I just read a book called Church Membership (coming soon from Crossway), and it's blown my mind in some healthy ways. I've been a faithful attender and then a member of the same church for 20 years, so you'd think this book would be preaching to the choir in my case. But I think I always had this idea that although I prefer sticking with one church and look down on this culture's practice of "church hopping," long-term church membership is not necessarily prescriptive for everyone.
I think I thought church membership was sort of like membership at a country club or a gym. You find one you like and that is convenient for you, and you go as long as it still meets your needs. If you change or your theology changes, or if your family needs something new, or if the church changes in some way that you don't like, then you switch churches. Formal membership optional.
Boy was I wrong. If you think of the Biblical metaphors for church--body, family, building, etc.--those are not country club type of commitments. The author, Jonathan Leeman, discusses at length the Biblical model of the church. The church, in Bible times and now, exists to give official affirmation of your citizenship in Christ's kingdom, and joining it is a public testimony of your allegiance to Jesus. Joining a church does not make you a citizen of heaven, obviously, but it declares to the nations in a public way that you are such. An important terminology distinction that Leeman makes is that we don't really join a church, we submit to it, following Christian leaders and placing ourselves under their care and discipline. They, in turn, are responsible before God for us. And we're responsible for the other members of that church in a way that we are not responsible for our other Christian friends. Furthermore, church is how we invite the nations into a life with Jesus--by showing them how relationships work in God's family.
Think of it this way: if the church is God's kingdom on earth, and the church is people rather than buildings, and if the local church is an outpost of the future universal church, then church membership is pretty important. And therefore Christians should not view it as optional.
I can hear some of you skeptics out there clicking your tongue. Our culture has so ingrained individuality and personal preference and mobility within us that we can't imagine church as anything other than a service provider that exists to meet our needs, a club of people with shared interests that we can choose to associate with, or not.
I think a church should meet our needs. And there are good reasons to move from one church to another. Certainly God sometimes leads people to join another body of Christ because doing so will better enable them to love and serve him. But we all know that no church is perfect, since every church is made up of imperfect leaders and imperfect people. So I think it's often better to love the one you're with when it comes to churches.
This whole view of membership is not merely an intellectual exercise for me. It makes me realize anew the responsibility I have to my church. On those Sunday mornings when I'd rather stay home than go to church, it's not just a matter of making myself go because it's good for me or because I want to set a good example for my children (both of which are true)--I also need to go because it's a family obligation. I have joined myself to the other sinners in that particular church through membership, and I need to fulfill that commitment by showing up, by using my gifts to serve them, and by getting to know them so that when they struggle I am aware of it and can help. On some level, I'm responsible before God for the way I serve and relate to the people in my church. I'm connected to them in a way that I am not connected to my other friends.
And the comforting thing is that they are responsible for me, too. They will hurt me and fail me just like I hurt and fail them, but ultimately they are my family, and we'll get through it together. As long as we all make the commitment to stick it out.