I’ve never really known life outside of a local church. As the saying goes, I was there even before I was born.
My parents were faithful members of our small, country church. My dad was an elder, my mom a member of the choir and the head of several committees. Growing up I knew every VBS song, Bible memory verse and had worn the angel halo every year for the children’s Christmas play.
My church family was way more than just a church family — they were my family. When my dad passed away from colon cancer in 2002, they were the ones who carried us through. They walked beside my mom, sister, brother and me during some of the toughest days in our lives. Not only that, but they stayed by our side. My mom, now a single mother of three, never had to worry about having help.
My church family helped lay the foundations of my faith. They taught me Scripture, showed me what it meant to live as a Christian and loved me selflessly, with their entire selves.
When I first moved to college, I knew I needed to find a church to be a part of. I had only ever known one church, and I had no idea how to look for a new one. The Lord graciously led me to First Baptist Church, Troy. It was there I began to see that I didn’t have a very good grasp of what it meant to be a member of a local church. Though I had grown up in the church and had seen an incredible example of how the church should operate, I had never really put any thought into why it was operating that way. What was the purpose of the local church? Why was I supposed to go to church? Thankfully, I had some awesome teachers who helped me figure out the answer to those questions.
Living in the south, many people view the church as a safety net. They mindlessly attend because it’s the thing you’re supposed to do. They listen to the pastor and maybe even serve in some ways. At some point, their church membership becomes their salvation – instead of the actual saving power of Christ. They begin to see their Christianity in the number of services attended, positions held and Bible studies led. They have missed a huge piece to the Christian faith — the gospel.
What is the local church?
“The local church is the authority on earth that Jesus has instituted to officially affirm and give shape to the Christian life and yours.”
“Church Membership,” by Jonathan Leeman (Page 24)
“…the Bible establishes the local church as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your discipleship to Christ and your citizenship in Christ’s presence and promised nation.”
“Church Membership,” Jonathan Leeman (Page 25)
The best way I’ve ever heard it explained is that the local church is like an embassy for the kingdom of God. Just as if you were to visit another country, you could find the embassy of the United States that represents that nation inside of another nation. An embassy protects the citizens of the home nation within the host nation. So, the church is the embassy of God’s kingdom — a nation represented inside of another nation, a public face to our future nation.
What is Church membership?
“To be a Christian is to belong to a church.”
“Church Membership,” Jonathan Leeman (Page 46)
“Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church… Church membership, in other words, is all about a church taking specific responsibility for you, and you for a church.”
“Church Membership,” Jonathan Leeman (Page 64)
Though there are many, many details I could get into when discussing church membership, I want to point out one thing — church membership is for the Christian.
Church membership is biblical and the basis of it is laid out in Scripture. You can see that in the lives of the apostles in the New Testament. (Check out the book of Acts for more on this!)
So why take the time to explain those two things? Because I believe many people have misconstrued the definition of the local church and church membership. More than ever, many Christians have been challenged in their view of the church in the midst of COVID-19 shutdowns.
The more pastors I talk to, the more concern there is for a spiritual falling away of members as a result of the last several months.
Here’s my personal and very humble take on what is happening:
For years, we’ve held church attendance (even spotty) as the gold standard of being a Christian. I think this is especially true in the Deep South Bible Belt. We’ve failed to disciple and train our people to feed themselves the word of God, spend time every day in communion with God through prayer, actively share the gospel through witnessing and hunger after God through fasting.
For several months, COVID-19 took away the one thing that many self-proclaimed Christians held, again, as the benchmark of good Christianity. All that remained was the foundation of the spiritual disciplines and when our house of Christianity isn’t built on a solid foundation it falls like stacked cards when even the smallest wind blows.
“Our personal daily walk with Christ cannot be neglected because when everything else is stripped away it will determine how long we survive.”
Pastor Daniel Atkins
Taylor Road Baptist Church, Montgomery via Facebook
I believe this quote by pastor Daniel Atkins sums up what many are facing right now in their faith — what exists of it without church attendance?
I think there are two ways to look at this:
1. The truth of salvation.
As explained in Atkins’ post, salvation is far more than church attendance. Jesus is the solid foundation our Christian life should be built upon — not church membership.
Salvation is the free gift of God that was purchased by Jesus on the cross. Because of the wretchedness of our sin, we were eternally separated from God — there was no way we could have mustered up the might, the talent or the retribution for our sinfulness to present ourselves as worthy to God. So, He made a way.
Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, lived on earth as fully man and fully God. He faced the same realities (though, of course, in a different culture and time) that we face each day. The emotions we feel, He felt. The struggles we face, He also struggled with. One massive difference between us and Jesus, however, is that He never sinned — not once.
He was led to the cross and took upon Himself the punishment that, in our sin, we deserved (Rom 6:23). In those moments on the cross, Christ took on the sin of the world and faced death and separation from His father.
Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. Three days later, Christ defeated death and rose again. Because of this glorious truth, we can know Him and be called His sons and daughters. Coming to Him with recognition of our sin and an understanding of our need for a Savior, He calls us His own.
With that explanation of the gospel, be sure you notice this — there is no effort of our own selves that brings us to salvation.
Even in the recognition of our sin, that is Him working in our hearts to open our eyes to know we are in need of Him. There are not enough good deeds, church attendance or service we can do in our communities that place us in a position of rightness before God.
Church attendance, even in its best efforts, affords us nothing in light of salvation.
2. The call to church membership.
Understanding that truth of salvation, we can now consider the other side of church attendance.
As I said above, nothing we do can earn us salvation or a right relationship with Christ. Salvation is solely by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8).
So, where does church membership fall? Church membership is not something you do to become a Christian, but it is what you do because you are a Christian. We are called, as faithful followers of Christ, to be members of a local church body. This is not to earn salvation, but instead because of it.
Just like reading your Bible, praying, evangelizing and serving will not grant you favor with God, neither will church membership. However, all of these things are fruits of the life of a Christian. We should be reading our Bible, spending time in prayer, sharing the love of Christ and serving those around us because of our salvation.
Being a part of a local body is far more than just Sunday attendance. Local church membership is a gathering of believers close in a geographical location who submit to their church leadership, serve one another, use their individual talents for the betterment of the entire body, practice discipleship and evangelism, take part in Holy Communion and seek to represent Christ to a lost world. As a member, you are called to bring about unity, not concerned only with your preferences and desires, but one that seeks to bring glory to the Lord through your submission and commitment to your local church.
Church membership is a gift from God to be treasured, not something to just haphazardly go through the motions of.
COVID-19 and the Church
I asked a series of questions on my Instagram story in relation to this post.
Here are some of the stats:
- 93% of participants were members of a local church.
- 64% said their church held both online Sunday services + other small groups online during COVID shutdowns.
- Out of roughly 200 participants, 103 of them said they struggled more in their walk with the Lord during time away from the church.
- Almost 90% of participants said they believe that church membership for a Christian is very important.
I was encouraged to hear from so many how the Lord used this time to draw them closer to Himself. It seems as though with churches forced to transition to online-only, many had their faith stripped to the bare bones. In that place, many recognized the salvation they claimed was not built on the foundation of Christ, but instead on their “good deeds” as they tried to look like a Christian to earn favor with God.
This one truth was echoed throughout the conversations I had from those Instagram questions — I think we’ve all recognized the importance of the local church during this time, while also gaining a greater understanding of the requirements of a life lived for Christ even outside the walls of the church.
As church doors begin to reopen, my prayer is that you would consider the basis of your church membership. I know for me, personally, I have been able to grow in such a great appreciation for my local church and my calling to it as a Christian. I now want to attend church way more than I did before because I see how much it negatively impacted my life when I was not united with the church body regularly.
I also have been challenged to practice more diligently the “quiet” and “behind-the-scenes” practices of my faith, like spending daily time in Scripture and in prayer. Those things, alongside church membership, are not where we find our salvation, but instead should be the practices of our lives because of the incredible graciousness of Christ that we have been shown in being called sons and daughters.
A few considerations for you on the way out:
- Have you truly recognized the depths of your sin and your need for a Savior, leading you to salvation?
- Are you approaching church solely to have your needs met or to check off the box and attain “good Christian” status?
- Do you understand the Biblical basis of the local church and why, as Christians, it is a requirement of us?
- Are you submitting to your local church and seeking to serve as an active member, viewing your church as the embassy of God’s kingdom here on earth?
Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman
I Am A Church Member by Thom S. Rainer
Emily Jones is this week’s guest contributor for The Rope. Emily works as a digital media specialist at one of TAB Media’s partners, Dogwood Media Solutions. She is from Headland, Alabama, and moved to Montgomery after graduating from Troy University and marrying Brannon in December 2019. To read more from Emily, visit her personal blog, Remembering + Rejoicing.