Summary: To love Jesus is to love His church. God’s Image is in us all, and we discover Him by discovering His likeness in one another--in the caring community known as the Church.
When I pastored Army chapels, soldiers attending my services would occasionally ask to join, and I had to explain to them that we can’t have membership since we’re a government agency. Membership would violate the so-called separation of church and state. The non-establishment clause of the First Amendment forbids chaplains from offering membership. We maintained rosters of attendees, but that was as far as we could go. This limitation bothered some, but it didn’t bother me. I was just happy people showed up on Sunday.
What’s the point of membership anyhow? Now that I’ve been a civilian pastor for over 15 years I’ve come to appreciate this aspect of church. I’d say the “big idea”, the point of membership, is commitment, of officially aligning one’s self to a local church. Church membership is a matter of saying: “This is my church home, I belong here, and I am a part of something that is important to me.” The church is where we find our identity as followers of Christ.
I’ve known plenty of “church hoppers,” who go from church-to-church. The advantage is they get to sample a wide variety of worship styles, but they lack a church home. They check out lots of churches while remaining virtually anonymous. Yet we cannot live this new life alone. How can we let God’s grace fully work in our lives unless we live in a community of people who affirm it, deepen it, and strengthen it?
Church hoppers also lack accountability. We may not always regard accountability as a good thing, yet it is important to have others who know us, tell us from time-to-time when we’re headed in a wrong direction, and to encourage us when we’re doing well. You get none of this when you church-hop. I wonder if church-hoppers have a desire to be independent and autonomous, answering to no one. “It is as impossible, unnecessary, and undesirable to be a Christian all by yourself as it is to be a newborn baby all by yourself.” (N.T. Wright).
Some people feel they’re not “good enough” to join. The church is the only fellowship in the world where the one requirement for membership is the unworthiness of the candidate! The church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners. We do not welcome perfect people (there are none), but rather people in the process of spiritual formation. We are a community of transformation.
I had a conversation with a member of our church shortly after I came here. We were discussing funerals, and where to have them--at the funeral home or at the church. The individual I was talking to said adamantly: “I’m having my funeral here at Cliftondale Congregational.” I didn’t think much of that…till later it occurred to me that this person was declaring a life-long commitment to our church, and that impressed me a lot. I was so used to seeing soldiers come-and-go that I’d never encountered such profound stick-to-it-iveness.