Summary: Unlike membership in clubs or other organizations, church membership is not a way that we gain some sort of special access. Rather, it is a covenant made between fellow Christians to establish and uphold one another in our journey as Christ’s disciples.
One weekend in August of 2001, I was preparing to head to South Carolina for my senior year of college. With my car loaded, my plan was to get up Sunday morning and immediately head off for South Carolina. That would give me plenty of time to get there, unload, and settle into my apartment before student teaching began the next day. But on Saturday night, my Mom said, “You have to go to church tomorrow before you leave.” Obviously, I asked her why, and she said something vague about speaking briefly in the service and I needed to be there.
So the next morning, I left my loaded car in the driveway and headed to church with my family. Early in the worship service, my Mom stepped up to the lectern and began to speak to the congregation. She started by telling the church that that afternoon I would be leaving to begin my senior year of college, and that in a few days, she and my Dad would be taking my younger sister to North Carolina to begin her college career. My mother went on to share how proud she and my dad were of their two daughters and all our accomplishments, but that they were most proud of our strong Christian faith. Now, my Mom didn’t get up before the congregation and do this in order to pat herself on the back. She asked for this opportunity so that she could say “thank you” to the community of believers who had helped raise her children.
She thanked the congregation for being faithful in their own lives and modeling that faith for the children of the church. She thanked the congregation for fulfilling the covenant they took at the baptisms of me and my sister; for living according to the example of Christ, for surrounding me and my sister with love and forgiveness, for praying for us and teaching us, for leading their lives in such ways that my sister and I (and all the children of that church) grew in the knowledge and love of God. After 21 years of faithfully bringing us to church, my parents took a moment to say “thank you” to our church family for doing their part. My Mom ended by saying that her girls wouldn’t be who they are today if not for the faithful witness of that church family.
And that is why membership matters to me; because I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for the commitment of the members at my home church in Oak Ridge.
Membership is such an institutionalized concept. We think of membership as a sort of “rite of passage.” Being a member makes you a part of something: a yacht club, country club, fraternity, or team; the list could go on and on. You have to be a member to get into the club, or go to the meetings, or play on the team. With such concepts of membership, it seems strange that we would emphasize church membership. You certainly don’t have to be a member to attend a church, and you definitely don’t have to be a church member to be a Christian. So if you can go to church and be a Christian without being a member, why does membership matter? That’s the question we’re going to tackle today. But when it comes to church membership, we have to think about it a little differently from the way we think about membership in other organizations.
There is no greater example of the special nature of church membership than the witness of the early Christians, which we heard in our Scripture passage a few moments ago. This passage from Acts occurs only a short time after Christ’s ascension into heaven. The early Christians know that in Christ something special has begun, and they are trying to organize themselves in a way that reflects that. They want the Christian community to reflect the kingdom of God. You see, God’s kingdom is different from the world. God’s kingdom reflects unity and empathy rather than division and hierarchy, and so believers live together and have “all things in common.” This phrase about having “everything in common” was the Greek way of describing a very close friendship. Thus, we get this description from Acts in which the early Christians devote themselves to teaching, fellowship, and prayer. All of these practices are essential to the Christian’s continued formation as disciples, but they are also too demanding for the individual believer. The early believers knew that they had to do this together, sharing goods and practices, holding one another accountable in this new way of life called “Christian.” So together, these friends looked after one another, worshiped regularly in the Temple, and broke bread together in their homes.