Rev. Harold Senkbeil aptly titled a book that way. In his book, he answered the question this way: God is where His Word and Sacrament are.[i] But what does church membership mean if we aren’t looking for God? It means we are looking for something other than the main thing. Don’t be surprised at this, for as Paul prophesies, For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Timothy 4:3–4, ESV).
Here’s an illustration: What do you look for in a vehicle? If we think about it, we will look for a vehicle that serves our purpose: A truck may carry so much weight, a car may be small and nimble in traffic, or a minivan may have room for our children and their friends. You don’t go looking for an economy car but buy a pickup because you like the upholstery. You won’t go looking for a minivan and end up with a tiny runabout because you like the color. You buy what you are looking for. What if you aren’t looking for God in your church membership?
Consider what the church is for. The faithful Christian congregation is unique; it is where we are to find God, receive His gifts, and worship Him. No other institution is like a faithful church…
- Our Creator tells us to be there.
- He promises to be there with us and speak to us through His Word.
- We hold the deepest truths in common with others, though we may have nothing in common but our faith. We confess together the truths about where we come from, our destiny, sin and salvation, and the meaning of life.
- We encourage one another in our Christian lives, charitably holding one another accountable in certain ways.
- We have a pastor who stays up late nights, concerned for our soul.
- We have a shepherd who speaks God’s words to us and gives us His gifts while praying for us to our Lord.
The Dangers of a Wrong Idea
With that in mind, consider how many base their church membership on what they are looking for, but they aren’t looking for God. Join a church for the wrong reasons and disappointment can be guaranteed. What sort of place are you looking for?
The Friendly Place – The most common reason that people give me for going to church is that it is friendly. The church should be friendly! But then so should McDonalds™, your pharmacy, and the big box store. Shame on us if we are not friendly to visitors and to one another, but the church doesn’t exist to give you your weekly dose of friendliness, so if that is what people are looking for in a church, then don’t be surprised if or when they find it elsewhere.
The No-Commitment Place – A friend of ours once told us, “I like my church because it doesn’t interfere with my politics or my religion.” In his view, the church gave him status and access to some nice people. The real error, though, is the idea that the church requires commitment from us. If we go there to meet God, then it is really He who requires a commitment from us. It is He who tells us: to love one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to take heed to the teaching, to forgive as we are forgiven, to teach and believe the same thing–what He teaches us, to be faithful (routine or regular) in hearing the preached Word and receiving the Sacrament, to encourage one another, and so on. These aren’t the church’s demands, but God’s will, the way of love toward Him and one another. Perhaps it is easier to dismiss the importance of our church life if we deny that it is the Lord we are dealing with.
The There-if-I-Want-It Place – Several times, I have received requests to conduct funerals for non-members. In one typical instance, the caller told me he wanted me to give his mother a Christian burial. He assured me that not only was his mother a member of my church, but a charter member. Since I had been pastor of the church for 13 years, I thought he had the wrong church. But no, although his mother had indeed been a charter member, neither she nor her family had been to the church in decades. It seems some want a place that will participate in their illusion that church is some sort of ticket to heaven that you can store away and pull back out when needed, rather than part of a new life of faith that extends beyond time.
The wrong idea of church membership leads people to neglect it, to look for the wrong things in it, and ultimately to forsake the real church altogether. We may laugh at the idea that we can get to heaven because our name is printed on a plaque of charter members, because we are listed in the church roster, or because we grew up in that town and that church. But we may find ourselves living as though it were true.
There is a reason that Christians around the world are risking life, limb, and liberty to be part of a Christian congregation. It’s because our Savior promises to be found there.
 Where in the World Is God? – Senkbeil, H. – 1999; Northwestern Publishing House
Rev. Ed Bryant