to Mark Dever, who suggests that two thirds of the people on Southern Baptist churches’ membership roles are non-attending members.[2] To reverse this trend, churches must return to biblical practices of membership. To do so, a proper understanding of biblical church membership must be in place; however, there is no specific Scripture passage that prescribes church membership as a requirement. Rather it is a conglomeration of various Scriptures in which participation in the church implies committed membership.[3]

Perhaps the clearest example of necessary committed membership is in 1 Corinthians 12–14. Paul describes the church as “the body of Christ,” and the people within the church as “individual members of it.” Thom Rainer says, “Members of a church comprise the whole and are essential parts of it.”[4] The Bible describes the church as a single “entity made up of multiple individuals,” using descriptions such as families (Heb. 2:11), communities (Acts 2:41–47), a body and its parts (1 Cor. 12:12–31), and buildings (1 Peter 2:4–5). Believers are even said to be part of one another (Rom. 12:5).[5] A church should reflect these examples of unity.[6]

In addition to these descriptions of the church, the biblical expectation of membership is implied by the functions of the church. One function is accountability between church members and between members and their leaders. Membership is implied in Hebrews 13:17, where members are instructed to “obey your leaders and submit to them, since they keep watch over your souls as those who give an account.” Without the commitment of membership to a local church, a Christian would not have an identified leader to which they should submit, and a pastor would not know for whom he is accountable.[7] This accountability feeds into church discipline, an aspect of a church so vital to its health that many, as shown in Part 1, have considered it a mark of a church. In Matthew 18:15–17, Jesus instructs the disciples to treat an unrepentant brother “like a Gentile and tax collector,” meaning he is no longer considered a welcome part of their fellowship.[8] Paul is more explicit in 1 Corinthians 5:13 when he says to “remove the evil person from among you.” The implication of these verses is that someone who was once a part of the group is being removed from the group.[9] Ed Stetzer says, “It is difficult to get around Scripture . . . when it talks about being brought into the body and also being put out of it.”[10]

The ministry and mission of the church, an aspect of the church that cannot be delegated to any other organization, also implies membership.[11] The spiritual gifts given to each individual by the Holy Spirit are given in order to be used within the community of believers (Eph. 4:11–13). Church members were added to the community of believers in Jerusalem, and the church in Antioch was instructed to send out Paul and Barnabas. These passages show the church identified people who were part of their groups, and they also commissioned, sent out, and supported people as representatives of their group.[12]


Congregationalists have generally had strong views regarding church membership. Nathan Finn captures this clearly, writing, “Baptists affirmed a voluntary membership comprised of adult believers and organized around a covenantal ecclesiology.”[13] More specifically, Hammett notes Baptists require members to be baptized believers, committed to—or covenanted with—the church body.[14] The BFM does not have a section on church membership but describes those who would be church members, stating, “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel.”[15]

The Second London Confession states, “The Members . . . of these Churches . . . are Saints . . . by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing . . . their obedience unto that call of Christ.”[16] Emphasizing the necessity of regenerate, baptized members, John Gill writes, “Such who are admitted into fellowship with a particular church of Christ, should be truly baptized in water, that is, by immersion, upon a profession of their faith.”[17] In a very detailed description of these two requirements, B. H. Carroll says in a lecture,

Now I have given you the entrance qualifications to the church of Jesus Christ. The legal qualifications are redemption, justification, and adoption. The spiritual regeneration on the divine side and contrition, repentance, conversion, and faith, on the human side. Ceremonial, espousing him, confessing him before the church, and then being baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[18]

Membership entails a commitment to the local church.[19] Gill writes,

Persons may hear the word aright, have faith, and profess it, and be baptized, and yet not be church-members; it is only mutual consent that makes them such: persons must propose themselves to a church, and give up themselves to it, to walk in it, in an observance of the ordinances of Christ, and duties of religion; and the church must voluntarily receive them in the Lord.[20]

A. H. Strong emphasizes the spiritual necessity and expectation that a believer join himself or herself to a church. He writes, “The church, unlike the family and the state, is a voluntary society. . . . As [regeneration]is mediated not by outward appliances, but by inward and conscious reception of Christ and his truth, union with the church logically follows, not precedes, the soul’s spiritual union with Christ.”[21]

Gill similarly points not only to the effects of such a commitment on the individual members, but on the glory of God as well. He writes, “A church thus confederated and united by consent and agreement, there are several duties incumbent on its members; which, both for their own comfort, credit, and edification, and for the glory of God, it is highly necessary to observe.”[22] This language of commitment is often expressed in a church covenant, a set of beliefs and behaviors that a member agrees to and that binds the church together.[23] Church covenants have been a consistent part of churches in history. They are included in the New Hampshire Confession, which states, “A visible Church . . . of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the Gospel,” as well as the BFM 2000, which uses almost the exact same language.[24]

These examples show membership has held a high value. It has been protected by the expectation that all members are believers and through the processes of baptism and the church covenant. A healthy church should prioritize these three elements to ensure its members are disciples of Jesus, seeking to hear his voice in their decision making, and in practicing the faith together.


Multisite advocates have addressed membership in multisite churches, but membership has not received adequate attention.[25] Gregg Allison and Brad House consider membership “one of the most significant and often overlooked elements” in multisite churches.[26] The most in-depth analysis of membership in multisite churches is a Doctor of Education project by Nathan Reed on membership practices in large multisite churches.[27] He notes larger churches have a difficult time maintaining effective membership processes due to the overwhelming complexity of overseeing and shepherding large numbers of people. The churches he studied had implemented effective strategies for incorporating new members into the membership and ministries of the church.[28]

In his ecclesiology volume, Allison notes one of the core aspects of a church is the “covenant relationship with God and . . . with each other.”[29] For Allison, the church covenant joins the member to the church body. He writes, “Becoming a member, joining with others in the voluntary society called the church, does not ultimately constitute the church. Rather, it joins that member to an already existing reality, or it defines the constituents of that particular entity that has already been constituted a church by the Holy Spirit.”[30]

This is similar to J. D. Greear’s belief that what constitutes a church is the covenant relationship of the members.[31] Specifically regarding multisite membership, Allison and House identify the locus of an individual’s membership as the whole church, not specifically the campus. However, the campus provides the physical place of entry into the church membership, and each individual is specifically identified with a particular campus. A specific campus’s leadership and its campus members are responsible to provide the benefits and oversight of church membership, such as ministry, care, discipleship, discipline, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.[32] Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears are clear that membership at a multisite church is in the single church, but they also write, “Membership should be tied to the campus. People need to be committed to one campus at which they will be members, attend services, give generously, join a community group, and serve, and to which they will bring others.” They describe multisite churches as an organization where the various members of the single church can participate in and take advantage of the various ministries at various campuses.[33] As multisite churches consider membership, they must be intentional about making membership meaningful. Dever notes that intentional, meaningful membership—and especially regaining it once it has been lost—is both difficult and essential for all churches.[34] Multisite churches add an additional layer of complexity because their membership gathers in multiple locations instead of one. This is why it is essential to have the membership initiation process attached to the local campus.[35]

As noted previously, regenerate members are a primary component of healthy churches. John Hammett considers this a central imperative for the sake of church ecclesiology and the health of the church.[36] Churches need a process by which they can ensure their members have made a genuine decision for Jesus Christ. They key way to do this is to establish a process for assimilating new members into the church that clearly explains the gospel, salvation, church beliefs, ministry expectations, and other aspects of the church.[37] For multisite churches, this process can be contained at the local campus level only, or it can be a hybrid process where new members make their initial steps at a campus but go through new a member class with other new member candidates from all campuses.[38] Regardless of the process, it must be remembered that membership is in the whole church, not just the campus location.[39] Therefore, while the local campus might be the place where the member is initiated into the body, it is healthy for the rest of the church to be introduced to their new church family members. This could be accomplished, for example, by a church-wide email or by an online church directory.[40] Once a member is joined to the church and connected to a campus, he or she must be assimilated into the ministries of the church, both in receiving ministry and providing ministry.[41]

Congregational multisite churches must also be especially intentional about ensuring its members fulfill their role in the congregational leadership of the church.[42] Very often, the church body delegates responsibilities to groups of members, such as boards, teams, and committees, entrusting them to act on behalf of the whole body. The final authority, however, resides with the whole body.[43] In a multisite church, the whole body can delegate authority to groups that represent the whole church for churchwide responsibilities and to groups that represent the campuses for responsibilities of the individual campuses.[44] Still, there are times when the whole church needs to gather as one body for worship, fellowship, and decision making. A healthy multisite church must make this a priority.[45]

[1] Merkle, “The Biblical Basis for Church Membership,” 31–32.

[2] Dever, “Regaining Meaningful Church Membership,” 45.

[3] Merkle, “The Biblical Basis for Church Membership,” 32–33.

[4] Rainer, I Am a Church Member, 11–12.

[5] Dever, The Church, 4.1.

[6] Stetzer, “Membership Matters.”

[7] Chandler, “Is Church Membership Biblical?”

[8] Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline, 80. Also see Cheong, God Redeeming His Bride; Kimble, That His Spirit May Be Saved.

[9] Merkle, “The Biblical Basis for Church Membership,” 41–43.

[10] Stetzer, “Membership Matters.”

[11] Dever, The Church, 4.3.

[12] Merkle, “The Biblical Basis for Church Membership,” 44–49.

[13] Finn, “A Historical Analysis of Church Membership,” 66–67.

[14] Hammett, “The Why and Who of Church Membership,” 173–79.

[15] “2000 Baptist Faith & Message,” Southern Baptist Convention.

[16] Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 286.

[17] Gill, Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, 564.

[18] Carroll, “Qualifications for Church Membership,” 31.

[19] While most Baptist churches have a “church covenant,” the aspect of covenantal responsibility has waned in the past century. Many ecclesiologists have called to a return to emphasizing church covenants as a means of greater commitment on the part of the members, and a greater ability to disciple and discipline on the part of churches. For more on this topic, see Lee, “Baptism and Covenant.”

[20] Gill, Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, 567.

[21] Strong, Systematic Theology, 893.

[22] Gill, Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, 568.

[23] Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 172–75.

[24] Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 365; “2000 Baptist Faith and Message.” The BFM 2000 says, “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel . . .”.

[25] Surratt, Ligon, and Bird, A Multi-Site Church Road Trip, 96. The authors include “regenerate church membership” in their list of requirements for biblical churches.

[26] House and Allison, MultiChurch, 185.

[27] Reed, “A Comparative Analysis of Church Membership Practices.”

[28] Reed, “A Comparative Analysis of Church Membership Practices,” 1–6, 95–157. Reed’s church subjects were Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, College Park Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas.

[29] Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 123.

[30] Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 128.

[31] Greear, “A Pastor Defends His Multi-Site Church,” 19.

[32] House and Allison, MultiChurch, 191–93.

[33] Driscoll and Breshears, Vintage Church, 266.

[34] Dever, “Meaningful Church Membership,” 46.

[35] House and Allison, MultiChurch, 192.

[36] Hammett, “Regenerate Church Membership,” 27, 32–33.

[37] Dever, “Meaningful Church Membership,” 58; Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 311–29.

[38] House and Allison, MultiChurch, 192; Scroggins and Wright, “Building a New Church Culture.”

[39] House and Allison, MultiChurch, 191–92.

[40] Dever, “The Practical Issues of Church Membership,” 99. Dever suggests including a church directory. He does not, however, advocate it as a part of multisite churches because he is not an advocate of multisite. The church where I served as campus pastor used a weekly email newsletter to introduce new church members to the whole congregation.

[41] Dever, “Meaningful Church Membership,” 60; Driscoll and Bershears, Vintage Church, 253–55.

[42] Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 316.

[43] Garrett, “The Congregation-Led Church,” 157–56.

[44] House and Allison, MultiChurch, 44–72, 143–59.

[45] Gaines, “One Church in One Location,” 172; House and Allison, MultiChurch, 195. Allison and House make it clear that they think it is wise to gather as a whole, but it is not required in order to be considered a true church. They believe even multisite churches which never gather together can still be legitimately called one church.

This post is adapted from Multisite Churches: Biblical Foundations and Practical Answers by Dustin L. Slaton. This title is set to be released on February 13, 2024. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Are multisite churches a healthy model for corporate worship?

The multisite church model has been consistently challenged by those who deem it unbiblical and incompatible with God’s design for the local church, but does Scripture support this claim? In Multisite Churches, pastor and church vitalist Dustin Slaton posits that congregational polity is compatible with the multisite model, dismantling critiques with both urgency and care for the local church’s future. At a time when church fostering and church adoption are predicted to increase significantly, the multisite church model is a solution that can support the adoption of churches.

Bringing in personal experience and erudite research, Slaton heuristically demonstrates a methodological approach of ecclesiology with a theological framework for the multisite model, fairly addressing both critics and supporters. Faithful

to the biblical examples provided, he evaluates the marks of a healthy church and how they can be applied to the multisite model. Attributes include, but are not limited to:

  • Preaching and Teaching
  • Leadership and Discipleship
  • Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
  • Stewardship Accountability
  • Church Membership
  • Evangelism and Missions

Multisite Churches is a resource for biblical ecclesiology with wide-ranging benefits for both clergy and congregant. Those prayerfully discerning whether they can transition to a multisite church in a biblical way and those who are interested in the topic will benefit from the guidance and insight provided in this timely resource.


About Author

Dustin L. Slaton (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Lead Pastor at First Baptist Church in Round Rock, Texas. He served for more than ten years in youth ministries in Arkansas, Colorado, and Texas before serving six years as the campus pastor at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas. In addition to PhD, Slaton has a BA in Theology from Ouachita Baptist University and an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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