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Meaningful Membership

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

January 9, 2022 | refocus | Meaningful Membership| Acts 2:42-47

John Cutler

Senior Pastor

To listen to the full sermon click here

The new year feels like it offers the chance to hit a little reset button, doesn’t it?

Maybe your spending got a little out of control towards the holidays, you ate a little too much, you got wrapped up in the hustle and bustle during the year and your well-intentioned, healthy rhythms got out of whack.

The New Year does provide a good time to reset and refocus.

Over the next four weeks, we will examine some of the core values of the church so that we can head into the new year with a clearer vision of God’s calling on our local church. Our goal is to refocus ourselves for the new year.

This morning we are looking at the value of meaningful membership. By that of course, we mean meaningful membership in the local body or local church.

This is foundational to the following week’s core values. With a right understanding of membership and an understanding of what makes it meaningful, the rest of the core values fit together to form a complete picture of the local church. The problem is that the idea of church membership, for many, is skewed; maybe you have never had a clear picture of it or maybe over the years, things have crept in that blurred the picture for you. Either way, this morning, I am praying God would help us focus in on this core value as a church.

What Church Membership Isn’t

Church membership is not just attending but belonging.

There are many things we attend. Games, shows, movies, that don’t mean we belong to the place we attend. The church is no different, we can attend, even participate and never belong in a meaningful way.

A few years ago, Brittany and I got the chance to visit the Dallas Cowboy stadium. We got to go into the locker rooms, onto the fields, and behind all the places fans don’t usually get to go. I threw a football on the field and even got to come out of the tunnel where the Cowboys enter to play. But at the end of the day, all of that ‘attending’ didn’t make me a Dallas Cowboy!

Church membership is not automatic.

Yes, as a believer, you are immediately a part of the universal church the moment you confess Christ, but what do we mean when we say the church, in the local sense? The word church in the New Testament means ‘called out ones’, the idea comes from the process of people being called out of their homes to form a public assembly for some purpose, usually an official one, but that is not a very illustrative definition of the church is it?

A working definition of the local body could be helpful here.

Jonathan Leeman from the 9Mark ministries and his book aptly named ‘Church Membership’ offers this single-sentence institutional definition of a local church.

“A local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances.”

If that is what the church is, then membership cannot be simply attending, it cannot just be something you do once and forget about. Regular gathering, officially exercising affirmation and oversight, representing Christ’s kingdom. These things require an ongoing relationship that is based on belonging, that is vital, and that is voluntary.

What Church Membership Is

Again we turn to a definition offered by Leeman, this time concerning church membership.

“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.”

  1. A Formal relationship

  2. Characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship

  3. Characterized by the Christian’s submission to living out their discipleship in the care of the church.

If we are honest, we get uncomfortable with words like formal, oversight, and submission. They seem wooden, stifling, and even aggressive. In our overly individualistic society where we are told we should be free to do and be whatever we want, it feels…wrong.

I get it, but we don’t define the things of God by how we feel about them, we should approach them with an openness that seeks what is true, not what is comfortable, what is Godly, not what fits with our current worldview.

But perhaps if we looked at it from a different perspective. From the same book, there is a helpful summary of what it means to join a local church from both the perspective of the church body and the individual.

“The church body says to the individual, ‘We recognize your profession of faith, baptism, and discipleship to Christ as valid. Therefore, we publicly affirm and acknowledge you as belonging to Christ and the oversight of our fellowship.’”

“The individual says to the church body, ‘Insofar as I recognize you as a faithful, gospel-declaring church, I submit my presence and my discipleship to your love and oversight’”

It’s very much like the “I do” of a marriage ceremony, which is why you will sometimes hear the word covenant community or covenant membership. When a couple comes together in holy matrimony, they are entering an official and binding agreement where they make promises to one another, they pledge to submit to one another, and they commit themselves to one another. We don’t call that wooden, or stifling, or aggressive, we celebrate its beauty. Right?

In the same way, we should approach church membership as the beautiful gift that it is.

Next, we turn our attention to what that looks like.

The First Covenant Community of Christians

Acts 2:42-47 (ESV) 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

First, you may miss this little detail, but in the original language, there is a definite article ‘THE’ attached to each one of these things listed.

The teachings, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, the prayers. Why is that important? Because it refers to particular things, not generalized ideas.

They gathered to hear the official teachings, they gathered to pray together corporately, and they gathered to fellowship around their new relationship with Christ through sharing meals together. This community wasn’t superficial or just something they did on Sundays; these were their people.

That’s even more clear when you look at verses 44-46.

They took care of each other, no one went without who was a part of the community, even if it meant sacrificing what you had to provide it, and they were together day to day and in and out of each other's homes sharing meals. They didn’t join a church in the way we talk about it today, they joined themselves to a people, completely and wholly.

Note the signs of a covenant community-

  • Devotion to the teaching, “what is taught, I will follow”

  • Devoted to the community, “who is connected, I will fellowship with”

  • Devoted to the ordinances, “what is practiced, I will participate”

  • Devoted to the prayers, “when we meet, I will be there”

If we are honest, does that reflect most of our lives when it comes to the church, or does it sound like this?

  • What is taught, I will consider if I like it and it isn’t inconvenient

  • Who is connected, I will fellowship with them as long as I like them and they don’t upset me.

  • What is practiced, I will participate in from time to time

  • When we meet, I will be there…unless it’s raining or cold, or my kids/grandkids have a game, or the cowboys are playing, or it’s on a Wednesday or Sunday evening, or it’s hunting season, or baseball season.

Listen, if that describes you, you’re not in a community based on covenant, but a community based on convenience.

Meaningful membership comes from a covenant community, not a convenient one.

How to Pursue Meaningful Membership

A Committed Head

The word that sums this up is in our text today- devotion

Devotion is a choice that we make, not based on an emotional feeling but a conscious and ongoing choice. In the same way, we wake up and intentionally choose to live out our wedding vows, this is choosing every day to live out our commitment to the local church.

As parents, we have had to make some tough choices to do this and to model it for our children. A few years ago, Lilly was in gymnastics. She worked hard and excelled. She was invited to join the competitive team, which was a wonderful opportunity and a proud moment for us as parents. Then we got the details. Practice every Wednesday evening and competitions on Saturday and Sunday. We had to sit her down and explain that as excited as we were, we were choosing to commit to the church and we wouldn’t let, even something good, get in the way of that.

This story is not to say ‘look at how religious we are’, or ‘how faithful we are’. Here’s the thing, that decision wasn’t hard to make, because way before then, way before Lilly ever started gymnastics, we made another decision. That we wouldn’t allow anything to cause us to be unfaithful to the local body. Because we made that commitment, a million other decisions that we might have had to wrestle with were already made.

Will our kids play travel ball? Not if they have to play on Sunday. What jobs will we take? As much as it’s in our power, whether or not we can participate on Sundays or not becomes as important as how much it pays. Do you see how one commitment makes all the other questions much easier to deal with?

Meaningful membership begins with a decision of commitment.

A Submissive Heart

Over and over again New Testament scripture commands the church to this mutual submission. Just a few examples.

Philippians 2:3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.

​​Ephesians 5:18b be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Hebrews 13:17 (ESV) 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

1 Peter 5:1-7 (ESV) 1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you…

This is a heart issue. Are you willing to put yourself aside and do what is best for someone else in your church family? Are you willing to look out for their good? Put their needs before yours? Are you willing to listen to a leader in the church that says, hey this thing in your life doesn’t fit with who you say you are as a disciple of Christ? Are you willing to let people look at the messy parts of your life so that you can help one another grow?

Meaningful membership requires an attitude of submission to be at the core of your heart. Maybe you think that's easy for you to say, you are the pastor! On the contrary, the bible teaches that as a shepherd, the good of the flock trumps what I want, that oversight is something that I must be willing to do, not because I am in charge, but because God has given me the duty to care for and feed His sheep. I am accountable to you to be a gospel proclaiming preacher with the gospel clearly represented in my life.

Meaningful membership requires a committed head, a submissive heart, and a

A Participatory Spirit

Does this mean you have to be here every time the doors are open, that you have to volunteer for everything we do, that you have to be involved in every ministry? Of course not. It means that you are present and active in the ongoing life of the church.

Why? Because we need you and your unique gift that the Bible says you have to serve others, as a good steward of God’s grace.

But aren’t you free to participate or not? You are, which is exactly what Paul says in Galatians.

Galatians 5:13 (ESV) 3 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

When you don’t participate, the body misses out on your gift, your encouragement, and your unique service, and you miss out on the opportunity to use the grace given to you for its intended purpose. It’s a lose, lose situation. You matter.

The church cannot experience the fullness God designed it for without his people participating in the life of the church. In observances of the Lord’s supper, in baptisms, in sermons, in bible studies, in fellowships, in prayer meetings, none are as rich apart from your participation if you are a member of this body.

Meaningful membership is being an active participant in the life and ministry of the church.

Meaningful membership is one of the core values of the local church.

It doesn’t happen immediately and it doesn’t happen by accident. It is a part of our life-long discipleship journey. But every journey begins with a single step.

No matter where you are today, you can take a step towards a more meaningful membership.

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