Why Church Membership?
FOUR INVITATIONS TO THOSE REMAINING ON THE FRINGE
Membership in a local church is a healthy and important part of living out our faith and serving Christ together. One cannot be joined with Christ by faith without also becoming part of Christ’s Body, the new humanity in Jesus, whom God has redeemed for himself, in whom he dwells by his Spirit, and through whom he displays his glory to the world. And our union with Christ and his universal Body is meant to be lived out in commitment to and communion with a local expression of that Body.
It is through our membership with a local church that we show our commitment and willing submission to the church’s leadership, care, and discipline—to the support and accountability of the rest of the body, and to the elders who have been called by God to shepherd and watch over our souls (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17). Membership helps align our hearts and vision with the local church’s vision, and enables us to participate fully in the life, fellowship, leadership, and direction of the church.
Yet not all are convinced of the importance of membership, or whether it’s the right step for them at this time or in this place.
When you’re new to an area, it’s a good idea to take some time to truly get to know a church before making a commitment. Don’t just passively observe during a worship service or two. Kick the tires, look under the hood, get to know the leadership, examine the doctrinal statement, participate in the life of the church.
Yet for a variety of reasons, a number of church-goers remain on the fringe for years, attending (even serving) but not joining a local church. It’s for this reason that I offer four invitations to you who remain on the fringe, in hopes of encouraging you to take the step of church membership.
To the Biblically Unconvinced:
You have heard the reasons for membership before, and have had friends invite you several times to become a church member, yet you remain skeptical of the whole idea. If all believers are members of Christ’s universal body, what’s the point of local church membership? Is the modern convention of church membership necessary, or even biblical?
I’ll admit it—there’s no chapter and verse citation that addresses the convention of church membership as we know it in the West. But that doesn’t mean the idea is absent from Scripture, nor that such a convention isn’t wise and even necessary in our present culture for the church to function as God has designed it to function. Consider just a few implications:
- The pastoral responsibility of oversight implies some form of recognized membership. In Acts 20:28, Paul charges the elders at Ephesus to “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Similarly, Peter says to the elders in 1 Peter 5:2, “Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers . . .” How can the elders and pastors know which sheep of God’s flock they are responsible to shepherd (and for whom they must give an account, cf. Heb. 13:17) without some form of recognized membership?
- The practice of church discipline implies some form of recognized membership. One of the difficult but necessary aspects of oversight is disciplining members who are walking away from God in unrepentant sin. For the sake of the church’s holy witness, and as a warning against the deadly path they’re on, Paul instructs the church to “remove” or “expel” the unrepentant sinner (1 Cor. 5:2, 12-13; cf. Matt. 18:15-20). When he later speaks of restoring a repentant sinner, he says “the punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him,”—i.e., he need no longer suffer, but be forgiven. But in order to remove someone, or to speak in terms of a majority, there must be some form of recognized membership.
- The functions of guidance and accountability require some form of recognized membership. In the church, the shepherds are also sheep. Though they are set apart to lead the flock, they are still part of the flock, and therefore accountable to the flock as they follow the Chief Shepherd and head of the church, Jesus Christ. For instance, Paul speaks of the necessity of weighing charges against elders carefully, and rebuking those who persist in sin sharply, which requires the flock to raise those charges when necessary (1 Tim. 5:19-20). But how do the sheep know whom to hold accountable, or whom to pray for and submit to (cf. Heb. 13:17-18)? And which sheep should shepherds seek insight and feedback from as they lead the flock? Can anyone off the street walk into a meeting and vote? What if they don’t hold the confession of faith? And how will you know? Without some form of recognized membership, guidance and accountability in the church are impossible.
So though the precise form that membership takes may vary, some convention for recognizing membership seems both wise and necessary for churches who seek to fulfill their calling as the body of Christ.
To the Young and Transient:
You’re only going to be here for another couple years, or even less. Why go through the trouble of a membership process, or make a commitment you’re probably going to have to excuse yourself from when you graduate college, or otherwise move out of area?
Here are three reasons:
- Just as youth and transience are no excuse for putting your Christian faith on hold, neither are they a good reason to put off the most basic relational commitment of the Christian faith—membership in a local body. You need your congregation. You were designed for gospel-centered community, and it’s in the context of such community that spiritual growth happens best. Moreover, the guidance and shepherd care of pastors, elders, and fellow church members is an indispensable resource for the significant decisions you’ll be making during this phase of life (e.g. career, college, spouse, etc.).
- Your congregation needs you. Don’t think solely in terms of what benefit you’ll derive from membership, and don’t think that your youth or transience disqualifies you from making a significant impact for the kingdom (cf. 1 Tim. 4:12). Think about how you can uses the gifts God’s given you to contribute to the building up of the local body he’s placed you in for this season.
- The sooner you learn how to function as a healthy, contributing, and submissive church member, the easier it will be to engage deeply in a new congregation later on. You’ll have a better sense of what to look for in a church, what to expect in terms of teaching, care, and relationship from their pastor and elders, and what ways you might contribute to your new church family.
To the Wounded and Wary:
You’ve recently been chewed up and spit out by another local body. Maybe you were a leader who bore the crushing weight of a conflict. Or maybe you turned to church leadership during a severe personal trial, only to feel neglected, dismissed, or even judged. And maybe this painful experience wasn’t so recent, but the scars are deep and still sensitive. You’re here now seeking respite and refuge, and the idea of membership triggers old wounds and creates all sorts of fear and anxiety.
First, you need to hear that being neglected, slandered, or mistreated by church leaders or fellow members is not okay. It’s sin—the kind of thing the shepherds and sheep of Israel were condemned for in Ezekiel 34. Second, you need to know that Jesus is not unfamiliar with your suffering. He knows what it’s like to be misunderstood, mistreated, and even abused. It pains him to watch his Body biting and devouring itself. Yet as the chief Shepherd, he took it all onto himself on the cross so you no longer have to bear the weight.
It’s okay to take some time to rest and heal. But it’s not a good idea to remain on the fringe forever. You were created for community, and God has appointed shepherds to care for you and help you bring the gospel to bear on all your life and relationships. Membership is an important way of availing yourself to that care, and an important step in learning to love and trust Christ’s Body again.
To the Uninformed or Embarrassed:
It’s not so much that you’re against the idea of membership; you simply had no idea it was important because no one has ever talked to you about it until now. And now that you’ve been a part of a local church for several years without having become a formal member, it’s kind of embarrassing to think about going in front of everyone when most of them assume you did this a long time ago.
First, it’s probably not your fault that you were uninformed. It is probably much more your leaders’ fault—and we’re trying to make that right at Westgate. Second, I understand the embarrassing aspect. I experienced the same thing when I was finally baptized—5 years after I became a Christian, while preparing to enter full-time ministry. But I encourage you not to let any sense of shame or embarrassment hinder you from following God’s call to submit yourself to a local body of believers. First, Christ has done away with your shame, taking it onto himself on the cross. Second, most of your fellow congregants will have nothing but joy and excitement over your membership.
WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE?
If you’ve been attending Westgate Church, and you’re looking to take the step of membership, or at least explore the church further, please join us for our upcoming New Members Class, beginning Friday evening, May 31st, and continuing Sunday mornings, June 2nd through the 23rd. Click here for more information.