“Take a census….from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you shall number them….” (Numbers 1:1ff.)
The culture which sees no point in “a piece of paper” to make a marriage official just as easily dismisses the notion of Christians actually joining a church.
Can we talk about that?
A husband and wife who were regular worshipers with my church, but never actually joined and became members, would sign their Christmas card, “Your common law members.”
A lot of churches are trying to build their ministries on “common law” members. These people attend, profess a love for Jesus, and say they believe His word, but they make no commitment to the body of believers and put themselves under the authority of no leaders. They are free to come and go without being accountable to anyone.
Dating churches is all the rage these days.
More and more churches, particularly the startups seeking to appeal to this culture, are counting as “theirs” anyone who attends on a regular basis. In the same way, Christians are deciding they do not need to join anyone’s church to please God.
Actually, I happen to know the primary attractions to a paperless congregation The leadership loves it because they are not accountable. With no membership to vote on decisions, they do as they please. The pastor gets by with whatever he can convince his board is justifiable.
Show me that in the Bible.
The people love it because they are not committing themselves to anything. The first bone-headed decision the pastor and official board make, they’re out of there. They receive the benefits of church without any of the heavy lifting.
Nothing about this is good for the kingdom of God.
A quick Bible study, then let’s get to the question “What’s the point of joining a church?”
Notice the command in Numbers 1:1ff to take a census….
According to Numbers 1:3, this was to find out how many people could be counted on in case of trouble (“go out to war in Israel”).
God’s people had recently settled into the Promised Land. On every side hostile nations were angry at the intruders and itching for a reason to go to war against Israel. The tiny nation needed to know who could be counted on.
Do not miss that. This also happens to be a major point concerning church membership. It’s important to know who can be counted on.
And for good reason, because…..
Others lived in their midst who were not on the team. Aliens, even.
Two groups of foreigners had mixed and mingled–and sometimes intermarried–with the Israelites. First came the hangers-on, called the “mixed multitude” in Exodus 12:38 and “the rabble” in Numbers 11:4. These former slaves had joined the Exodus under Moses to escape Egypt. They had endured the wilderness wanderings and had much the same story as the Jews. However, they were not descended from Abraham, instigated a great deal of the griping (“murmuring”) from God’s people, and undermined everything Moses and Joshua did. They did not walk by faith and thought anyone asking them to do so was running a scam.
The other group of non-Israelites were the “Am-Ha-aretz,” a Hebraism literally meaning “people of the land”. These were the residue, the leftovers, from the Canaanites who had resided there prior to the coming of the Israelites. By hook or crook, they had managed to survive the Joshua wars and stay on. Some became maids and handymen, while most were simply neighbors. (They’re referred to in passing in places like 2 Kings 23:30; Jeremiah 1:18, etc.)
These two groups were not of Israel, not of the redeemed, and not followers of Jehovah God. They did not participate in the holy days, did not bring sacrificial offerings, and did not pray to Israel’s God. They were along for the ride.
In your church today, there are the committed and the dependable, the faithful and the redeemed. Call a work day and they will be there. Let the church go through a tough time, and they will endure.
Then, there are all the others. That includes visitors, spectators, customers (“our children go to the day care” or “we like their musical programs”), seekers, the interested, sweethearts of members, and such. We are not disparaging them in any way, not calling them bad people. Among them can be found sincere and godly believers who for some reason have not joined. For the most part, they are all undependable. They have not committed themselves to this church.
We want them there and they are welcome, but you cannot build a church on this second group.
Now to the question: “Why belong to a church?”
A friend said, “I’m involved in a Facebook discussion group. When I said my family is about to move from one of these mega-churches that does not keep membership rolls to a more traditional one that does, some wanted to know why that matters.”
The huge, very young, tradition-busting congregation does not even have his name and address, he says. “Even though we’ve gone to church there for two or three years.”
I asked a few friends in the ministry, pastors whose weekly sermons climax with invitations to “walk forward, commit your life to Jesus, and join the church,” to answer our question. “Why join?”
What possible difference does it make?
Pastor Rick said, “It’s the difference in becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ and being an attender only.”
“Attenders have no commitment to the team, but are looking for a comfortable place. They sit back and let others take the lead. But disciples are committed to this body of believers and determined to forward its vision. Attenders want a good seat, but disciples take a stand!”
Pastor Rick says, “Joining the church says, ‘I’m with you. I’m here to share your joys and your struggles, for better or for worse.'” He added, “People say a piece of paper is not necessary. They say it about marriage as well as church membership. However, both marriage and church membership change your way of thinking. Thereafter, this is “mine.” I am part of it. I belong to it. It depends on me.”
Rick is right. We live in a commitment-averse culture. In many cases–but not all–those who call themselves believers but do not want to join a church are the same ones who insist a piece of paper does not change their relationship with their sweetheart and so reject the notion of marriage. Personally, I wonder how many of them pay cash for their cars and houses out of the same dislike for commitment. Not many, I betcha.
Pastor Mike says church membership is biblical. The concept of “church discipline,” taught in the New Testament, would be meaningless without membership. The final step is to put them out of the church, which if there is no actual membership is meaningless.
Joining a church is a commitment. Otherwise, we’re just “dating the church” and can walk away any time. That is a violation of Hebrews 10:25, “forsaking the assembly.”
When we join a church, Mike says, we place ourselves under the authority of the leadership. We become accountable. Scripture does not charge pastors with oversight of souls that ‘just happen” our way, but members of the flock, the local body over which God has made him the shepherd and overseer.
Mike adds that the only way to have an organization, do ministries, and maintain accountability is by people joining the church. It thus becomes essential to the health of the church as well as the well-being of the individual believers.
To me, it all comes down to the nature of the church and the value we place on it.
So long as we see the church as merely a local gathering of believers where one group is indistinguishable from another, my becoming an official member is pointless.
But if the church is the Body of Christ with a divine assignment from a Holy God, if the congregation is expected to do the work of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and if the instructions throughout the New Testament are to be taken literally, then there is no question about this.
I have a few questions for those who insist that joining the church is an anachronism that has outlived its usefulness.
1) What organization on the planet would try to do its work through attenders and not members?
–try it with your local civic club. Tell the Kiwanis or Civitan or Rotary Club, “I don’t want to join, but I’ll be at your luncheon meetings from time to time. Call on me if you need me on a committee or anything.” Not going to happen.
–try it with the PTA or the Scouts or the Chamber.
–try it with your country club, the DAR, the Mardi Gras krewes, and the local alumni association.
We try this only with the Lord’s church.
2) Since you are against making commitments, may we assume you paid cash for your car and your home?
I know the answer to that, and will move right along. We can be so selective in applying our convictions, can’t we?
3) Is it possible you are in rebellion against God?
You want to ride into the sunset singing “I did it my way.” You value your independence above your loyalty to Christ. You see the Lord’s church merely as an optional help along the way, one you see little use for.
4) Have you tried dismissing church membership by pointing out the hypocrites whose names are on the rolls?
By this logic, the existence of quacks proves all medicines are dangerous and all physicians to be scam-artists. Because some do diets poorly proves all diets are fake. Since some politicians are crooked means all ought to be in prison.
That’s the logic some of us bring to the discussion of the church. Frankly, it’s insulting, to yourself but mostly to the Lord who said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
5) Finally, have you shied away from joining a church because you can’t find one you like or a church like the one back home?
I have two thoughts for you: Grow up, and Get real. The first is self-explanatory. The second might need a word or two. The Lord does not have two churches alike. That church back home is unique, just as every other one is one-of-a-kind. Furthermore, the Lord does not like to repeat Himself and do something He’s already done. He wants to do something new in your life, and you’re interfering by insisting He duplicate what He’s already done.
Ask Him where you should go to church. Then, go join that church and do for it the things you’d do for Jesus personally if you could. Serve, give, worship, help.
If you are not a professed follower of Jesus Christ, no one is saying you have a duty to be in church. However, if you take seriously your discipleship to Him but make it a point not to join a church and become active in its ministries in order to “keep your options open” or to preserve your independence, I suggest you get some great excuses ready. You’re going to be needing some good ones when you stand before Him one day.
And stand before Him we all shall.
“Jesus loved the church and gave Himself for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)