Church Membership: Is it for you? What Does it Mean?

So, you are thinking about becoming a church member…

How wonderful! It is certainly a very important decision—one of the most important you will ever make in your life. At first, it may seem to be a very simple choice—as they say, a “no brainer”—for there is no organization more important and no cause more noble than the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Neither the Lion’s Club, Girl Scouts, Toastmasters, nor the local chapter of a particular worker’s Union can claim the Creator of heaven and earth as its Head. The church can. Furthermore, no earthly organization is guaranteed a perpetual existence. Every company that comes along will be replaced eventually by a newer and more relevant model. Not the church—it will last forever. 

Indeed, it seems like an easy decision. But, then again, I’m sure you have a number of questions whirling in your mind: How do I know if I’m ready to join the church? What do I need to know before I join? How do I go about joining the church? Is it even necessary to apply for formal membership? What will it matter if I don’t? 

Well, I want to help you to answer some of these questions. It is appropriate for you to consider, in advance, the significance of this decision and to learn something about the many privileges associated with membership in the church.

I also want to address a few issues that you may or may not have considered regarding some of the responsibilities associated with church membership. Jesus taught that it is important to “count the cost” of following Him—that is, to consider what is involved in discipleship. What will membership in the church require of you? What will be expected of you?

No doubt, you’ve heard the adage, “With privilege comes responsibility.” In a day when many people approach the gospel as consumers, asking “How can this benefit me?”, it is needful to recover Jesus’ emphasis on servanthood. The most basic question asked by early Christians was not the consumer’s question—“How can I benefit from the church?”—but the question of the servant—“What shall we do?” 

Indeed, there are privileges—rich and wonderful privileges—associated with membership in the church. Church membership will benefit you in a variety of ways. But there are also duties that accompany the commitment to follow Jesus Christ in the fellowship of other believers, and it is important that you understand both what you can expect from church-life and what will be expected from you, before you become a member.

Perhaps we should begin by asking the very basic and fundamental question…

Is the concept of “joining the church” even a Biblical concept?
A reaction against institutional forms is one of the unhappy emphases of our day. Some would argue that baptism is “into Christ,” as Romans 6:3 says, not “into the church”. But it is doubtful that Romans 6 is talking about “water baptism” at all; the subject of Romans 6 is the legal doctrine of spiritual union with Christ. It may surprise some people to know that the Bible does indeed talk about “joining the church”.

Twice in the book of Acts, reference is made to a person “joining himself” to the church. The original word translated “join” means “to cement together, to unite” and refers to a formal relationship such as the joining of a man and a woman in a marriage covenant.

Furthermore, there are statements in the New Testament that make sense only in the context of an official membership—“tell it to the church,” “when you are gathered together,” “if the whole church be come together into one place,” etc. All of these references suggest that the early church was a local assembly with a definable membership.

In Acts 2:47, conversion is defined in terms of “the Lord adding to the church such as should be saved.” Obviously, the Bible assumes that church membership is the will of God for every true believer. That leads to the next question…

Who should join the church and when is the right time?
How do you know if you are ready to join the church? If the Lord has done a work of grace in your heart, then you are not only qualified for membership, but called—simply by virtue of His gift of salvation—to unite yourself to His people. The call to separate oneself from the world and to identify oneself with the stigma of the cross is God’s will for every one of His children. 

The church is for believers. We practice credo- (or believers) baptism, not paedo- (or infant) baptism, for belief in the Lord Jesus Christ is the ultimate evidence that a person has been born again. Are you a believer in Jesus Christ? Well, ask yourself these questions: Have I been brought to see myself as a sinner who needs a Savior? Have I found comfort in the gospel of Christ and dared to believe that the work of Jesus on the cross was for me? Have I ceased to trust in my own personal worth or merit as the basis of my acceptance with God, convinced that Christ alone is my righteousness? Have I turned from the ambivalence and unbelief that presumes to sit in judgment on the Bible and said with the hymnwriter, “I can, I will, I do believe”? If you can answer “yes,” then you ought to unite with others who understand your experience.

Perhaps you wonder how much you ought to know before you can be a member. Some groups have “membership classes” to educate candidates for membership in the doctrinal convictions of the group. While we don’t observe that practice, it is helpful (especially in cases where a person is an adult) to have a basic understanding of the fundamental or core beliefs of the church.

Of course, from one standpoint, commitment to Christ comes first and education second. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me”—in that order. In a very real sense, all that is required for membership is the knowledge that (in the words of John Newton) “I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”

On the other hand, there is a place for learning as much as possible about the basic theological convictions of the church, for baptism is essentially a theological statement—a confession not only that you believe in Jesus Christ but of what you believe about Jesus Christ. 

Do you believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation? Do you rejoice to hear the message of a successful Savior who actually secured salvation for His people on the cross and finished the work of redemption? Is the message that says “salvation is of the Lord” a joyful sound in your ears? Does the message that man is hopelessly fallen in sin and cannot recover himself by his own decision or effort agree with your experience? Does your heart resonate with the proclamation that salvation is by grace alone—not of works lest any man should boast? Do you hunger for the faithful and consistent teaching and preaching of God’s word? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then (may I be so bold as to say) you ought to unite with those who share these convictions. Now is the day of salvation; today, if you will hear his voice, harden not your heart. 

How does a person unite with the church?
The ordinance of baptism marks the entrance into the fellowship of the local church. By this solemn act, a person gives dramatic testimony to those with whom he will live and worship of his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Gospel baptism marks a turning point in the believer’s life—a decisive act of repentance from his former lifestyle and willing submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In a very real sense, it is a fresh start—a new beginning—a “year of Jubile”.

At the conclusion of each worship service, a hymn is sung and opportunity is given to publicly confess faith in the Lord Jesus. This public profession is a wonderful opportunity to testify to the great things the Lord has done for you and to “name the name of Christ” before others who have also given testimony to their Lord. Though it takes courage to publicly confess Christ, such a first step will help to prepare you for many future occasions in which your Christianity will require a courageous and steadfast faith in God. 

The church rejoices to hear someone relate an experience of grace and how the Lord has led to this point. To witness a penitent sinner submit to Christ in baptism strengthens the faith, inflames the zeal, and renews the commitment of the entire church. It also establishes a bond of mutual love and understanding within the fellowship—a unity in the Spirit that arises from participation in a common faith. 

What difference will membership in the church make in my life? What can I expect?
Have you ever noticed that much of the New Testament’s instruction for Christian living is framed in the context of local church life? For example, it is in the epistle to the church at Ephesus that we are exhorted to walk in holiness, love, light, and wisdom. It is in the fourth and fifth chapters of that letter—as well as the letter to the Colossians—that the apostle Paul gives practical directions for living Christianly in the areas of personal attitudes and behavior, relationships in the home and at work. It is in the letter to the church at Philippi that he teaches how to overcome worry and to live joyfully and contentedly, regardless of one’s circumstances.
What is the significance of this fact? By framing his practical teaching in the context of letters to specific churches, Paul implies that it is only in the fellowship of the local church that anyone can possibly live an authentic Christian life.

What difference, then, will participation in the life of the church make in your life? First and foremost, it will enable you to fulfill God’s call to holiness by creating a setting in which it is possible for you to grow in Christ and to receive the spiritual nourishment you need to bear burdens and resist temptation. If it were possible for a person to get these benefits on his own, Christ would have never established the church. 

There are privileges associated with membership in the church that a person simply cannot get on the outside. Consider Paul’s argument for unity to the church at Philippi. When Paul urged the Philippian believers to labor for unity, he pleaded with them on the basis of the many privileges that were theirs in church life: “If there be any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, fulfill ye my joy that you be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord.” His point is unmistakable: Great privilege in the fellowship of the saints calls for great effort to preserve the blessing.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to church membership is the privilege of participating in the Lord’s Supper. To be permitted to take the unleavened bread—a symbol of the Savior’s broken body—and the cup of wine—an emblem of His precious blood—in communion with the saints is an unspeakable mercy. These tangible elements are visual reminders of both the act and the significance of Christ’s death on the cross. Personal participation in this solemn ordinance serves to make the audible gospel a reality to the individual believer, prompting him to say, ‘He loved me and gave himself for me’. It is an opportunity for you to proclaim the death of Christ until He comes again. 

Membership in the church also fosters a sense of belonging and identity. When he came to years, Moses chose to identify himself with God’s people. He knew that he was a Hebrew, not an Egyptian. He esteemed the reproaches of Christ greater riches than all the treasures in Egypt; therefore, he joined himself in covenant with the people of God. 

It is my experience that such a sense of identity will prove to be a great safeguard against sin. More than once in my life, I have been spared from falling into temptation by the simple reminder, “I am a church member and should not participate in this activity.” Membership in the church brings a person face to face with the sins of slothfulness, selfishness, and covetousness in his life. The awareness that I have made a commitment to the Lord and other believers establishes a structure that makes it easier for me to be zealous and energetic. It drives me outside of myself and forces me to think beyond the little circle of my personal life. It gives me a sense of responsibility, direction, and significance in life.

Finally, membership in the church carries with it the privilege of fellowship. Paul thanked God for “the fellowship in the gospel” that he enjoyed with the church at Philippi. The Greek word koinonia (translated “fellowship”) means “to share in common.” The covenant relationship between fellow believers in the church is a reciprocal dynamic of giving and taking—a mutual ministry in which each gives to satisfy the need of his brother and receives from his brother the supply that God has given to him. It is only in the context of sharing in the common life that any believer can grow to full maturity. 

What do believers share with one another? They share their knowledge of Scripture, experiences, encouragement, counsel, spiritual gifts, material possessions, and prayers. They participate together as partners in the gospel of Christ. Fellowship is life in community with the saints—life in covenant with other believers.
That brings us to the next question…

What does it really mean to enter into covenant with other believers?

Membership in the church is a glorious thing because it is an assembly of people who have made a covenant (or promise) to God and one another to uphold the principles of God’s word. Baptism is the first act of Christian fellowship—a “sharing in common” with other believers. When a believer is baptized into the fellowship of the saints, he/she is saying by that act, “I, like you, place all my hope and trust for salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. I share your convictions of my own unworthiness and of His sufficient sacrifice in my stead. We are people of ‘like precious faith’.” 

He is also making another confession to his brothers and sisters in Christ. He is saying, “I want to share with you in the mutual ministry of the church. I want to receive from you what God has taught you and to give to you what God has taught me.” 
The mutual ministry of the church involves, first of all, subjecting yourself to the input of others into your life. By the act of uniting with the saints, you are saying to them, “I realize that I am not self-sufficient. I cannot live the Christian life on my own. I need your prayers and encouragement, your knowledge of His word, the witness of your example, and your godly counsel. I need the “checks and balances” that church life will provide. I want to be accountable to other believers. I want you to love me enough to gently challenge me when I begin to falter, to faithfully admonish me when I stray, and to help me to be faithful to the Lord.”

Secondly, fellowship involves giving yourself in service to others. At his baptism into the fellowship, the believer is saying, “I want to show my love for the Lord by serving His people. I want to offer my life as a sacrifice on the altar of Christian service. Whatever the Lord has given to me—whether my spiritual gifts, knowledge of His word, material resources, personal time, or experience—I want to invest in the cause of Christ by bearing the burdens of my brethren.”

In a very real sense, membership in the church is a covenant relationship. It is an agreement to take responsibility for one another. Living in a sinful world as we do, we can be thankful that the Lord has given such a precious resource as the communion of saints to help us stay the course of godliness.

Does the idea of “taking responsibility” for the church sound frightening to you? We are living in a day when many people want privilege without responsibility. But it is God that holds us accountable. It is nothing short of Divine Providence that has blessed us with such priceless blessings as the opportunity to congregate ourselves with His children, sing the precious songs of Zion, and hear the joyful sound of redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ. Simply by virtue of the inestimable blessings we’ve been given, each believer is obliged to assume personal responsibility for the maintenance and forward progress of the church.

That brings us to the final question… 

What will be expected of me as a church member?

Membership in the church implies activity and commitment. If human organizations that allow a person to retain membership on his own terms are rare, then it should not be a surprise that the “Householder” of the church determines that those who refuse to wear His prescribed garments may not remain at the wedding banquet. A person may not “name the name of Christ” and refuse to depart from iniquity. 

Does that mean that sinners are unwelcome? Of course not. The church is not a museum where perfect people are showcased. None of us deserves to be here—all are unworthy sinners, unfit to be so signally blessed. Further, none of us has attained perfect conformity to Christ-likeness yet. But the church is a place for penitent sinners—for those who “keep on confessing” their sins in ongoing repentance, and are disciplined and purified more and more by the word so that there is real growth in grace and progress in holiness. A humble and teachable spirit—a heart that is sensitive and submissive to God’s word—is the first and most basic character trait of those in the kingdom of God. The presence of such an attitude is the raw material from which the Holy Spirit manufactures “vessels meet for the Master’s use”. The absence of a pliable heart will always reveal itself in a spirit that resists accountability and refuses to repent.

In a word, neither you nor I will ever find a perfect church this side of the grace of glorification. The church will always be a people in process of becoming, not a people who boast “we have arrived.” But this fact should never be used as an excuse for shallow commitment. The challenge facing us is to make our church a true and authentic New Testament church—as Biblically pure and distinct from this fallen world system as she can possibly be. Be separate—be holy—be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind—that is the basic call of the gospel of Christ. 

When one remembers that the motivation for godliness is gratitude for grace, then duty becomes a privilege. Church members should do all that they do “as unto the Lord”. To be committed to the Lord Jesus Christ implies being committed to His church. In a very real sense, we serve Him by serving others. That being said, what, then, does commitment to the church involve? 

1. Consistent Attendance at Public Worship

Hebrews 10:24-25 is one of the premier passages in the New Testament concerning the duties of church members: “Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” Notice the connection between a concern for other believers and one’s church attendance habits: Let us consider one another…not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together… The point is hard-hitting, almost to the point of harshness: Absenteeism displays a self-centered spirit and lack of consideration for other believers. 

Why should you worship with the church? Because the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth”. Here truth is disseminated as the word of God is proclaimed. Here, you may unburden your soul, for God’s house is “a house of prayer for all people”. Here, you may experience the presence of God and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, for the church is “a habitation of God through the Spirit”. Here your questions find answers. Here your soul will find a haven of rest—a safe refuge from distress. Here God is praised. 

I know of nothing that so discourages the heart of pastors and other believers as inconsistency in attendance at public worship. It sends a message of unconcern for the cause of Christ, and thereby suffocates the fire of zeal. It produces a “domino effect,” weakening the commitment level of others and making it easier for them to excuse themselves. Practically nothing does more to impede the interest of visitors who are “asking the way to Zion” as the apparent lack of concern displayed by predominately empty pews. Further, it robs the individual who stays away of the saving benefits of the gospel. Perhaps the most tragic consequence of absenteeism is the missed opportunities for ministry. The word “consider” in the text means “to notice”. The writer indicates that it is in the public assembly that believers will notice opportunities to spur other believers on to greater faithfulness—i.e. to provoke unto love and good works. 

Every member needs to know that a part of his covenant to the Lord and his brethren at baptism was the vow to be consistent in church attendance. Ask yourself, “Do I make excuses to stay away? Could I attend more meetings each week than I do? How does my absence affect my pastor and fellow believers? Am I preparing myself to step up and bear the responsibility that others bear now when they are gone? Am I keeping my vows to God and my brethren? Is the Lord pleased with my attendance habits?” Painful questions? Yes, but necessary, nonetheless. 

David said, “I will pay my vows now unto the Lord in the presence of all His people”. He said, “I will praise the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, and in the congregation.” He promised, “I will give Thee thanks in the great congregation: I will praise Thee among much people”. How church members need to “exhort one another daily” to be committed to faithful attendance at public worship, “and so much the more as the day approaches”! As painful and perhaps unpleasant as it is to hear, every believer needs to know that church membership involves a commitment to faithful attendance.

2. The Practice of Personal Devotion
Secondly, church membership involves a personal commitment to pursue a daily walk with Jesus Christ. Unless a person stays connected to the Lord—unless he “abides in Christ” through the spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, and meditation—he cannot bear the fruit of Christian character. The members of the church in Berea “searched the Scriptures daily” —such a practice of saturating the mind with God’s word during the week will make for an eager reception of the word on Lord’s Day morning.

3. Participation in Ministry to Others

Ephesians 4:11-16 outlines the dynamics of church function in terms of “every member ministry in the body of Christ.” It works like this: The most basic function of the church is the preaching and teaching of God’s word. As the word of God is faithfully and accurately taught, the saints are equipped to minister to one another. As each part of the body fulfills its respective role, the body as a whole grows to maturity in Christ.

Each member of the local body is responsible for using the spiritual gifts they have been given to minister to the rest of the body. Each must be interested in the “one another” passages of the New Testament—each should be involved in burden-bearing, intercessory prayer, daily exhortation, showing hospitality, visiting, esteeming, admonishing, loving, helping, teaching, communicating, and serving one another. This is real “body life” with every joint supplying the needs of the body so that is built up by love. 

4. Protect the Unity
Another area of personal concern to every member should be the unity of the local church. Ephesians 4:2-3 urges each believer to “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” by maintaining an attitude of “lowliness, meekness, longsuffering, and forbearance”. If you have ever experienced the heartache of disunity, you know that unity is a priceless commodity. Nothing so discredits the church’s witness to the community as strife, tension, and conflict among the membership. Every member must take personal responsibility for peacemaking within the fellowship. Do what you can to foster harmony, silence gossip, and promote a general spirit of goodwill in interpersonal relationships. Refuse to be a part of divisiveness. Guard the unity.

5. Sacrificial Giving

As a church member, you should be involved in the sacrificial giving of your resources to the church. Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”. Paul said, “God loveth a cheerful giver”. If we have freely received God’s gifts of grace, we ought to freely give such grace to others in confidence that God will sufficiently supply our personal needs. In a very real sense, giving is an act of worship. 

Your financial and monetary gifts will be used for the support of the pastor so that his hands may be more and more liberated from secular distraction to devote his time to prayer and ministry of the word. Further, your sacrificial gifts help in the spread of the gospel, the care of those who are in need, the purchase of necessary items in the function of the church (like hymnals, bibles, cassette tapes, etc.), and the general maintenance of the building (e. g. utility bills, lawnmower maintenance, cleaning supplies, items for the lunchroom, and many other background needs in the daily function of the church).
The happiest people in life are those who give sacrificially and cheerfully, never asking if it pays. God is faithful to return such an investment in a myriad of blessings.

6. Personal Evangelism
First Peter 2:9 indicates that God calls people from darkness into His marvelous light and separates them to Himself as His special people to the intent that they may proclaim His praise. Telling others what great things the Lord has done for you is a privilege and responsibility of every believer. Like the early believers who “went everywhere preaching the word”, every follower of Christ is called to be zealous for the expansion of the kingdom of God. The Thessalonian church “sounded out the word of the Lord” so effectively that it had become public knowledge. Each believer should equip himself with the necessary knowledge so that he will “be ready to give an answer” to those who inquire about his faith. 

Of course, the best opportunity for witnessing is within your own family and circle of influence. Jesus told the wild man to “go home to [his] friends and tell them what great things the Lord had done for [him]. Andrew first shared the news of Messiah’s advent with his own brother Simon Peter. But even beyond the sphere of immediate influence, every church member will periodically encounter people in hospitals, shopping malls, airplanes, and elsewhere in which opportunities to speak a word for the glory of God are afforded. It’s always a good idea to have taped sermons and some quality literature with you for these spontaneous opportunities. Spread the good word of God as widely as possible. Invite others to attend public worship with you, saying, “Come and see.” Participate in the labors of those who are doing the work of evangelism by your monetary assistance.

7. Assisting in the General Upkeep of Church Property
Finally, It is helpful when every member is willing to assume responsibility for the general maintenance of the building and property. Many people would be surprised at the amount of backstage activity that is necessary in the weekly life of the church. Housekeeping chores never cease. There are carpets to be vacuumed, trash cans to empty, song books to straighten, floors to sweep, paper supplies to purchase, furniture to dust, hedges to trim, flowers to water, walks to sweep, light bulbs to change, etc., on a weekly basis. 

Of course, there is a blessing to be found in this more mundane but necessary part of church life. Though the building is not the church, yet it is a place consecrated to the worship of God. The interest we show in the meetinghouse and property is a part of the witness we give to the watching world. I would encourage each member to take a personal interest in these various responsibilities so that the work load is distributed as evenly as possible.

In the final analysis, the duty of the church member is to do whatever you can to promote the welfare and prosperity of the church for the glory of Christ’s worthy name. May it be said of us as it was said of the people in Nehemiah’s great project, “The people had a mind to work.”

– Michael L. Gowens, Pastor