One major topic of discussion in ministry revolves around the issue of church membership, its importance today, and how it functions in the life of a local body. In my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, we hold it as a mark of pride that we boast a membership roll of over 15 million. But that data comes to a head when the head counts on Sunday morning coming to about 5.5 million. That's still a big number, and it's nothing to shake our heads at. But the disparity between those on the roll and those who are actively involved is a troubling concern. At our church, we just did a membership audit and removed over 100 names who'd not attended in quite some time, some who hadn't attended in a decade!
Enter the book Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman, part of the 9Marks series on "Building Healthy Churches." This easy-to-read, accessible, and profoundly wise book offers much for ministry leaders to consider. It answers a couple questions that we often face in leadership:
1. Is church membership in the Bible?
2. What does it mean to be a member of a church?
When we think of membership like we do our affiliations in the world, we don't find that example in the Bible. For example, we're Zoo members in Tampa. For a fee, our family gets free admission, guest passes, special access, and discounts on food and merchandise. It's renewable every year, and well worth the initial cost. We're also members of our church, where we faithfully give, where I serve as pastor, and where we try to invest ourselves in the lives of people. What's the difference? One is transaction, the other is relational. For the Zoo, we pay dues and get to enjoy privileges. For the church, we commit ourselves to relationships with other people, invest in their lives, find an outlet for service, and for me the charge for the spiritual welfare of our folks.
When you read Church Membership, you see a much more robust and transformative picture of membership than what we see for a Zoo or Rotary or anything else. You get a glimpse of the Kingdom expanding and thriving. All through the New Testament there's a rich tapestry of the local church and its members engaging in mission, fellowship, sacrifice, ministry, and in many cases suffering. Each local church becomes an outpost, or an embassy as Leeman calls it, of the Kingdom of God. Churches matter because they're Christ's Bride, they're the vehicle for missions, and they're the picture of covenant love that God has with His people. They're not clubs we pay dues for, or social gatherings, or any other transactional affiliation.
Membership in a local church matters because:
1. It shows who's a Kingdom citizen - When we pledge our membership to a local church, we're declaring our allegiance to Christ and His Kingdom. When a church accepts us as members, they're publicly declaring their affirmation of our Kingdom citizenship.
2. It portrays the Gospel before the world - The Gospel is more than the message we share with lost people, it's the message of Christ changing our lives to make us more like Christ every day. In the church, the Gospel reflects in how we relate to each other, love each other, and serve each other: we're living out the ethic of Christ in Philippians 2.
3. It helps leaders know who's under their care - James tells us that we in ministry will have to give an account for those who are under our leadership. Who does that entail? Those who are members under our leadership. We have a responsibility to care and shepherd them well because they have trusted themselves to a local church to guide, disciple, and hold them accountable. It's a huge task, but it requires us knowing who's a member and who's not.
4. It gives a believer's life structure - The regular rhythms of life for the believer can find their footing and perspective through the lens of their involvement in the local church. What becomes important and a priority is a family's commitment to their fellowship with God's people. It shapes how they make decisions about buying houses, scheduling their time, committing to extracurriculars, discipling their children, and developing a platform for mission.
If you're looking for a great tool to use for teaching on church membership or developing a robust theology of the local church, grab this one and check out the rest of the series from 9Marks.
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Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.