Monday, February 6, 2012

The Morning After: Our Invitation

I tried to tackle a monster topic yesterday. Church membership. In my experience, there are about three different groups of people when it comes to church membership. Let me say at the very beginning, I love each of these groups. I have probably been in each of these groups at some point in my life. My prayer is that my words were edifying and not discouraging, whichever group a person might find themselves in.

What are the groups? First, there are those that have no problems joining a church. Maybe they are already members or they are new to the church and will quickly pursue membership. Then there are those who need to have every question answered before they join. I applaud them. I think you should have as many questions answered before you join anything, especially a church (although, I will say, at some level this can become an excuse for you might not ever get every question answered). 

The last group are the skeptics. They either do not feel like they have to sign on some dotted line to join, or simply, they just do not see the need to become a member. This is the hardest group to talk to for many reasons. But the one that seems most difficult to crack is that they tend to listen to any message with a filtered grid, having already made up their mind on the issue of membership. They see no need for it. They would even say that since the Bible does not say we should become members, it is unbiblical to join a church.

As you might be able to tell, this can be a difficult subject. At the most basic level, I just do not get it. You see, most of the skeptics that I have talked to in the past, are people who are deeply committed to the church. They are serving. They are engaging. They just do not feel like they should have to sign their name to prove they are committed. They say their actions speak for themselves. And I agree at many levels. We need more of them in our churches. But I just keep coming back to this quote by John Piper:
"If you want to say, 'OK, I believe the New Testament says, 'Be a part of a community, give yourself to ministering there and receiving ministry there, and advancing the cause of the gospel there, and upholding the name of Jesus there, and doing mission there,' and I'm part of that,' then to resist putting your name on the line for that is probably not a biblical conviction. It's probably an American, independent, give-me-elbow-room, don't-get-in-my-face-too-often conviction, which I don't think is biblical."
I just do not fully grasp why those who are so engaged and love the church, would resist making their commitment to the church formal and vocal. Could someone please help me?

One of my main points in this message is that membership is someone announcing "I want to be shepherded." That is why I said it is our invitation. We would long for someone to announce to us that they want us to shepherd them. They want to formally engage with us and make their intentions clear that they are committed to us and want us to commit to them.

I do think the principle of church membership is biblical. You will need to listen to the message HERE in order to get the entire argument, or download my notes HERE. I also acknowledge that while it is a biblical principle, the way we do it is a cultural phenomenon. I do not think that people in the city of Thessalonica signed on the dotted line to be part of that church. But they also had no options. If they were Christians in Thessalonica, they were part of that church. Period. When we have several "Christian" churches in an area, it becomes necessary to clarify.

In the end, I think the main reason why people do not become members is that church leaders do not take church membership seriously. They water it down to mean almost nothing. If a church is going to say that membership matters, then the leaders had better be willing to back it up to actually mean something. I hope with grace and mercy, that would be the direction we move towards as a church.


  1. Hi Thad,

    I only had time to read the beginning of your sermon notes, and then skim the rest, so hopefully what I add below isn't a repetition of anything you've already said.

    I recently went through this issue last year. There was a family in our church (highly devoted, loving, etc. - just a great family), but they didn't believe membership was biblical. They had also been abused by spiritual authority in the past, so I approached the situation with great sensitivity. I asked the husband to lunch so I could explain why I felt it was biblical, and here's the line of logic I took with him. (There are other reasons for membership, like the ones you mentioned, but none of those had worked with this particular individual):

    1.) The Bible says that the people of a church (not just leaders) are responsible for making some very serious decisions: disciplining another Christian, potentially excommunicating a member, spending large amounts of money, and, in many denominations, selecting elders and pastors.

    2.) How can you move forward with a decision when there is disagreement on the above issues? According to 2 Cor.2:6, you go with "the majority" (at least when it comes to church discipline, as was the case in 2 Cor.2).

    3.) But the question is, the majority of WHO? Are 15 year old Christians apart of that group? Are Christians who have just been attending your church for two months qualified to make these decisions? What about Christians who only come to your church on Sundays, and they only come 60% of the Sundays? Should they be allowed to select a pastor or discipline a member?

    The point is, there HAS to be a qualified membership in order to make these sort of decisions. Whether you call it "membership" or whatever, it doesn't matter. But there has to be a designated group of people who meet the necessary qualifications.

    The big problem with the word "membership" is that it either has elitist connotations or it's mistaken for the biblical word "member" which has nothing to do with church membership as being discussed here. We're currently thinking about changing the language to "partnership", as suggested by Mark Dever.

    I also spent the first 15 minutes of my conversation with this guy proving that there are all sorts of biblical mandates and truths that are not stated explicitly; instead they are stated implicitly (you mentioned this in your sermon). I even pointed him to Jesus' amazing argument to the Sadducees concerning the resurrection of the dead in Matt.22:29-33 where He proved there was a resurrection based on a grammatical detail: "I AM the God of ..." NOT "I WAS the God of..."

    Anyway, the guy still hasn't become a member, but I still think the above line of argumentation is very helpful, and I hope you do too, that is, if you haven't already considered it. May the Lord richly bless your ministry.

    Josh Lough

  2. Josh,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Those are many of the arguments I used. Above all, one of the key components, I believe, is that becoming a member is announcing that you want to be shepherded.

    I would be curious if you had time to look at the middle point in my message. In Hebrews 13:17 it says that leaders are responsible for the souls of those under them & that we will give an account for them. Now, I do not fully grasp what that means, but the thing I tried to impress on people is this: when do the leaders at the church become responsible for your soul? I have been burdened with that one the past several weeks...

    I hope all is well.

  3. I'm sorry for not reading your sermon the whole way through. I'm sure I said a lot of what you already said.

    I agree with you about applying membership to Hebrews 13:17. I talked about that at a home group last year, and the church was careful to caution me about that, and I received that from them. I think they wanted me to be cautious about it because if I took it too far I could potentially neglect someone. However, I find it interesting that Paul said only certain, qualified widows were allowed to receive financial support from a church. I think there's a principal there that can be applied to church membership: If you don't contribute, you're exempting yourself from the same care that others receive. I think that principle is also seen in 2 Thess.3:10.

    Thanks for the good blog post.


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