I belong to the Southern Baptist Convention and so do approximately 16 million others throughout the United States. Yet despite such a number, the average weekly attendance in Southern Baptist churches all across America is less than 6 million. What this means is that on any given Sunday, there are more than 10 million Southern Baptists who are not at church (and unfortunately, I do not think Southern Baptists are alone in such attendance trends).
Now there have been tons of articles and books examining the probable reasons as to why this is the case (with inflated membership rolls being chief among them). But I would like to boil it down to one essential reason which seems to lie behind all others: as a denomination, we have a deeply inadequate view of what biblical church membership looks like.
So in a meager effort to combat such trends I offer these 3 characteristics of what it means to be an actual church member.
1. It means that you have trusted in the work of Christ and have placed yourself under the accountability of a local church to ensure that your lifestyle remains consistent with your beliefs.
When a church and the pastoral leadership of that church decide to bring someone into membership, there’s more going on than just the understanding that this person will now bring a dish to the church potlucks.
Actually, what a church is saying in that moment (whether they realize it or not) is that this person has shown credible evidence of conversion and now belongs to Christ and His people (see 1 Peter 2:9-10). It is very telling that in 1 Corinthians 5 Paul instructs the church to actually remove a person from fellowship who is no longer living in a manner consistent with the gospel they claimed to believe.
2. It means you show up more times than not.*
Some might be shocked to realize that gathering together with the church on a consistent basis is actually a New Testament command. In Hebrews 10:24-25 we read, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Gathering regularly with the church should not be seen as a hallmark of Christian maturity, but really just basic discipleship 101. Coming together with other believers on the Lord’s Day to worship Christ through word and song should be a normal rhythm in the believer’s life. If faithfulness is lacking in such a small thing as this, it is usually an indicator that something is spiritually amiss in that person’s heart.
I’ve heard folks in different churches say that keeping chronically missing people on the membership roll will let that person know that we still love them and consider them a part of us and stand with arms wide open ready to receive them again. As noble as that might be, it can actually cause damage to the cause of Christ in our community. Why? Because, as I said above, when a church affirms someone as a member they are also affirming that this person is a genuinely born-again believer. When such a person begins to live inconsistently with their beliefs and they do so with the church’s stamp of approval we are blurring the line between the believing community of faith and the non-believing world. And in this way, we actually make it harder for others to enter the kingdom because we are sending them conflicting messages on what it really means to be a Christian.
We also give the person in question a false sense of assurance. When a believer begins to live in a continuous stream of unrepentant sin, the answer isn’t to continue to assure them that everything is okay with them spiritually. Instead, we need to lovingly show them that living this way (whatever that way might be) is not consistent with being a believer and urge them to repent for the sake of their own spiritual well-being.
3. It means you seek to be a functioning part of the body.
One of Paul’s favorite metaphors for local church life is human anatomy. In Romans 12:4-8 he writes:
4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
Obviously, if you are intentionally keeping yourself away from the body of Christ then you are depriving the church of the blessing you could be to the believers there. Think of how ridiculous (and incredibly scary) it would be if your hand suddenly detached itself from your body and declared that it had better things to do than hang out with you, but that it would join you again at least twice a year on Christmas and Easter. After your initial shock subsided, it would be painfully obvious to you that your body is no longer whole. You would know that something is missing. Likewise, when we detach ourselves from the local body of Christ, we are essentially doing the same thing.
When you join a church, it means that you aren’t there just to be the recipient of spiritual benefits (though that should definitely be a part), but that you want to be a dispenser of spiritual benefits to others as well.
This, brothers and sisters, is what it means to be a church member.
*Obviously, if someone cannot physically come to church due to a health issue, for example, we do not hold them to a standard which they are literally unable to keep. In such instances, the church should take an active role in blessing this person and see to it that they still receive the spiritual nurture their soul needs. But I find it rather hard to believe that this is the case with 10 million plus believers every Sunday.