Why haven’t you joined that church you love?
Maybe that question applies to you right now. It certainly applied to me at a particular season in my life. I had been going to the same church for more than a year. The preaching was faithful, and the people were warm and sincere. I had come to know several of the families and had even spent some time with the lead pastor. I wasn’t visiting other churches anymore. I had found my church, and yet membership never really crossed my mind (except maybe briefly when the church celebrated new members).
Why didn’t I join a church I loved? Well, in part because I was still in college and assumed membership was something I would consider after I was out of school and had landed a job somewhere. While we can talk about whether college students should join a church or not (generally speaking, I think they should), I’m not as concerned with that question. I’m more concerned with the mindset I see in my younger self — a mindset I believe is prevalent today: I’ll wait to join the church until I’ve figured out the rest of my life.
Looking back, I now realize just how little I knew about the necessity and joy of actually committing myself to a particular people in particular pews under a particular roof.
Interestingly, we don’t often put off baptism in the same way (at least in my experience). People who come to saving faith in Jesus generally seem eager to say so in the water. My young children, for instance, already love baptism Sundays at our church and look forward to them. There’s a palpable sense of anticipation and celebration in the room. When someone comes up out of the water, the whole church spontaneously claps and cheers.
Does a similar sensation rise in us, though, when someone joins the church? Does it bring us to the edge of our seats?
It really should, shouldn’t it? Culturally speaking, church membership is an even more dramatic statement of our devotion to Christ than baptism. To be baptized today, at least in America, may be odd to our neighbors or coworkers, but it’s not all that shocking or inflammatory. To covenant ourselves to a particular local church, however, and freely submit our decisions, our time, our money, our relationships, our lives to its members and leaders — to give them the authority to excommunicate us if necessary — now that’s controversial. That will raise some eyebrows. Membership says, “What I’ve found in Jesus is worth more than all the freedom, independence, and self-sovereignty I surrender — and far more.”
In an age that suspects and even despises authority, church membership is a loud, arresting statement of our devotion to Christ. It’s John 13:35 in real life with real promises: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Isolated from Commitment
So what keeps us from joining a church? On the surface, some of us put off membership because it feels more like a formality than a necessity. I’m consistently here and even helping out, so why do I need to be a “member”?
Below the surface, though, our reasons may grow heavier and more sensitive. First, we might fear that the church we’re currently attending might not be the best church for us. What if a better church comes along? What if I find a church with better preaching, or better music, or better small groups, or better kids programs? I don’t have to rehearse our generation’s tendency — whether it’s a job, or a potential spouse, or even Friday-night plans — to push every decision to the last minute for fear of something better coming along. We’ve been trained to despise commitment of almost every kind because it inevitably limits our options.
“Committing to a church means committing to sacrifice, to show up, to confess, to confront, to forgive.”
Beyond our wandering eye on Sunday mornings, we might also fear the costs of major commitment. Meaningful membership in the church is undeniably costly. As in a marriage, we don’t know what the next months and years of church life will bring — for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. We can’t now anticipate how conflict will upset and perhaps even divide the body. We can be sure, in any church, that we will sin and be sinned against. Committing to a church means committing to sacrifice, to show up, to confess, to confront, to forgive.
Whatever’s keeping you from committing to that church, I want to help you over the hurdles of your fears by reminding you of who you are without a church committed to you.
1. You are a toe without a body.
First, without committing to a church, you’re an amputated arm. You’re a member of the body — an eye, a kidney, an elbow — but without an actual body. And eyes and elbows don’t survive apart from the body. “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). This isn’t optional to Christianity; this is Christianity.
To believe in Jesus means being united with his global body, and being united with his global body means belonging to an actual local body, a church. Biblically speaking, trying to follow Jesus without meaningfully committing to a church would look a lot like a toe flopping around on the sidewalk. You’re not helping anyone walk, and no one’s helping you see and taste and smell. The apostle Paul goes on:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” . . . But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:21, 24–26)
“You weren’t meant to suffer alone, or rejoice alone, or make decisions alone.”
You weren’t meant to suffer alone, or rejoice alone, or make decisions alone. Membership stitches your toe to rest of the body — to all you need to follow Christ. It joins you to a group of people who are now committed, before God, to your spiritual and eternal good.
2. You are prey without protection.
Second, without committing to a church, you’re a sheep without the up-close direction, provision, and protection of a shepherd. Whether you feel this way or not, your soul is on the outskirts of the flock, in danger of starving or being eaten. Christ has called and given undershepherds to watch over you (1 Peter 5:2), but you’ve chosen to take your chances among the wolves rather than committing to a flock.
“Obey your leaders and submit to them,” Hebrews 13:17 says. This might scare some away from membership. The verse goes on, however, “. . . for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” These men are charged by God to feed, guide, and protect you — to pursue the spiritual best for you — and they will have to give an account for the work they’ve done. They’ll stand before God to explain how they pastored you.
Maybe most important of all, when someone falls into unrepentant sin — and you could fall into unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 10:12) — Jesus puts the responsibility for that sinner on the gathered church.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. (Matthew 18:15–17)
Tell it to what church? To the church he belongs to, the church that knows him and has the authority to put him out of the church, for the sake of his soul, if he refuses to repent (1 Corinthians 5:13). Perhaps the greatest reason to actually join a church, then, is to know that at least one group of faithful brothers and sisters has promised to come after us if we wander from the Lord.
3. You are a stranger without a family.
One of the enduring lessons of the last couple of years is that we were made, in the deepest parts of us, to belong. John Piper says, “The more disconnected we are from a local church, the more confused we will be about who we are and who God made us to be. We find our true individual selves in relationship to others” (“Should I Commit to One Church?”).
Social distancing wasn’t just uncomfortable or inconvenient; it was offensive to our nature. We felt this viscerally, didn’t we, after many of us had been lulled into forgetting, lulled into thinking that community was a nice but optional feature of the good life. No, we desperately and constantly need one another — and not just through texts, calls, and livestreams, but face to face (2 John 12). We’ve relearned the vital beauty of what we heard all along:
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25)
From birth, you were meant to belong — to know and be known, to stir and be stirred, to encourage and be encouraged. That kind of love happens through commitment — not through a group of regular attenders, but through a devoted family.
So, if you’re a toe without legs and arms and a head, if you’re a lost sheep with bad eyesight and a loud stomach, if you’re a brother or sister without a father, a mother, or siblings, join that church and experience what it really means to be home.