FIRST-PERSON: The forgotten meaning of church membership

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--What is the church? Is it a Christian country club? A place where a bunch of people with warm feelings for Jesus hang out? It seems that many Christians aren’t really sure anymore.

Think about the statistics for just a moment. The Southern Baptist Convention boasts a membership of over 16 million people. However, on any given Sunday, you may only find about half of them in church. That’s 8 million so-called Christians missing in action.

So, what’s the problem?

We’ve forgotten what church membership is supposed to be –- a commitment.

In this day and age of rampant no-fault divorce and easy bankruptcy, it’s not popular to talk about commitment. In fact, it almost seems like commitment has not only gone out of style but that it has been removed from the American vocabulary. Unfortunately, that lackadaisical attitude has crept into the church and is robbing us of our resources, our people and our ability to make a difference.

Given the moral and spiritual condition of our country and our families, we need to recommit ourselves to the church or it soon will be committed to the junk-heap of long-forgotten fads like the hula hoop and New Coke.

Church membership has always been about commitment. For whatever reason, though, Christians have lost sight of that fact. Church membership involves three basic commitments.

First, it entails a commitment to Christ. You can’t just walk in off the street and sign up to be a member of a church. You can’t just pay your dues and get in. The financial cost of membership is too high. None of us could afford it.

Here’s the good news, though. Christ has paid it all. His death on the cross has paid the way. He’s purchased our souls. He’s redeemed us for His glory.

For that reason, we expect –- we demand –- that our members be professing believers in Jesus Christ. We’re not talking about warm feelings or fond memories of singing “Jesus Loves Me” when we were five years old. We’re talking about a whole-hearted, sold-out, life-or-death loving relationship with the Savior of mankind. Without that kind of commitment, there is no salvation. Without that kind of commitment, there is no church membership.

Second, church membership requires a commitment to Christian living. When you join the church as a believer, you profess that you have been redeemed, that you have repented of your sins and that Christ is in the process of sanctifying your soul.

Most churches have a covenant, a written promise from one member to another to live and act in a Christ-like manner. This covenant is entered voluntarily as one joins the church. Perhaps you’ve never seen it. Perhaps you didn’t even know that it existed. But, more than likely, it does. When you join a church you agreed to live by its biblical principles. You agreed to accept its consequences, the discipline of the church, should you violate its trust.

Valid, vibrant church membership depends upon the members living in a manner that pleases Christ, a manner that does not besmirch His name, a manner that advertises to the world that this church –- Christ’s church -– is a very special place with very special people. That kind of living demands a commitment.

Third, church membership involves a commitment to other Christians. When you join the church, you join a living organism, the earthly representation of God’s reign and Christ’s work.

The church, this body of believers, lives and breathes as its members do. As in the human body, when all of the parts are functioning correctly, when all of its limbs are healthy, the church is healthy. When one organ fails, it invariably stresses the others. Yet when enough organs fail, the body goes into shock.

Church shock comes in many forms but the results are often the same. Members begin to withdraw. Cliques are formed. Some people are shunned while others are ignored. Before you know it, the disease of selfishness has run roughshod through the church and the prognosis is often fatal.

The remedy? A selfless commitment to others, a living fulfillment of the Christ’s command to love others as yourself.

So, this Sunday take a good look around. Look at the Bible. See what it says about salvation and sanctification. Look at yourself. See if you’re living the way that Christ demands. Look at those sitting around you. See if you see them as God does. Then recommit yourself to meaningful church membership.


Peter Beck is pastor of Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and a Ph.D. student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also located in Louisville.

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