“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:9
I was 14-years old when I joined a Southern Baptist church in the town I grew up in. There wasn’t much to it. I walked down an aisle when the invitation was opened up to the church and I told the pastor I wanted to become a member. It was a few months after it pleased God to reveal His Son to me and I was born-again. I was baptized and became a member of that church. I didn’t know what church membership was. I just knew that the last time I was asked to join a church I wasn’t a Christian.
My First Encounter with Elders
My father was an elder at another church in Pottsville. There were three churches within a rocks throw distance. When my family moved to Pottsville we went to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian church. I stayed there until the youth got too small for my liking. So in ninth grade I started attending church at the Southern Baptist church on Wednesdays and I went with my family to the ARP church on Sunday mornings. I wanted to be around my peers. When I was 12 years old the pastor at the ARP church came to my home and asked me if I wanted to become a church member. I knew I wasn’t a believer. It didn’t matter if it pleased my parents or not I didn’t want to commit to something that I wasn’t familiar with. After joining the Southern Baptist church I didn’t know what my responsibilities were. All I knew was what I remember my dad telling me, but it was from the ARP perspective. In the ARP church, at least this ARP church, membership was taken seriously. People who wanted to join the church had to go before the elders of the church. These were men who the church appointed to oversee the congregation. The people who were interested in church membership had to answer questions that gave the elders understanding of where this person stood in the faith. If they were professing believers and the elders believed they saw genuine faith in these people then they were given the right to join the church. If not then the process was extended. The elders also made sure if the people were in good standing with the churches they were coming from.
Front Door Back Door Policy
In the Southern Baptist church that I first joined didn’t have elders to go before, they didn’t have someone that made sure I was a genuine believer, and it was easy to become a member. Mark Dever in his book, “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church” talks about how most churches have a open front door, closed back door policy. He explains that churches who have open front doors let anyone in without checking to see if they are in good standing with the church they are coming from or if they are even born-again believers. Churches who tend to be liberal with welcoming just anyone in treat church membership with recklessness and not reverence. These same churches who have a wide open front door also have a closed back door. This means that these churches who let just anyone in have a hard time seeing people out. Usually this means that this church probably doesn’t practice church discipline for the sake of “unity.” It is a shame that churches who say they are striving for a biblical church dismiss practicing healthy church discipline. Using the excuse that they avoid practicing church discipline in the name of the loving, forgiving Jesus is a cop out. It is far cry from the Bible to say that church discipline is unloving and something Jesus wouldn’t do. (Matthew 18) I was an ignorant church member for too many years. However I went to the business meetings when the other youth “church members” was outside playing. In my pride I got to practice something I didn’t realize was so vital to being a healthy church member. As I look back on those 8 years of being a church member there are so many things that I realize now that I didn’t fully understand as a “church member” then. I am not sure if I would consider that 14-year old as a true church member.
A Look into the Window of Unhealthy Churches Practicing Unhealthy Church Membership
Churches who do not teach the congregation what healthy church membership looks like should get rid of church membership altogether. What is the point of church membership if your “church members” do not understand their responsibilities to the church? When I would show up for the business meeting that took place once a month on Wednesday night, I noticed something unusual. It was a trend that was unsettling in my heart even to this day. Out of the 120 people that came on Sunday mornings only 20% showed up on Sunday nights or Wednesday nights. These 20%, if that many, made the decisions for the entire Body. If something needed to be voted on they were the ones that could vote. At the time and to this day I believe these 20% were healthy church members. They were faithful to the core. They loved the Lord and displayed it through their lives. Now there were some who couldn’t make it and that is understandable. However excuses were fleeting for those who wanted to check in on Sunday mornings and checkout the rest of the week. Healthy Church membership is about being active. What does being active mean? It means that these church members are not neglecting corporately worshipping with other fellow believers. (Hebrews 10:24-25) These members care about the business of the church and take on the ministry as a whole not something that is just designated to the church leaders. Being an active member is about having family worship in the home, evangelizing those in your workplaces, and growing in your understanding of who God is according to His Word. Inactive church members who do not show up to church on Sundays regularly and who do not practice healthy church membership should be held accountable. Too often it is easy in churches today for people who profess to be Christians to disobey Gods command to worship with a body of believers. Two things can happen to professing believers who forsake the church or they are not held accountable by their church. They will get caught up in heinous and habitual sin. Therefore it will be plain to all that they “went out from us because they were not of us.” (1 John 2:19) And that church who was their “church” will be held accountable by God. Such churches who neglect church membership and who do not hold people in their church accountable to the teachings of Christ should examine their theology. Also these people who are inactive “members” do not need to receive support from the church. Only those who the church has recognized as genuine believers ought to receive support from the church. This starts with guarding the church doors. Has your church appointed biblically qualified leaders to watch over the sheep? (Acts 20:28-30) If not unhealthy habits are sure to form. A church that is not holding their church members accountable might as well hold the church’s neck in the Wolf’s mouth. It’s disturbing how church’s want to see growth, but neglect discipleship of their members. In some cases it is just these churches don’t know how or what discipleship is. Then these churches will turn to external resources to help them, and forsake the Bible which is sufficient and accessible.
Why is all the stress of church ministry placed on the pastor?
Either because that pastor is choosing to overwork himself or church members have a poor understanding of church membership or both. Now the pastor is suppose to be a laborers among laborers. In the SBC churches I’ve had ties to I have noticed that the issue of the common pastoral burnout usually fell on both the pastor and the member. This is frightening because the few church members who do show up to business meetings who have the control of the churches decisions place the blame on the pastor rather than looking within to see the problem is a lack of leadership as well as a lack of discipleship which is the responsibility of the Christian church member. In most SBC churches that I’ve been to or have learned from conversation with fellow SBC believers. I have noticed that the term “burnout” is just as much the pastors fault as the church members. If we want to see more healthy SBC churches we will point our pastors to their biblical duties as the shepherd/shepherds of the church. And we will point our church members to their biblical responsibilities in the church. When we see pastors spending more time studying the Word of God and praying we will see more healthy churches. When we make the distinction between church members and church goers we will see more regenerate church members who are know they are to be held responsible by the gracious overseers of the church. (1 Timothy and Titus instruction for elders)
Church Membership Needs Revitalized
It’s easy to hop from church to church. It’s hard to stick with a church through the thick and thin. However God has instructed every Christian to be covenanted to a local church. He has designed it for the Christian and we must not neglect what He has designed for us. In the church today church membership is underrated. In some churches it doesn’t exist because the view of church membership may have been poorly demonstrated. But when we read Gods word I believe we would see what biblical church membership is. Today church planting is the coolest thing to do. Also because it is pretty easy to do in some sense. However church revitalization which is to guide a church back to health is strenuous and hard work. It is like bringing an unfruitful garden back to producing an abundance of fruits and vegetables. The same is for church membership. It is easy to do away with it. It is also easy to not really give much worry to what it means. But being apathetic and negligent isn’t helpful for the church. When we study to learn biblical church membership then we will be able to properly teach our believers the importance of church membership. We need to emphasize the role of the church member. It is not a elementary role in the church. God has given church members the keys and He has designated elders/overseers to lead the church. If we believe that the congregation has the final say then we ought to have a sound understanding of our responsibilities as church members.
*a note of clarity: I believe that those who are in the military, elderly shut ins or anyone who may work which would prevent them from coming regularly are to be supported as the elders and congregation sees fit. Also the purpose of church discipline is restoration of the individual not condemnation. (Romans 8:1)