Recently, my husband and I chose to go through the membership process at our church. We had been attending the local body for several months, but when the topic of church membership came up I hardly gave it a second thought. I knew the stance of the church on most theological topics, and it felt homey enough for me to imagine worshiping there for some time. But a membership class, to me, was little more than an unnecessary occupation of a Sunday afternoon.
Quite honestly, I have never been a full-fledged member of any church I have been a part of. I attended church with my parents through high school, and was a member by default of their membership status. In college, I attended a church that took membership very seriously, and as a college student I was only permitted to be a pseudo-member, to be offered full membership privileges upon my graduation. In grad school, the local church I assimilated into went about membership rather casually; I can’t quite remember if I became a member or not, though I have a vague recollection of signing a document one Sunday morning. The conglomeration of these situations have left me confused about church membership, and just a bit apathetic.
On the one hand, I didn’t feel that membership in a local church was necessary; aren’t we all members of the one universal Church? Does local membership, therefore, seem to divide the world-wide Church? On the other hand, we are in an age in the Western world in which there are literally churches on every corner; allegiances mean something, they say something about who we are and what we’re about.
Like most topics related to theology and the church, husband and I dove into discussion one night around the dinner table. We asked, what is church membership exactly? And is it important? If so, why?
We came to three reasons that fueled our decision to become committed members of our local church:
1) Membership tells the church to shepherd you.
Among the many commands given to pastors and elders, one of the most repeated commands is to “shepherd the flock of God.” The image of shepherding finds its early roots in the common occupation of a sheep herder. The shepherd was historically hired by a sheep owner to care for the sheep in his or her flock, making sure they received the food and drink they needed, keeping them out of danger, and bringing them home at the end of the night. These attributes of care and compassion, leadership and discipline are attributed to God in the Scriptures, depicting the way in which He leads and cares for His people. The call to pastors is, therefore, to care for God’s sheep, ensuring that they get the spiritual nourishment they need, keeping them away from danger, and walking with them to the final rest at the end of it all.
This is a high call to pastors. It is a difficult and labor intensive task. But the effort required is all too confounded when a pastor does not know who is a part of his flock. With individuals constantly bouncing from one church to another, a pastor would be remiss to know who is in his flock and who is just stopping by.
And this is where membership is vitally important. Membership dictates to a pastor who is concretely a part of the congregation. You choice to become a committed part of a local church tells your pastoral team that you are under their care and leadership. Membership has a way of saying, “Pastor, I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. And I want to be cared for.”
2) Membership localizes your mission.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a church culture where there was a new movement to be passionate about every fifteen minutes. Each month there was a new missionary that was being sponsored or a cause to be involved in. And I’m a sucker for a good cause. In my short twenty-five years on this earth I have called myself a passionate participant in hundreds of movements. Everything from digging wells in Africa, to teaching inner-city kids to read, to insisting chickens be allowed to roam the yard – I quickly fell under the spell of every good cause that came my way.
While this is not a bad thing – for there are certainly endless good, meaningful causes to participate in – it simply was not sustaining. I could not rightly or effectively be passionate about each movement. And because of that, my participation was always short-lived. Similarly, membership in the local church gives you a mission to make your own. It gives you a vision to grab ahold of, and a people to serve along side. As we join our goals with the goals of our local church, we are freed from being pulled in every direction.
3) It cares for your holiness.
Community is hard for me. Sometimes, community is really hard for me.
I have often thought that I would be much holier if I could live like the desert fathers, going away into isolation with nothing to care for but my own prayers and studies. You see, I find that my own sinfulness comes out the most in community. When I’m consistently around other people – and consistently around the same people – my patience is tested and my selfishness is revealed.
Membership in a local body commits your time and energy to one church community. Because the church is made up of sinful, struggling people, your membership will allow for your sin to be revealed on a consistent basis. When sin is revealed in a God-fearing and God-honoring community, you will have the opportunity to repent and grow in holiness. Yes, it would be much easier to jump from community to community so that everyone only sees the best parts of you. But when I am consistently in local body, I will hurt people, I will need to ask forgiveness, I will need to call other’s to repentance, and life gets much messier. And it is this messy ground that is the most fertile soil for sanctification.
These three reasons led my husband and I to become covenant members of our local body. What about you? Have you chosen to become members at your local church? Why or why not?