Monday, January 26, 2009

Why join a church?

Yesterday I preached a sermon entitled "Why Do We Think It's Important to Join a Church?" It was part of a series in which I explain and defend some of the practices and values of my church.

In my sermon I presented five reasons why it's important to be a member of a church. (By the way, by "member" I mean an active member, and by "church" I mean a healthy, Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, local church.) Thousands of Christians are on the roll of no local church. Perhaps they don't see church membership taught in the Bible. Or, they've been hurt by a church in the past and are reluctant to get hurt again. Or, they are confused by the plethora of Christian denominations, sects, and churches out there these days and can't decide whether to settle down in one. Or, they just like their existence on the periphery and don't want to give up their independence. Whatever the case, I believe they are missing something very important to their own spiritual growth and the growth of the Kingdom.

In my message I said that I actually had nine reasons why church membership is important. But I only had time yesterday to give the "top five." So here is the entire list of nine reasons why I believe it's vital to be a committed, active member of a local church. I'm sure there are others, but these will hopefully suffice.

1 - Membership helps you guard the peace and purity of the church. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus explains how to handle conflict with another Christian. A key part of his teaching is to "tell it to the church" when other avenues of resolution fail. Unless one is a committed member of a church, it's difficult to see how he or she would practically apply this command.

2 - Membership gives you the privilege of being accountable to church leaders. Hebrews 13:17 (ESV) says, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account." If one hops from church to church, or refuses to join a church, how will he or she obey this verse? And if there is no set of criteria to determine who is "inside the church" and "outside" (1 Corinthians 5:12-13), for whom are church leaders responsible?

3 - Membership gives you a tangible way to express commitment to a family of believers. It's great to say in a general way that one loves the church of God. But it's even better to get up in front of a church, look brothers and sisters in the eye, and affirm a set of commitments, vows, or promises. In my denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America), a person must affirm five vows to become a member of one of our churches. It takes courage to make those promises, and even more courage to stick to them. But there is great blessing in making a verbal commitment of love to a group of believers.

4 - Membership gives you a powerful way to tell the world you are a follower of Christ. In Mark 8:38 (NIV), Jesus says “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Of course there are many ways to share your faith with others. But to say that you are a member of a particular church can be a great way to come out of hiding and witness to non-Christians.

5 -
Membership pulls you into the grand story of God's covenant love. God has made a covenant with us through Christ. "Covenant" speaks of a costly commitment sealed with an inviolable promise. The covenantal nature of church membership is very precious to God, and when we covenant with other believers we are imitating God. As Walter Henegar puts it, "The Church is the Bride of Christ. He has sworn himself to her - and to us. Should we not do the same?"

6 -
Membership encourages a sharing of the work load in a church. Ephesians 4:16 speaks about each part of the body (i.e., church) doing its share of the work. By formally committing yourself to a local church, you are more likely going to feel a healthy obligation to contribute your time, talents, and treasure to the work of that church.

7 -
Membership helps you distinguish between "neighbor" and "household of faith." God calls us to love everybody. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. But Galatians 6:10 (ESV) says, "Let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." Paul is making some distinction here between the kind or quality of love we give to non-Christians and that which we give to our fellow Christians. But how do you know who belongs to the household of faith? By going through the process of church membership, one normally has to profess his or her faith to a governing body of church leaders. This process helps identify (not infallibly of course) false professions from true.

8 -
Membership keeps us from showing favoritism. Because we are sinners, we gravitate toward people who are like us, even within the church. We form cliques. We avoid difficult people. But when you become a church member, you realize you cannot do that; you cannot pick favorites. You are part of a family, and all members of that family are equally important. That's the point of Paul's discussion about the church in 1 Corinthians 12:21 (ESV) - "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" In other words, church membership is good for the flesh.

9 -
Membership helps you stop trying to be the Lone Ranger. This was implied in some of the other reasons, but it deserves to be repeated. I am growing more and more tired of the "me and Jesus" view of the Christian life. The older I get, the more I see how much I need the family of God. As a church member, I am able to remind myself often that "two are better than one" (Ecclesiastes 4:9, ESV).

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