For many years, evangelicals have been taught methods and strategies for church growth. Such methodologies have often resulted in a spike in church membership, but over time it becomes clear that a large number of the new members were unconverted when they were received into church membership, baptized as unbelievers, and given privileges and responsibilities that should only be given to regenerate followers of Christ. In far too many cases many cases it has become easy to enter the front door and to slip out the back door of the local church.
As a pastor, I have given my life to the health and strength of the local church. I have often been grieved at the seemingly deficient view of church membership practiced by many pastors and church members across evangelicalism. Pastors are more than preachers. Many men are gifted communicators, but it takes more than healthy hermeneutics and expository preaching to actually shepherd the flock of God. That shepherding work and oversight will involve guarding and guiding the church to aim for a regenerate church membership.
Defining Church Membership
The Church is the bride of Christ, the redeemed of God, those for whom Christ died (John 10:15). When we study the doctrine of the church, we must distinguish between the universal and the local.
Universal church: All true believers from all times and all places around the world. The universal church will one day, at the return of Christ, be gathered together, perfected in their sanctification and presented before the Lord Jesus as spotless and pure (Matt 16:18, Eph 1:22-23, 5:25).
Local church: Any local group of people regenerated by the Spirit of God (Titus 3:5; John 3:1-5), publicly baptized as followers of Christ, and committed to one another in a covenant relationship which involves assembling together in a visible community for the purpose of worship, service, and fellowship. We see local churches referenced in Paul’s greetings “to the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2a), “to the churches of Galatia” (Gal 1:2b), and “to the saints in Ephesus” (Eph 1:1b) as examples.
As we survey the New Testament, we find examples of a functioning church membership. R.C. Sproul has said, “To be called by God out of the world and into the body of Christ is the highest vocation possible.”1R. C. Sproul, The Purpose of God: Ephesians (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1994), 95. Notice the language of the New Testament in reference to the local church. The church is depicted as a family. In 1 Timothy 5:1-2 we see members respecting one another like a family, God is referred to us as Father, and the members are referred to as children of God. Elsewhere, the Scriptures point out that upon our salvation, we have been adopted into the family of God (Rom 8; Gal 4; Eph 1).
The Scriptures reveal a functioning church membership as we see baptisms being counted (Acts 2:41), conversions recorded (Acts 4:4), widows being served (Acts 6; 1 Tim 5), and church discipline being practiced (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5). The language used in Scripture for membership is diverse, but it’s employed for the purpose of providing helpful imagery.
- Church as a Body – 1 Corinthians 12
- Church as Assembly – Hebrews 10:25
- Church as a Flock – 1 Peter 5:2
- Church as a Building – 1 Corinthians 3:9
The local church, as designed by God, serves the purpose of fellowship, accountability, spiritual growth, and community. We were never designed to be loners in the journey of faith. We were called out of the darkness and isolation of sin into a bright community of love through the gospel. However, such love and acceptance also necessitates accountability.
Church Membership that Is Accurate and Accountable
In many church settings throughout evangelicalism, the church membership number of a local church does not match the people who are in the room. In some evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, annual reports are taken from local churches in order to track the number of baptisms, new members, and other categories that will enable them to report statistics.
As is the case with many churches, their number reported to the denomination or state convention is not the same (or close to the same) as the members who are active, involved, present, and engaged in the life of the church. It’s often true of such churches that their “absent and unaccounted for” membership is greater than the people who are showing up on a weekly basis.
This presents many problems, including the fact that the pastors and the fellow members do not know the people that they’re supposedly accountable to and for in the covenant relationship of church membership. This necessitates action by the local church in order to achieve a healthy functioning church membership.
Reforming and Revitalizing a Local Church
When a local church has been left to drift off course resulting in a bloated church membership, something will eventually have to be done in order to bring about proper reform and revitalization in the life of the church. In short, the pastors need to know who they are responsible for shepherding, and the church must know who they are joined to in the covenant of church membership.
Removing Non-Attending Members
There is no such category in the New Testament for the non-attending member. In such cases as elderly members who are confined to their homes due to medical reasons and physical handicap, the pastors are still responsible for their spiritual wellbeing and the members are still responsible to pray and encourage them in the faith. For the people who have separated themselves from the body of Christ and isolated themselves from the shepherding care of their pastors, they must be pursued and corrected. If such people persist in their desire to separate themselves from their local church, the church must move to remove them from the membership of the church. In such cases, this results in the excommunication of non-attending members who refuse to engage in the life of the local church (Heb 10:24-25; Eph 4; Matt 18:15-20).
Yes, you read that correctly. Removing non-attending members is indeed excommunication. The pastors given the responsibility of shepherding the flock of God and the members of the local church collectively must communicate to those being excommunicated that they are no longer embraced as a member and the responsibilities and privileges of membership within the local church are now officially revoked. If they persist in their rejection of church membership, they can no longer be embraced as a brother or sister in Christ.
Steps to Prevent Unregenerate and Absentee Membership
The church is in constant need of spiritual oversight, care, and accountability. There is never a week that goes by where the church can be left to coast. Faithful pastors understand this and see it on a weekly basis. It’s also critically important for the members of a local church to see the need for ongoing weekly engagement. Christian fellowship and accountability is critical for the health and strength of a local church. Accountability is not always negative, in fact, it can often be positive and such positive engagement can result in healthy fruit for the glory of God.
Guard the Front Door: Implement a membership class that walks through the church’s doctrine, functionality, and provides a helpful and efficient on-boarding process to membership. Joining a church should never be too easy.
Guard the Back Door: Implement a process for faithful shepherding and membership accountability that pursues members who slide to the fringe and eventually persist in patterns of non-attendance. Such measures will include noticing patterns that often precede absence from the fellowship.
Church Covenant: Adopt a church covenant in the life of your local church that is not only published in the governing documents of your local church (constitution and bylaws), but is regularly recited as a church in such cases as members’ meetings (business meetings) or monthly prayer gatherings. This reminds every member of the covenant privileges and responsibilities of membership.
Healthy Church Community: Organize the life of the church around a healthy community functionality. Make sure that the church is practicing the “one another” language of Scripture on a regular basis. A healthy church will love one another, serve one another, pray for one another, confront one another, help one another, and build up one another in love. Christian fellowship (koinonia) is more than a handshake in the hallway on Sunday. It must go beyond casual Sunday conversations to deeper engagement. This is possible through small groups that meet together and pray together on a regular basis.
Teach the Necessity of Participation: Rather than allowing church membership to be relegated down to the level of ecclesiastical spectatorship, we must permeate a culture of participation. From service opportunities to the Lord’s Day worship service, we must maintain a participatory goal of everything we do in the life of the church. We should model this to younger members and teach this to our children and grandchildren. We don’t go to church to watch something happen. We are the church who assembles to serve and worship our God.
Practice Church Discipline: We are not given a choice on the matter. Church discipline is commanded by Christ. However, the language of “discipline” is often taken in a negative manner because it’s often viewed as the final step of excommunication and separation. Church discipline is one of the most vital aspects of a healthy church. In fact, I often encourage people to refrain from joining a local church if they do not practice church discipline. Church discipline is for the good and health of a local church and when practiced in love will result in strong relationship in the life of the church and a local congregation that bears much good fruit for the glory of God.
Church membership matters to God and so it must be something that we take seriously in the Christian life. In an age of fickleness and nominal church life, we must resist the spirit of the age. May the Lord be pleased with how we prioritize church membership and engage as individual believers in order that our local churches will become vibrant and healthy for the glory of God.
|R. C. Sproul, The Purpose of God: Ephesians (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1994), 95.