That’s How You Do Membership!
1. The Decline of Membership & The Rise of Consumerism.
I'm not sure whether you realize how much church membership has fallen out of style, among many.
Whereas a generation ago, no one would have questioned the importance of membership in a church, today it’s a different story. Along with the drop of membership among most fraternal organizations, churches have also seen a drop in membership numbers –drops in excess of 60%!
While the issue is not membership status – it's not about 'are you a member or not a member'. Instead, do you belong to a community of faith, expressed through membership or some other means? The point is, that belonging to a fellowship is absolutely critical to spiritual formation! While it may not be so, here at Scott St., I can tell you that elsewhere more and more Christians consider themselves followers of Jesus with no inclination whatsoever to be part of a faith community.
This phenomenon of commitment to Christ, but not his Body, is a deeply concerning trend. Not being part of a local church will only get you so far in your spiritual walk!
“We live in an era of non-commitment. Many hesitate to become members of anything that might require long-term demand on time and energy. Whether considering a social club or a community service agency, people want benefits with few responsibilities. Unfortunately, even the church is feeling the impact of this attitude” Calvin Rats.
2. Membership Then
Every available evidence points to the fact that the most thriving believers are those connected closely to a thriving community of faith! From the very beginning of church life, in the Book of Acts, all the way toward the end of that first generation in the book of Hebrews, the idea of belonging to a congregation was a central theme:
“Those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized and about three thousand were added to their numbers that day” Acts 2:41
“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” Heb. 10:25
Even a cursory overview of church life in the early Church, points to Christians organizing themselves into fellowship groups.
I realize that things were pretty rudimentary in the early Church but even in those early stages we see how congregations developed certain statements of beliefs.
-that set them apart from their non Christian neighbors,
-created lists of those who were part of the community which helped them administer the Lord’s Table or the Love Feast and
- helped them with church discipline when ravaged by false teachers.
In fact, they even had a system of letters of recommendations that they would use as passports when visiting other congregations.
Therefore, belonging to a local congregation and having a vehicle to express this, was critical in their thinking.
In their minds being part of a local church was a given. Just like the members of your body only do well by being connected to your body (imagine a hand that is severed how quickly it would wither) so also, only by a strong connection to a vital healthy and living community of faith can you flourish!
I love Paul’s image of us as body parts belonging to one body. In I. Cor. 12:12- 14 "12) Just as a body, though it has many parts, it is one unit. So it is with Christ. 13) For we were all baptized by [c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free- and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14)So the body is not made up of one part but of many .
3. Membership Today.
Yet we don’t see that same emphasis today.
While mainline churches seem to have far more people on their rolls than in their pews. Evangelicals see the exact opposite, of more people in their pews than on their rolls – both of which are not healthy! In mainline churches, there are lots of members without a personal relationship with Jesus – hence the empty pews. In evangelical churches the opposite is true where more and more come as consumers looking to check off a 'grocery list'. Similar to how you and I go to different grocery stores for our shopping, so also, more and more people participate in multiple churches looking to fill their breadbasket of spiritual goodies.
“There is a growing trend for people to consider three of four different churches as “ministry centers” for their families. These folks might attend one church for its wonderful music and praise experiences, another for solid biblical teaching, another for its thriving small groups, and still another for the ministries it offers to their children. For such people, commitment to a single church is an unnecessary irritant” Calvin Ratz.
Yet how detrimental something like that is for spiritual formation! It is impossible to be a follower of Jesus without a commitment to the body of believers. It would be like claiming to be committed to the head without any allegiance to the body which is connected to that head. It’s like saying “I love the head but not the body” – how can that work?
Do you realize how many people lead frustrated lives because while they love Jesus, they don’t care enough for his Body to become part of it? I realize that for some it's because a local body of Jesus has injured them in some way – maybe they were disappointed, became disillusioned, or were offended and hurt in some way and they’ve never really gotten over it. Let’s face it, when people come into the church they let their guard down and become vulnerable and then, when hurt happens, it can be particularly painful.
Let’s face it: some congregations aren’t known for grace and mercy. Some churches are rigid, very black and white, right and wrong, more interested in rules and regulations than in mercy and forgiveness. Congregations have at times driven out entire generations of people in the name of doctrinal or ethical purity and then wonder why this 'love/ hate' relationship.
Those who have been on the wrong end of something like this, tend to recoil and hideaway, but are still not happy nor content. It’s a tough spot to be in and in many ways; a no win situation.
4. Yet Another Baptism
You love Jesus, His Spirit has baptized you into the universal church and every fiber of your new being cries out for fellowship, yet that is the place where you are most conflicted. There is something within us that requires a clear commitment to the local body of Jesus in order to function well! And that something is called 'being baptized by one Spirit into one body'
“ For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body" I Cor. 12:13
This is not water baptism! This is actually yet another baptism that happens before your water baptism. This is a baptism that happens at the moment you ask Jesus to come into your heart. At that moment the Spirit baptizes or places you into the body of Christ! At that moment you not only become spiritual alive to Jesus, the head of the body; but you are also placed by the Spirit into the body of Jesus.
Just like at your water baptism you are immersed into the physical water by a pastor or spiritual leader so also at this baptism, the Spirit immerses you into the body of Christ and thus you become part of the universal church. Thus at spiritual rebirth you receive an instant inner attachment, both to Jesus and to His church – an attachment that needs to be acknowledged publically, lest it be absolutely frustrated.
It is inward, it's invisible, and it's private and thus needs to be made public as soon as possible so that it blooms into what it is meant to be. The way to publically acknowledge your commitment to Jesus is with water baptism (unless that happens you will be frustrated in your relationship with Jesus).
The way to publically acknowledge that inner commitment to the body of Christ is with a public statement of commitment, such as church membership to a local congregation. Let me add here that church membership, as we know it, is a way to express commitment to a local fellowship. Whether it’s the most effective way, especially in our day, is up for debate.
The issue is not a membership card. The issue is a commitment to a local fellowship. If a membership card does it, then great; but if not, then other ways need to be explored. My point is: settle the matter quickly and early on!
“Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christianity and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, of faith in God, instructions about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And God willing, we will do so” Heb 6:1-3
Notice how it says 'instructions about baptisms' suggesting more than just one, specifically, water baptism and baptism into the body of Christ. These matters are the foundations of a successful life. In other words, the sooner these heart issues are settled for you, the quicker a strong foundation has been laid on which to build a successful Christian life!
'Let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity'.
Finding a way to publically belong to the local fellowship is crucial! It not only settles the inner thirst for community but also lays a crucial foundation for spiritual success in life! This is a message that actually resonates among the young!
“However, more people, especially younger people, are looking for something in a church that they can’t get anywhere else. They are looking to experience what it is to be spiritual people, to participate, not observe, in forming their faith. They are anxious to see spiritual truth as well as hear it and most of all they want to be connected to a community of other Christians. Why? Because what they desire in church is something they can’t get anywhere else.” (http://www.qsl.net/w5vzc/03-25-01.html)
5. The Band of Brothers
Funny thing is that Jesus was among the first who called for such a radicalized faith. Luke tells us when great multitudes sought to follow him, he laid down the radical criterion that was required to belong to His group:
25" Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Luke 14:25-27
He told them they would need to make a choice about who held their deepest affections (v. 26), to whom they gave their greatest responsibility (v. 27) and to be willing to give up anything in the way of their commitment to Him (v. 33). Jesus sought to distinguish between, devoted followers, from the casual entertainment sought by the crowds. He wasn’t shy about declaring that discipleship was expressed by their commitments. Back to the idea of this band of radicalized brothers, who would give all to their Lord and each other, for the sake of the Gospel!
That’s how you do membership! That’s what I am talking about!
6. Organic Membership
Paul also had an interesting spin on this. When he talked to the Romans or Corinthians about how they were part of the church, he used the metaphor of 'member'. Not in an organizational sense such as membership roll, membership card or having membership status, as if it were a badge of honor, a ticket into heaven or some sort of entitlement.
His idea of membership was very different from that:
4)" Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.27) Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it". I. Cor. 12:4, 27
His idea of a member was far more organic: similar to the member of a body, such as your arm or leg being part of your body. Each one naturally linked with other body parts, making up the body of Christ- intimately linked to Jesus, who is the head of this Body!
That’s how you do membership! That’s what I am talking about!
It's not mechanical or organizational. If all that you care about is being on a roster somewhere, or having membership status somewhere, you have missed the point! It’s so much more than that. It's an intimate, organic identification with others who share the same experiences and values, and who together are interwoven with Christ the Head. An incredible link and bond that stands the test of time and the storms of life!
That’s what I am talking about! That is something I can get excited about!
This is something I love about our older folks here. They know each other so well. They are not a room full of strangers, but people who have walked in each other's shoes for decades and today have an incredibly deep love for each other. That is that helps them through the storms of life!
That’s what I am talking about! That’s how you do membership!
7. What You Can Only Get Here!
So what is it that you can get here that you cannot get anywhere else?:
1. Participate and be inspired by corporate worship
2. A spiritual family to support and encourage you in your walk with Christ.
3. A place that fortifies your faith by receiving consistent Biblical teaching in Christian living
4. Spiritual protection under godly leadership with spiritual leaders there to "keep watch over" and "be shepherds of the church of God".
5. Accountability, which is important in spiritual growth. Not floating around but anchored in the truth and fellowship of friends who will call you out if needs be.
6. A place to develop wholesome friendships and be positive influences by others.
7. A place to discover and use your gifts to make a difference.
That’s what I am talking about! That’s how you do membership!
Here you can find several messages. Feel free to write your thoughts or questions in the comment section.