4 Traits of Healthy Church Membership
Breakdowns in fellowship can be gut-wrenching events in the life of Christian churches. When we part unhappily with other members of Christ’s body, we can say with Robert E. Lee, at the death of General Jackson, “I have lost my right arm” (Cf. 1 Cor. 12:25-26).
Often, when someone leaves a church, the leaders who conduct the exit interview are confronted with the thought: “If only we could have talked about this earlier.”
But what if we could take what we learn from church exit interviews, and ask with Paul, “How ought we conduct ourselves in the house of God?” (1 Tim. 3:15). Those who trust in Christ, and love God and their neighbor, must also pursue certain traits which will strengthen and enrich church life for themselves and others.
Church members are bound to use “wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:3). Failure to do so is a sign of moral degeneracy (1 Tim. 5:12-13) and almost always spells trouble for church unity.
Among other things, wholesome church communication includes a refusal to gossip. In contrast to how believers sometimes talk about other church members, Paul writes about his fellow gospel laborers in glowing terms. Tychicus is a beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord. Epaphras is a zealous bondservant of Christ. Luke is the beloved physician (Col. 4:7-14). What would happen in our churches if we refused to speak ill of others, despite their undeniable faults?
Reflecting the words of Christ also requires that we not let problems fester. Often, when church members finally communicate their ecclesiastical unhappiness, the damage is irreparable. Had they spoken sooner, and persevered longer, many wrongs might have been righted.
Clear, direct, and timely church communication can be intimidating. But believers must bring concerns to fellow church members, and leaders, as if to beloved fathers, brothers, mothers, or sisters (1 Tim. 5:1,2), speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). We must believe that church family members care enough about each other’s hurts to listen and respond appropriately.
According to Paul, good doctrine, heartily imbibed, nourishes the soul (1:10, 4:6, 16). Held in common, doctrine also unites believers. The historic Christian confessions do more than summarize Scripture. They also provide a unifying expression of the faith for those who might have little else in common.
Until a person develops biblical convictions about salvation, worship, and the church (for example), they will be tossed about by every wind of doctrine and by the allure of the next best church. And surely these convictions can take time to develop. Many people visit churches for non-theological reasons. They might be intrigued by the website or respond to a friend’s invitation. They might appreciate a church’s hospitality, singing, or proximity. But these reasons will keep few people in a church. Eventually, a church’s “cultural strengths” can lose their magnetism. A shared confession of faith has a stronger holding power.
For this reason all believers must learn to think like theologians. Not everyone will read difficult theological works. But we all must know what we believe and why. Could you distinguish between an Arminian and Calvinistic concept of the gospel? Do you have a biblical view of creeds? Do you have a sound theology of worship?
A congregation that is held together only by geography–or even theology–will never be a biblical family. When Paul talks about right conduct in the house of God (1 Tim. 3:15), the house he’s referring to isn’t a church building it’s a household, the new family God has constituted in Christ (Eph. 2:19). Though this family is already a living organism, the members must learn to live together. When Paul speaks of the importance of hospitality in the church (1 Tim. 3:2), he’s calling for the church to be a loving and close-knit community which is committed to lodging strangers, washing the saints’ feet, and relieving the afflicted (1 Tim. 5:10).
Building community requires that we not be ruled by past experiences. Many of us have been disappointed in an effort to develop close church friendships. We may have tried, and seemingly failed, to get to know our pastor, elders, and other church members. Don’t let an unhappy history determine future church relationships. When Christ reconciled us to Himself He gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). Keep working at that ministry.
In warning against church arguments, Paul heralds this truth: “Now godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 3:6). Some people do not become settled and serving members of a church because they lack contentment. Usually discontent is characterized by a disproportionate focus on a church’s shortcomings and an unwillingness to work constructively toward a brighter future. The fallout from unhappy, uninvolved, and critical members can be crippling.
The church does have spots and blemishes. Your pastor isn’t going to visit you as often as you’d like, or always preach the kind of sermons your family wants. The programs aren’t going to address your every need. The music isn’t going to reflect the kind of repertoire you might prefer. You will be hurt and disappointed. But Christ is building His church and He knows exactly what He’s doing.
The first step in developing healthy church membership is finding rest for our weary souls in the One who is building the church (Matt. 11:28-29). After lauding contentment, Paul urges believers to consider the appearing of our Lord Jesus (1 Tim. 6:14). With reference to deep struggles Paul speaks of the exceeding abundance of God’s grace (1 Tim. 1:14). With grace for today and hope for tomorrow, each of us can press on toward more Christ-like conduct in the house of God.
Rev. William Boekestein is pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, Pa. He is author of a forthcoming biography of Ulrich Zwingli published by EP Books.