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Why Church Membership?

Where in the Bible are we commanded to be members of, or to join a local church?

This question came from a 30’s something guy who had grown up in the church, but obviously didn’t see the point of formal membership for himself. He’s not alone! There are lots of younger Christians who just don’t see the point in becoming a church member. It may be because they change churches every 6-8 years, depending on the pastor or the student ministries programs available, or they just haven’t found the right church yet. Perhaps you’re one of these Christians, or your adult child is.

But here’s the great irony. People who don’t value church membership, still want “their church” to teach their children in Sunday School, provide inspiring worship every Sunday, to marry their children, bury their loved one and provide counseling when their marriage or family is in trouble. They expect these services be provided, by people who are actually committed to the church, without bothering to be committed themselves.

Here’s the way I approach the “why join” question. Early church “membership” My friend is right. There is no mention in scripture of formal church membership. But, I’m making an educated guess, it’s because there was no need! In the early church, when someone became a Christian and identified themselves as a believer, by public baptism and began meeting in house churches, they often paid a dear price. They lost their jobs, they were rejected by their families, they were tortured, and often killed.

There was no need for formal membership, because the personal price Christians paid to follow Jesus was so great. The price was often their own blood or property!

Nevertheless, every time we read of the gathered church in the New Testament, it is described in terms like this in Acts 2.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42-47

In contrast, anyone can join a church today by attending a few classes, and agreeing to a doctrinal statement.   That’s it. No commitment to meet regularly, submit themselves to one another, seriously commit their finances – there’s almost zero “cost” personally. New Testament Christians wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the low threshold we’ve set for “membership” in the church.

So, what I find curious is, why would anyone not want to join a church today, with the “cost” of membership so low?

Commitment is passé.

When I meet people who aren’t church members, it’s almost never over the theology of church membership. The truth is, they either just don’t want to commit to a local body, or it’s just not important enough to them to bother. We don’t ever find that kind of indifference to the local church in scripture. The need for every believer to join with others to carry out the mission of God is all over the place in verses like these;

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Ephesians 4:11-12, 16

Spectator or a member of the team? Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Church once made this statement about the importance of church membership.

There’s an aspect of the church, which looks like a sporting event. There are more spectators, than players. To be a player means you commit yourself to the hard work of personal discipline, making practices, and working as a team to accomplish a common goal becomes one of your first priorities. On the other hand, you can be a spectator for $25.00.

We value membership at Willow because it tells the leadership who we can depend on to do ministry and life together, as apposed to those who simply want to enjoy the benefits of the hard work of others. We don’t mind doing that for seekers and spiritually immature people who attend our church, but we expect believers to “belong.”

(My paraphrase of Bill’s remarks)

Bill is right! It is rare to find a non-member deeply engaged in the life and ministry of the church. Rarely do they become leaders and teachers. Without membership, they generally cannot become elders or deacons either. They’re often fine with that. But that’s the very problem.

Just like married couples are far more likely to stay committed to each other long term, than unmarried couples who cohabitate, every pastor knows that non-members rarely give or serve with the same energy and sacrifice, as members do.

So, the question I often ask non-members is this, “Tell me how you’re serving in your church.” Their answer will probably tell you volumes about why they aren’t members. When people join a local church, they become invested in a way non-members rarely are. Today, people are wary of “joining” things, and of committing themselves, and I understand that. But what the local church is doing, is the most important task ever given to Christians, after loving God. “Love one another.” Urge those who don’t believe in church membership to reconsider moving out of the stands, and on to the field. Join the team! They need us and we need them.

“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 12:10

How following Jesus works in real life.

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