The only beef I have with my fellow Kentucky native and 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln is that he never joined a church. I’m quite sure he was a Christian, not to mention a great leader and honest man. Yet, history tells us he never officially connected with a local congregation. So what’s the big deal, many would say, especially in an age of cascading commitment and denominational decline? After all, being included on a church roll pales in comparison to having one’s name written in the Lamb's Book of Life. Has it not been estimated that half the people on local church rolls are lost? Although church membership may not be moving the needle like it did in the second half of the 20th Century, I believe it is more important than ever. Carefully note these reasons why.
In our fragmented, individualistic society—one in which we’ve been reduced to mere numbers and statistics—people need a place to belong. No man is an island unto himself. As Paul writes, “We who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all others” (Romans 12:5). Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the local church offers koinonia, kingdom fellowship that no earthly organization can duplicate.
My life changed drastically in the fall of 1980, when I took my first job out of college and moved several hours away to a place where I didn’t know a soul. I quickly found a Southern Baptist church, one which took me in as one of their own. It was there where I would eventually get saved, surrender to the ministry, meet my wife, and get married. All of that would not have happened had I not joined. Forty-two years later, in a world where so many don’t have healthy family ties, the church has a golden opportunity to fill the void.
Speaking of opportunity, we wanted to put a committed and capable woman on our building and grounds committee at a church where I previously served, only to discover she had never joined. She was willing and would have done a great job, yet missed out by not being a member. Chances to serve grow once we commit to a local body of believers.
At a time in which people drift from church to church—often claiming allegiance to more than one at a time—accountability suffers. Absentees aren’t missed like they once were. Sometimes it’s assumed they are at another church. Yes, Cain, “we are our brother’s keeper.”
Whereas church membership doesn’t save a person, it certainly provides a better chance to advance deeper in the faith. I realize a lot of para-church ministries offer ways for believers to grow. There’s no shortage of apps, websites, podcasts, etc. to help us flourish. I found, however, in my three decades as a pastor, that solid, committed members are the ones most likely to move from “milk to meat” (1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:12).
I remember telling the mother of one of our faithful, recently saved “Wednesday night kids” how much I was looking forward to baptizing her daughter. She responded by saying that wouldn’t be necessary because they attended a different church on Sundays. This is just one example of anecdotal evidence pointing to the convoluted, consumeristic way in which people attend church. And though membership won’t alleviate the problem, it certainly helps.
I clearly remember when the oldest person in the last church I served full-time turned 100. So, did she live that long because of being a member of First Baptist Church Dallas, Georgia? Hmmm, I wouldn’t go that far, though there is research suggesting that regular church attenders do live longer. What I do know is that she has built a great legacy and lasting memory.
I heard a seasoned, successful pastor once say, “Always find a reason to celebrate.” Holidays, homecomings, note-burnings, staff anniversaries, and building programs make for excellent occasions to praise the Lord with a party. Guests are welcome, of course. These could even make for great outreach opportunities. Yet, such events normally center on our committed members.
I couldn’t think of a word here, so I made one up. I believe that a key reason people won’t join is that they don’t want to stand up in front of people. Though some churches have taken this into consideration and made other provisions, I’m happy to say the four churches I pastored required people to walk the aisle and come to the altar. I often remind the congregation of Jesus’ words, “Whoever acknowledges Men before men, I will also acknowledge before My Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32).
No, I did not make this one up. Although I didn’t know it existed until I consulted my Rodale Synonym Finder and Webster’s Dictionary. A votary is “a sworn adherent, a devoted admirer, a devout or zealous worshiper.” I often tell the people of my church that we need to get as excited on Sundays as we do rooting for our favorite sports teams. We should praise and cheer Jesus even more than the way we support our children and grandchildren on the ball field. Membership means "skin in the game" and makes for a more loyal fan base.
“You’ve made my day,” said George, when I called to wish him a happy birthday recently. It’s something I was able to do since we have the birthdays of all members on record. Recognizing graduating seniors, dedicating newborn babies, and providing meals to friends and family when folks die are just a few of the blessings most churches provide members. Visitors usually miss out on these. Church membership doesn’t guarantee us a spot in heaven, yet it certainly has its benefits and matters more than ever.
Todd Gaddis served 30 years as a senior pastor, 21 of those in Georgia, and continues to minister on an interim basis. He is a former contributing writer for Lifeway Christian Research, where this column first appeared.
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