The first members of Methodist societies were admitted on acceptance of the 'Rules of the 'United Societies' and entry on a 'class book'. The requirement was not a statement of faith, but the evincing of a desire 'to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sins'. Membership continued to depend on the earnest desire to grow in holiness through meeting in class, evidenced in the continued quarterly issue of the class ticket. Other branches of Methodism followed an essentially similar pattern of membership.
The evolution from class-based to church-based membership, and the exploration of its relationship to membership of the church universal, was a gradual process. In WM the issue of the relationship between mandatory attendance at class meetings and membership, and the consequent barring from membership of many regular worshippers, was repeatedly raised. In 1820 the 'Liverpool Minutes' were a response to the first recorded decrease in membership. Similarly, in 1887, a Conference committee was appointed 'to inquire into the cause of decrease in our Societies and also into our mode of Church membership' and reported the following year. The resolutions of the 1889 Conference led to increasing stress being laid on the reception of people into church membership, with greater attention being given to the nurture of baptized children of members and to the appropriate rite to mark the solemnity of the occasion.
The existing practice between and within the various branches of Methodism on this last point varied. New members were approved by the Leaders' Meeting; in some cases an official reception or recognition took place in a society meeting or a service of worship. No liturgical forms were produced until in 1894 an order of service for the 'Recognition of New Members' was added to the WM Book of Offices; around the same period the UMFC and BC also produced recognition services, as did the UMC in 1913. The 1936 Book of Offices contained an order of service for the 'Public Reception of New Members'. From 1962, consequent upon a report by the Faith and Order Committee on the Methodist understanding of church membership (and its relationship to baptism), the title was amended to 'Public Reception into Full Membership, or Confirmation'. As a result of a further Faith and Order Committee report in 1992, the Deed of Union was amended to provide that, as the name of the service implied, persons were admitted to membership in the liturgical act. This reflected a departure from the long tradition that it was the act of the Leaders' Meeting (later, Church Council) which admitted into membership. The Church Council's function now is to approve the names of those to be received in the service. It may also approve the admission into membership of members of Methodist Churches in other parts of the world who wish to transfer or hold dual membership, and of persons who are members of other Christian communions.
The present basis for membership in the Deed of Union is that: 'All who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and accept the obligation to serve him in the life of the Church and the world are welcome as members of the Methodist Church.'
A person received into membership always holds a membership based in a local church, and will come under the care of a class leader or pastoral visitor. This membership also has a connexional dimension, however, being transferable to any other local church. Membership may cease through lapse, resignation or expulsion. Certain offices and functions in the church continue to be limited to members. Besides the membership roll, each local church has a more broadly based community roll, recording the names of all those linked with the life of the local church and within its pastoral care. There are continuing discussions about the appropriateness of the concept of membership in contemporary Methodist and ecumenical church life and society.
See also Society Meeting