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Why join a church?

October 2011

Dear Friends,

How encouraging it was on Sunday 2nd October to welcome into full membership 9 people who had been attending regularly and contributing to the life of the congregation. It was also refreshing, given our identity as an all-age church, to guesstimate that the age of the new members ranged from early twenties to ‘well-past retirement’. None of those joining have considered membership of Sandyford lightly: for three of them, it meant giving up membership in churches where their father was the minister. However, all have felt that their future service lay within our congregation.

Admission of new members during the last year, both during Peter White’s ministry and in the vacancy, have prompted a number of questions:

Is church membership optional?

One of the problems for some is that there is no particular verse or passage in the Bible which states: ‘You must become a church member’. Some would cite the experience of the thief on the cross who did not have time to link up with other disciples. However, the salvation of the thief on the cross was not an ‘ordinary’ occurrence. It is true that church membership is not essential to salvation. Joining a church is not to be confused with becoming a Christian. The membership roll in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 20:12) may well (sadly) differ from that in our church registers. In fact, commitment to Christ is a pre-requisite to church membership. Yet in so many places in the Bible there are references to believers coming together as a church and to there being structures in place to promote the well-being of those making such a commitment. Luke records in Acts 2:47 the link between salvation and membership. Those who became Christians joined the church: ‘the Lord added to their number those who were being saved’. The Bible does not allow for the modern consumerist approach to church attendance.

Why the reluctance to join?

One of the problems is that church membership has become so devalued in the twenty-first century and even dismissed as irrelevant to post-modern church culture. Sometimes the Christian church itself can be partly responsible in adopting such a low view of membership. In some congregations, I’m told, there will be a very large number of people on the roll of members who have not attended for years and whose addresses are unknown within the church. Now obviously the aged and the shut-ins cannot be expected to participate in the same way they may have in earlier days, though often those who disappear from the scene are not in this age group. But in what secular clubs could there be a membership of folk who never attend or contribute? Should not the Christian church have a higher standard than the secular benchmark?

Another problem is the counter-culture which is particularly opposed to accountability and commitment. It is possible to treat the church as a spectator sport. The Bible speaks of the church as a vibrant, organic unit, as a body, or family, or the household of God, all images which run counter to the individualism of the post-modern psyche. Just as in a family situation it might seem outmoded to submit to parents, so in a church placing ourselves under the authority of those appointed to ‘rule over you’ – in Presbyterianism, the elders, led by the teaching elder, the minister – might be regarded as somewhat limiting. However, the exhortations to those in leadership are even more demanding in their emphasis on humbly caring for the flock.

Another major barrier can be a sense of unworthiness. While this is more understandable, and a feeling we should all experience in applying for membership, we can sometimes put our sin and guilt above the capacity of Christ to forgive.

A related problem afflicts those who are looking for the perfect church. How many have wrongly denied themselves the privileges of membership on account of their search for the perfect church. As Groucho Marx once said in a mock self-deprecatory tone: ‘I would not join a club which would have me as a member’. Or in the much cited words of Billy Graham, ‘If you find a perfect church, don’t join it. You’ll spoil it.’ The church is not made up of perfect people, but of sinners who trust in a perfect Saviour; it is a place of spiritual healing, encouragement, learning and growth.

What do I need to do to join?

For those joining by profession we ask the following confession, vows which could not be kept but for the grace of God:

  1. I believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and confess Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord.
  2. I promise to join regularly with my fellow Christians in worship on the Lord’s Day.
  3. I promise to be faithful in reading the Bible and in prayer.
  4. I promise to give a fitting proportion of my time, talents and money for the church’s work in the world.
  5. I promise, depending on the grace of God, to confess Christ before men, to serve him in my daily work and to walk in his ways all the days of my life

What are the privileges of membership?

The privileges are inextricably linked to the duties: in belonging to the spiritual family, in deriving strength from one another, and, in particular, from those who are older in the faith, in benefiting from the prayers of others, and in enjoying pastoral support and encouragement, we take our share in bearing one another’s burdens, in exhorting, and caring for, one another, and in submitting to one another and to the jurisdiction of those in leadership.

Those who have joined us are encouraging us to renew those vows we once uttered in the presence of God and to make Sandyford more of a caring, praying, worshipping community, which will be pleasing to the king and head of the church, Jesus Christ, and to which many more will want to belong.

With very best wishes

Noël Peacock

Session Clerk

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