Why Membership Matters
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
October 23, 2011
Acts 2: 37-47 (NIV)
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
38Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
40With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
One weekend in August of 2001, I was preparing to head to South Carolina for my senior year of college. With my car loaded, my plan was to get up Sunday morning and immediately head off for South Carolina. That would give me plenty of time to get there, unload, and settle into my apartment before student teaching began the next day. But on Saturday night, my Mom said, “You have to go to church tomorrow before you leave.” Obviously, I asked her why, and she said something vague about speaking briefly in the service and I needed to be there.
So the next morning, I left my loaded car in the driveway and headed to church with my family. Early in the worship service, my Mom stepped up to the lectern and began to speak to the congregation. She started by telling the church that that afternoon I would be leaving to begin my senior year of college, and that in a few days, she and my Dad would be taking my younger sister to North Carolina to begin her college career. My mother went on to share how proud she and my dad were of their two daughters and all our accomplishments, but that they were most proud of our strong Christian faith. Now, my Mom didn’t get up before the congregation and do this in order to pat herself on the back. She asked for this opportunity so that she could say “thank you” to the community of believers who had helped raise her children.
She thanked the congregation for being faithful in their own lives and modeling that faith for the children of the church. She thanked the congregation for fulfilling the covenant they took at the baptisms of me and my sister; for living according to the example of Christ, for surrounding me and my sister with love and forgiveness, for praying for us and teaching us, for leading their lives in such ways that my sister and I (and all the children of that church) grew in the knowledge and love of God. After 21 years of faithfully bringing us to church, my parents took a moment to say “thank you” to our church family for doing their part. My Mom ended by saying that her girls wouldn’t be who they are today if not for the faithful witness of that church family.
And that is why membership matters to me; because I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for the commitment of the members at my home church in Oak Ridge.
Membership is such an institutionalized concept. We think of membership as a sort of “rite of passage.” Being a member makes you a part of something: a yacht club, country club, fraternity, or team; the list could go on and on. You have to be a member to get into the club, or go to the meetings, or play on the team. With such concepts of membership, it seems strange that we would emphasize church membership. You certainly don’t have to be a member to attend a church, and you definitely don’t have to be a church member to be a Christian. So if you can go to church and be a Christian without being a member, why does membership matter? That’s the question we’re going to tackle today. But when it comes to church membership, we have to think about it a little differently from the way we think about membership in other organizations.
There is no greater example of the special nature of church membership than the witness of the early Christians, which we heard in our Scripture passage a few moments ago. This passage from Acts occurs only a short time after Christ’s ascension into heaven. The early Christians know that in Christ something special has begun, and they are trying to organize themselves in a way that reflects that. They want the Christian community to reflect the kingdom of God. You see, God’s kingdom is different from the world. God’s kingdom reflects unity and empathy rather than division and hierarchy, and so believers live together and have “all things in common.” This phrase about having “everything in common” was the Greek way of describing a very close friendship. Thus, we get this description from Acts in which the early Christians devote themselves to teaching, fellowship, and prayer. All of these practices are essential to the Christian’s continued formation as disciples, but they are also too demanding for the individual believer. The early believers knew that they had to do this together, sharing goods and practices, holding one another accountable in this new way of life called “Christian.” So together, these friends looked after one another, worshiped regularly in the Temple, and broke bread together in their homes.
What we learn from the life of the early Christian community is that membership in the church is not a rite of passage, but it is a covenant. It is a covenant not only between each of us and God, but also between one another. Unlike membership in clubs or other organizations, church membership is not a way that we gain some sort of special access. Rather, it is a covenant made between fellow Christians to establish and uphold one another in our journey as Christ’s disciples. Listen to the way that the United Methodist Book of Discipline describes church membership: “Faithful membership in the local church is essential for personal growth and for developing a deeper commitment to the will and grace of God…Faithful discipleship includes the obligation to participate in the corporate life of the congregation with fellow members of the body of Christ. A member is bound in sacred covenant to shoulder the burdens, share the risks, and celebrate the joy of fellow members.”
I think over the years, the church has downplayed the significance of membership. And I think that has happened because we think of it solely as membership, like membership in any other organization. Not to mention the fact that it’s especially easy to “church-hop” these days with a church on every corner. So, we have come to take membership lightly. But when we view membership more as a covenant, it cannot be taken lightly. You cannot walk out on the covenant you have made with friends because you don’t like the color of the carpet or because the pastor made you mad. You cannot let down your commitment to the people of the congregation because the church down the street has free all-you-can-eat Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee all day every Sunday. The church congregation has to be considered more like a family than a social club. You wouldn’t stop feeding your children because they disrespected you. You wouldn’t walk out on your spouse because they shrank your favorite shirt in the latest load of laundry. We have a commitment to our families: to care for one another so that we can all thrive, and the same is true in the church. Our membership makes us like a family, a group committed to one another so that together we all grow and thrive as Christ’s disciples.
The story is told of four people in the church whose names were Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. The church needed help meeting its financial obligations and Everybody was asked to participate. Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it. But you know who did it? Nobody. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done. When the church grounds needed some work, Somebody was asked to help. But Somebody resented being called upon because Anybody could have done it just as well. After all, it was really Everybody’s job. In the end the work was given to Nobody, and Nobody got it done. The process went on and on. Whatever the task that needed to be done, Nobody could be counted on to do it. Nobody visited the sick. Nobody gave generously. Nobody shared his faith. In short, Nobody was a very faithful member. Finally the day came when Somebody left the church and took Anybody and Everybody with him. Who was left? Nobody!
As followers of Christ, we all have an obligation to God and to one another, and our Christianity is incomplete without the Christian community. You see, as members of the body of Christ, the church, we are like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has protrusions and indentations. The protrusions represent our strengths (gifts, talents, abilities), and the indentations represent our weaknesses (faults, limitations, shortcomings, undeveloped areas). The beautiful thing is that, when assembled, the pieces complement one another, fit together perfectly, and produce a beautiful picture. A picture that, as those early Christians knew, looks much like the kingdom of God.
That is why membership matters. When we attend church, we practice Christianity. But when we become members of a church, entering into covenant with the people around us, we grow as Christians, and we experience the kingdom of God in ways that would not otherwise be possible. And that’s exactly what happened for my sister and me in my home church. The members upheld their end of the covenant, and as we grew, we became part of the covenant as well, and together we shared the life of Christians and grew as Christ’s disciples. We experienced something of the kingdom of God, and we shared it in our community.
So, can you be a Christian without joining a church? Sure you can – it’s something like being a soldier without an army, a seaman without a ship, a businessman without a business, a tuba player without an orchestra, a football player without a team, or a bee without a hive. Certainly churches have their faults, and church membership can at times be quite a burden. But look at the people around you today. This is your Christian family. They need you, and you need them because we all need Christ.
 The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, para. 218-219.