The Essence of Membership in Christian Churches
In many parts of Asia and Africa, Christians risk life and well-being to attend church services[i] while in traditionally Christian countries, confessing Christians skip services to protect a little more sack time, some extra work, or the kids’ soccer game. The lack of faithful church membership has reached such a crisis that congregations are declining and closing their doors. In the ELS alone, seven congregations closed their doors in 2021-22[ii]. That’s about 5% of the congregations in the synod.
Why do people who confess to be Christians neglect church services? I think it has a lot to do with the way they think of “church membership,” so I intend to explore it in this and the next few articles.
Young Americans Aren’t “Joiners”
In America, we are told that organizations of all kinds are declining and aren’t being replaced. Veterans’ Organizations like the V.F.W. and the American Legion, service organizations like Rotary International and Kiwanis, and common-interest organizations like gun clubs, gardening clubs, and model railroading clubs are all generally declining. The average age of these organizations is rising also as fewer young people join. Not surprisingly, a parallel is drawn between these organizations and churches. If younger generations aren’t joiners and if they think of their church like a club, then why should anyone expect them to join? However… Churches Are Fundamentally Different!
We Join a Church Like We Join the Human Race
Do you remember filling out a membership application to be a human being? Of course not. We “joined” the human race by virtue of our birth, and along with our “membership,” we shoulder certain responsibilities, such as providing for our food, clothing, and shelter, caring for our families, showing love and compassion and any number of other virtues covered by terms like humane or humanitarian. Failure to do so is to be inhumane or even criminal.
We are “members” of the Una Sancta like we are members of the human race[iii]. If we are members of the human race because we are born, then we are members of the body of Christ, His invisible church, because we are born again by the Spirit of God through water and the word[iv]. Just as our birth into the human race comes with moral obligations toward God and our neighbor, so also our new birth into the family of Christ comes with obligations toward Him and toward our brothers and sisters in the faith. We are members of Christ by believing, not by choosing to belong.
The writer to the Hebrews summed up some of these obligations fairly simply: Let us also consider carefully how to spur each other on to love and good works. Let us not neglect meeting together, as some have the habit of doing. Rather, let us encourage each other, and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:24–25, EHV). To fail to encourage one another as the Day of Wrath approaches is to desert our fellow members of the body of Christ. And we really need one another!
Consider what Scripture teaches about the coming of the end. For one thing, there will be a great apostasy, a great falling away: Let no one deceive you in any way, because that day will not come until the falling away comes first (2 Thessalonians 2:3, EHV). It will be a time of terrible deceit and spiritual peril: “For false Christs and false prophets will rise up and perform signs and wonders to deceive even the elect, if it were possible” (Mark 13:22, EHV). In such a time as this, we owe the Christian family into which we have been born all the encouragement we can give.
Yes, It Is a Crisis
To say that something is at a crisis is to say that it is at a critical point: It can go either way, but especially toward disaster. Church membership (we will see what that really is) is at a crisis in America.
So long as people see “church membership” as an optional choice for believers rather than an essential part of what it means to be Christian, then Satan has successfully fragmented his opposition. Just as wolves sheer the weakest off the herd to devour them, so the Devil separates vulnerable believers from the safety of the flock. Within the church, Christ is present in Word and Sacrament. There the under-shepherd instructs the flock so they might escape the latest scams and deceits that undermine faith and lead souls into the indifference and unbelief that characterizes our age.
What is “church membership,” after all?
- Let’s take the Schwartzes, for example (names fictitious). When the new pastor met them, he found that they were lifelong Lutherans, faithful in attendance, but they informed him that they were members “back home” in a congregation of our fellowship, where they hadn’t attended more than half a dozen times in the last five years. No, they didn’t want to transfer membership. It seems a cemetery plot was the issue. Were they really members back home?
- We’ve all met Andy Deresiewicz, who comes to church with his wife and hasn’t attended a Roman Mass in 20 years, but considers himself “a Catholic through and through.” Is he? Or is he more a member where he and his wife attend?
- Malcolm and Marlys Peabody were listed on the church roster, although they never attended anymore. They never answered the phone if they knew it was the pastor calling, and they ignored two letters he sent them asking to get in touch. In a third letter, their pastor stated what church membership is[v] and pointed out that they clearly were not members. Of course, they spoke hatefully about the pastor for “kicking us out of the church.” Or had they left themselves?
In the next few articles, we will see that church membership is when a believer, in obedience to Christ and His word, 1) regularly gathers with fellow believers (communion/community) 2) to receive God’s gifts through word and sacrament 3) in confessional harmony with them, 4) living a repentant, Christian life, 5) served by a pastor 6) whom they recognize as a shepherd accountable for their soul.
“Keep the Faith” Is Connected with Christ’s Word
As the churches decline, it underscores the necessity to “keep the faith,” for those who lose the faith are no longer part of the church. Believing is connected with belonging, belonging where the word and sacrament are found. So then, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message comes through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17, EHV). And Christ Himself declares, So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you remain in my word, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31, EHV).
Pastor Ed Bryant
Faith Lutheran Church, Medford, OR
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grants Pass, OR
[ii] ELS Commission on Congregations at Critical Mass, Comprehensive Report, p. 6 (unpublished).
[iii] Bryant, Edward, “The Essence of Church Membership,” ELS General Pastoral Conference Paper, 2021.
[iv] Jesus answered, “Amen, Amen, I tell you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God! Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh. Whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5–6, EHV).
[v] What he told them is the crux of these articles.