12 Reasons Membership in a Local Church Matters

Leeman-Church-MembershipIronically enough, I don’t think I knew what church membership was until I went to a a big mega-church that told people on a regular basis that they didn’t need to become one. I had grown up with parents who functioned as committed members of their churches, but conceptually the idea of formal membership in a local body was foreign to me until a few years ago.

At the risk of over-generalizing, I think that’s about where your average American Christian (evangelical) is nowadays. Insofar as we’ve actually given any thought to the issue, we go to church, maybe plug in to a church, or at most commit to a church. But, formally belong to one? Like on a list? With like a signature and stuff? In our individualistic, consumeristic, anti-authoritarian society, that sounds too rigid, too formal, and just bizarre. The church is a family, a community where I go to get fed and built up in my faith, not some organization or institution I belong to.

For a while now I’ve been getting over that kind of knee-jerk, anti-institutional way of thinking. I mean, I’m at a Presbyterian church for crying out loud. Still, at the suggestion of a friend I finally picked up Jonathan Leeman’s couple of books on church membership and discipline (The Church and the Surprising Offense of the Love of God, Church Membership), and found his arguments challenging and largely persuasive. The issue is a big deal, and membership in the local body is far more central to being a Christian than most of us are used to thinking.

In one little section Leeman helpful summarizes a key section of his argument into 12 reasons membership in a local body matters:

  1. It’s biblical. Jesus established the local church and all the apostles did their ministry through it. The Christian life in the New Testament is church life. Christians today should expect and desire the same.
  2. The church is its members. To be a church in the New Testament is to be one of its members (read through Acts). And you want to be part of the church because that’s who Jesus came to rescue and reconcile to himself.
  3. It’s a prerequisite for the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a meal for the gathered church, that is, for members (see 1 Cor. 11:20-33). And you want to take the Lord’s Supper. It’s the team flag that makes the church team visible to the nations.
  4. It’s how you officially represent Jesus. Membership is the church’s affirmation that you are a citizen of Christ’s kingdom and therefore a pass-port carrying Jesus representative before the nations. And you want your representation to be authorized. Closely related to this…
  5. It’s how you declare your highest allegiance. Your membership on the team, which becomes visible when you wave the flag of the Lord’s Supper, is a public testimony belongs to Jesus. Trials and persecution may come, but your only words are, “I am a Christian.”
  6. It’s how you embody and experience biblical images. It’s within the accountability structures of the local church that Christians live and experience the interconnectivity of the body, the spiritual fullness of his temple, and the safety and intimacy and shared identity of his family.
  7. It’s how you serve other Christians. Membership helps you know which Christians on planet Earth you are specifically responsible to love, serve, warn, and encourage. It enables you to fulfill your biblical responsibilities to Christ’s body (for example, see Eph. 4:11-16; 25-32).
  8. It’s how you follow Christian leaders. Membership helps you know which Christian leaders on planet Earth you are called to obey and follow. Again, it allows you to fulfill your biblical responsibility to them (see Heb. 13:7, 17).
  9. It helps Christian leaders lead. Membership lets Christian leaders know which Christians on planet Earth they will “give an account” for (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).
  10. It enables church discipline. It gives you the biblically prescribed place to participate in the work of church discipline responsibly, wisely, and lovingly (1 Cor. 5).
  11. It gives structure to your Christian life. It places an individual Christian’s claim to obey and follow Jesus into a real-life setting where authority is actually exercised over us (see John 14:15; 1 John 2:19; 4:20-21). It’s God’s discipling program. 
  12. It builds a witness and invites the nations. Membership puts the alternative rule of Christ on display for the watching universe (see Matt. 5:11; John 12:34-35; Eph. 3:10; 1 Pet. 2:9-12). The very boundaries, which are drawn around the membership of a church, yield a society of people that invites the nations to something better. It’s God’s evangelism program. 

-Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, pg. 79-81

Membership matters then–a whole lot more than most of us are used to acknowledging. The local body is key to mission. It’s key to discipleship. It’s key to actually following Jesus instead of just claiming to.

For the unconvinced, I’d recommend picking up Leeman’s little, and I mean very little book, and examining the biblical arguments for yourself. (If you’re up to it, I highly recommend his bigger book.) Even if you don’t come away convinced of every point, you’ll be challenged to take a deeper view of what it means to be a part of the body, the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Church Failed Millennials, Just Not in the Way You Think (CaPC)

churchIf you hadn’t already heard, millennials are leaving the church in droves leaving many church leaders scratching their heads as to what to do about it. Rachel Held Evans came out with a piece on CNN.com stepping into the gap to explain why they are leaving Apparently it struck a nerve; it was shared over 170,000 times. Speaking as the voice of a generation, she raised issues like our exhaustion with the culture wars, poor handling of teaching on sexuality, gay marriage, science and religion, and putative weakness on social justice. Instead, millennials want, and need, a deeper encounter with Jesus.

Of course, as the college and young adult guy at my church, as well as a millennial myself (freshly 27), I read her piece and the follow-up with great interest. I saw a number of those 170,000 shares in my Facebook feed, with loud cries of “Amen!” and some disgruntled nay-saying. I probably uttered both as I read it. While there were a number of insightfulreassuringly critical, and helpful interactions with her piece, addressed to the churches and readers in general, I wanted to briefly address myself more directly to my fellow millennials here.

You can read the rest of my piece at Christ and Pop Culture.

Barna Shock Poll: Christians Still Need Jesus

phariseesThe Barna Group released a new poll last week in which the proposed question was: “Are Christians more like Jesus or the Pharisees?” Christians get accused of hypocrisy all the time, so why not see if there’s some statistical evidence to back up the claim?

According to the Christian Post:

The findings were derived from 1,008 telephone interviews of which 718 respondents self-identified as Christian from Nov. 11 until Nov. 18, 2012. Respondents who identified themselves as Christian were asked 20 questions, ten of which compared their responses to Jesus’ actions and attitudes and ten of which compared their responses to the Pharisees of the New Testament.

You can go read my article about why this really isn’t a big deal over at Christ and Pop Culture.

Could Constantine Have Been James Madison?

Definitely not a 4th Century Emperor.

Definitely not a 4th Century Emperor.

So after a few months of having it stare at me from my book shelf, I was able to start reading Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine:The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom.  Admittedly I’m only about half-way through the work, but to me this is a tour de force of historiography and theological polemic re-examining the life and times of the first Christian Emperor, as well as the theological critique of “Constantinian” relations between church and state a la John Howard Yoder. Given that I’ve just arrived in Orlando for the Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference I can’t take time for a truly substantial post about it yet. Still, one section in particular stuck me as worth briefly sharing and commenting on.

In reviewing his involvement in the internal affairs of the Church such as the Arian controversy and conflict between the Catholics and the Donatists, Leithart addresses the criticism Constantine receives as an un-baptized Emperor with no particular religious authority mucking about in such matters. For us moderns, it seems so obvious that there ought to be a separation between Church and State. Constantine should have taken a hands-off approach and left it bishops to handle their “spiritual” business while he took care of the affairs of state. Leithart calls this suggestion “implausible” and comments:

As we saw in the last chapter, Constantine did in fact follow a policy of tolerant concord. Beyond that, no one in the fourth century would have thought that a political regime could function without religious sanction, and it is naive to think that Constantine’s conversion  would have instantly turned him into James Madison…The question is, what were Constantine’s historical options in the fourth century? What were the constraints on his action? What, perhaps more important, were the limits of his imagination? Only when we have considered those questions are we capable of doing justice to Constantine’s interventions in church politics.

Defending Constantine, -pg. 132

The point is, when dealing with Constantine’s political legacy, we need to consider our historical distance and the limits of the subject’s own political horizon. Constantine wasn’t ruling his Empire after the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the various historico-political developments that have shaped Western thought on religion and politics. Indeed, the separation between the two would have been an entirely foreign one, and so would the idea of an Emperor who kept a distance from the cultus. While admittedly not the biblical ideal, Leithart gives us good historical reason to think that Constantine’s foray into a constructive relationship between the State and the Church isn’t the sheer, unmitigated disaster that popular polemics would have us believe.

Soli Deo Gloria

Checking Out Churches? Don’t Forget the ‘Jesus Drinking Game’ Test

Well, now that I have your attention, some of you may be wondering what the Jesus Drinking Game Test is and why is a college minister talking about it? (Also, whether I’m going to be fired in about two sentences.)

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. (Acts 2:14-15)

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.” (Acts 2:14-15)

It all came up in a chat with my buddy, Andrew–a fiery, young, Welsh intellectual on the rise–when discussing church standards. Although staunchly Reformed, he keeps getting invited by his more liberal friends to their liberal mainline churches. Recounting one such experience he recalled: “I got drug to a new-agey Episcopal bible study where we did ‘centering prayer’ on ‘what God means to you, or however you perceive the Life Force.’” That did it for him. Now whenever he’s asked to check out one of his friends’ churches, “I tell them my rule: if I were to be drinking in church and take a sip every time Christ or the Gospel is mentioned, would I get tipsy? If not, I’d rather stay home.”

Now, make sure to note the hypothetical character of this test. Nowhere on this blog are you reading an exhortation to take flasks with you to church or play drinking games. For the record, drunkenness is a sin. (Eph. 5:18) Also, for my students, if you’re under 21 you shouldn’t even be touching the stuff.

The principle, however, is quite sound. As a baseline minimum, if you wouldn’t get drunk if you had to sip every time they mention Jesus or the Gospel in a church service, then it’s probably not a church you want to be going to. It might be a nice place, full of decent, moral people trying very hard to be good, have lovely children’s programs, lively social events, and a very nice pastor who is a great public speaker with a good amount of practical wisdom about your finances or dealing with conflict. All that taken into account, if this is not a place where Jesus’ Name is lifted up as the only one that saves, and the Gospel as the message that sustains, you should walk out and find another. Any church worth its salt will be drenched in Jesus and the Gospel.

Of course, merely dropping Jesus’ name and saying the word “gospel” in front of every other phrase is no guarantee of fidelity. This is probably another good reason not to be drinking in church–you want to pay attention to what they actually say about Jesus and the Gospel, measuring it against the word. (Acts 17:11) Still, for those considering a congregation to worship at, keeping the ‘Jesus Drinking Game’ principle in mind isn’t a bad place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria

Ben Affleck is Human! And Married! (CaPC Piece)

affleckLike a lot of Americans, I sat down the other night to watch the Oscars for the first time in years with some friends. When I witnessed Seth MacFarlane’s talented-but-crude, sexist, I-love-myself-so-much performance, I was reminded why. At the end of the night though, when my hope for humanity was at its lowest, Ben Affleck injected this wonderful, impromptu moment of redemptive decency. In the middle of his breathless acceptance speech he thanked his wife, Jennifer Garner, but it wasn’t the typical air-brushed gratitude we’re used to:

I want to thank you for working on our marriage for 10 Christmases. It’s good, it is work, but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with.

You can go read the rest of my piece over at Christ and Pop Culture. Thanks.

Soli Deo Gloria

Some Perspective on God’s Gifts and God’s Call to Hospitality (Guest Post)

This is not Caroline's house. Do not try and come visit her here.

This is not Caroline’s house. Do not try and come visit her here.

Today I had a great talk with my friend Caroline, the Director of Children’s Ministries at my church. A couple of her kids are students of mine and so we were talking about the funny things that happen when they bring their friends over to hang out. In the middle of it she shared what I thought was an important realization about God’s gifts and the nature of hospitality. I’ve asked her if I could share it with my blog readers and so she kindly wrote it up for me.

I had a revelation a few weeks back.  You see my family and I live in a small (under 1400 square feet) home in Santa Ana.  I have loved and been thankful for our house of 3 years since day one–but I have not been proud of it–apologetic may have been a better word for how I felt when friends (who literally live in the pages of a Pottery Barn catalog) would stop by.  And if I were to be totally honest, I avoided anyone coming to my house and have even been known for waiting at the gate when expecting someone to stop by to pick me up.

Then a few weeks ago my daughter invited several of her friends over for dinner and an evening of games and movies.  Each of these amazing young adults has quite a story of redemption–coming out of many unhealthy and ungodly situations and clearly and dramatically saved for God’s purpose and God’s glory.  They grew up in houses that included drugs, gangs, and a lot of darkness.  That evening each one blessed me by complementing our home–my favorite was when one young woman exclaimed, “it’s just like a page from a Target catalog!”  Laughing I looked at her and then around at my miss-matched furniture (everything bought second-hand or given to us by friends), the tiny kitchen, dusty shelves, stacks of papers and said “thank you.”  I truly appreciated that she was speaking from her heart–I wondered what her home growing up had been like, and I recognized all that God had blessed our family with.  My sense of pride grew in what God had given us–in a house and the atmosphere inside it.

-Caroline Elias, Director of Children’s Ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian

Caroline’s basically said it all, but I just want to make a couple of points clear:

  1. Hospitality can happen anywhere–even your home. You don’t need to have a massive, showroom style house to have people over and bless them. That can happen anywhere. In fact, two of the most hospitable people I know are a couple of newly-weds who live in a back-house the size of an apartment who have over 10-15 young adults for dinner every week.
  2. As a rule we tend to compare ourselves to those with more, rather than to those with less.  This doesn’t necessarily make us ungrateful or resentful. Sometimes it just robs of the joy of realizing how truly blessed and fortunate we really are. Having a Target house is a joy from the Lord, just as much as a Pottery Barn house. 

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Bonus point because I’m a college pastor: there is a blessing that comes with college ministry. Sure there’s a blessing with every ministry, but honestly, sometimes it’s as easy as having a couple of students from your church over for dinner and listening to their stories. 

Luna Lovegood on Why You Need Church (Or, the Spiritual Wisdom of Harry Potter)

LunaMcKenna and I received the Harry Potter films on Blu-Ray for Christmas this year, so, of course, we’ve been watching one every couple of days. As we’ve made our way through the years, I’ve been reminded of why I loved the books. I’ll come clean and say I was late to the game when it came to the Harry Potter franchise. I put off reading the books for a long time, and then blazed through them in a month and a half right after seminary. (I was suffering from a serious fantasy fiction-deficiency.)

Of course, even when watching/reading Harry Potter, I can’t turn off the theology-grid, so it’s been interesting for me to see how much spiritual wisdom there is to be found in both the books and the films. It’s not too surprising given Rowling’s confessed Christian beliefs. I was particularly struck by a conversation in the 5th film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix between Harry and Luna (Looney) Lovegood, an eccentricly spacey, but insightful classmate of Harry’s at Hogwarts. He’s feeling particularly discouraged about his situation, having been the victim of a smear campaign seeking to discredit his claims that the dark Lord Voldemort (He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named), the satanic antagonist of the series, had returned and was seeking to take over the wizarding world again:

Luna Lovegood: [about her father] We believe you, by the way. That He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is back, and you fought him, and the Ministry and the Prophet are conspiring against you and Dumbledore.
Harry Potter: Thanks. Seems you’re about the only ones that do.
Luna Lovegood: I don’t think that’s true. But I suppose that’s how he wants you to feel.
Harry Potter: What do you mean?
Luna Lovegood: Well if I were You-Know-Who, I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it’s just you alone you’re not as much of a threat.

To anyone with ears to hear, it isn’t hard to discern this bit of insight into the nature of spiritual warfare. I’m not a “there’s a demon hiding under every bush”, kind of guy, but still, Jesus took the reality of the demonic seriously, as do the rest of the NT writers, in which case we ought to as well.

One thing to keep in mind is that while the devil is a roaring lion, looking to devour his prey, and shipwreck your faith, (1 Pet. 5:8) he doesn’t always do it in an obvious, open fashion. As Luna points out about Lord Voldemort, one of the easiest ways for him to tear at you is to isolate you, to whisper lies that you’re all alone, that nobody cares, that you will go unvindicated, that you must ultimately care for yourself, rather than trust in the one who holds your life in his hands–which, of course, is the root of sin. And it’s easy to get discouraged, isn’t it? It’s easy to believe lies. Our guilty hearts and consciences are only too ready to fall for them, especially when they’re so believable. He is the father of lies, you know. (John 8:44)

This is one of the many reasons we go to church. Without it, the lies creep in and take root. Christianity is not, and never has been, a Lone-Ranger faith, where you and Jesus are off fighting the whole world together. No, Jesus founded a community. He said to the community of disciples that he would be with them to the end of the age. (Matt 28:20) You can’t do this by yourself and you were never intended to.

Instead, the author of Hebrews warns us to not neglect meeting together, so that we may “encourage one another”, especially in light of the approaching Day of truth. (Heb. 10:25)  It is only through hearing the regular preaching of the Word, receiving the Gospel in the sacraments, and the community itself that the evil one’s lies are vanquished in our hearts. It is through the church that we are reminded that we have full assurance to approach the Lord in faith, because of blood of Jesus. (Heb. 10:19, 22) The church is how we know we’re not alone.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Gospel According to Bach

Because Chris Tomlin just wasn’t good enough for Reformation Sunday, our choir performed a majestic rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 4 this morning. Now, I have to admit I am a bit of a neanderthal and growing up in the churches I have, great as they were, I was never really exposed to high church culture; it’s not my natural jam. Still, I was deeply moved by this piece.

Musically, it was Bach–’nuff said. Lyrically, again, it was Bach, but this particular piece was based on Martin Luther’s hymn, “Christ Lay in Death’s Cold Prison.” While it was meant to be heard, not merely read, I’d encourage you to take some time this week to work your way through the verses, meditating on the deep, Gospel truths about Christ’s death for sin, and hard-won victory of the powers of hell and the grave. It is heavy with theological and spiritual substance; rich food for the soul. Eat up.

Christ lay in death’s cold prison
bound fast for our transgression;
but now he has arisen
and brought to us salvation.
Let us all be joyful, then,
praise God and give thanks to Him
and sing Hallelujah,
Hallelujah!

O Death, you spared no mortal soul
of any race or nation,
for all were under sins control,
none was without transgression.
Therefore came grim Death so soon
and with swift advance it brought our doom,
and held us in its realm of terror.
Hallelujah!

Our Savior Jesus, God’s own Son,
here in our stead descended.
The knot of sin has been undone,
the claim of death is ended!
Christ has crushed the power of hell;
now there is naught but death’s gray shell;
It’s sting he now has ended.
Hallelujah!

It was a war of majesty,
of Life and Death together;
but Life gained the victory,
and did destroy the other.
Scripture has proclaimed it so,
how one death devoured its foe,
and mocked its fleeting power.
Hallelujah!

Here is the spotless Easter-lamb,
that God the Lord did give us,
who high upon the cross was hung
and sacrificed to save us.
On our doorposts is his blood,
The price he paid to conquer Death:
the Strangler now cannot destroy us.
Hallelujah!

Then let us keep this holy feast
with all delight and pleasure,
which God the Lord makes manifest;
he is our light and pleasure,
who through the splendor of his grace
has lightened our most sacred place.
The night of sin has vanished.
Hallelujah!

So Christians, feast with joy each day
on Christ, the bread of heaven,
the Word of grace has purged away
the old and evil leaven.
Christ alone, our holy meal,
the hungry soul will feed and heal;
faith lives upon no other!
Hallelujah!

Soli Deo Gloria