Universal Church Only – a vertical relationship.
From time to time, I will hear a believer say that they don’t have to be a member of particular local church – because they are ‘in Christ’.
At a universal level that is true. They can enjoy time with the Lord alone, and pray quietly to him.
A few years ago I was at a church and each Sunday a lady would join us. She would arrive in the middle of the first song, sit always in the same pew (off to the side), put her Bible on her lap and read or listen, then half way through the final song she would up and leave. It took me a few months to get a conversation out of her. Her response: ‘I come here to worship God and him alone.’
The risk of only focusing on the universal church is that you divorce yourself from serving the local church. The expression of your faith is only a vertical relationship. There is no accountability, no fellowship, no commitment to others. That is a very selfish expression of faith.
But probably more alarmingly, it is an attitude which rejects God’s call to love others.
Being a member of God’s universal church comes with it the requirement to be (as much as possible) a member of God’s local church – to serve God and serve others. Christians do that by spurring others on, meeting together, and making it your job to encourage others.
That said, there are very valid reasons why people may not be able to make it each week to a local church – they could be sick, in aged care, interstate, away with work, on holidays, on mission, away on active service.
Avoid the trap of only attending church when there is nothing better on. Reject the idea of replacing church with one-off social, leisure or sporting activities. Don’t be a believer who sits in the pews and offers your occasional attendance. Invest yourself in the life of your church family because God has given you gifts and talents to use in some way – if they are not used for serving among your family then the Christian family will be weaker for it. For God’s sake, for our sake, and for your own sake – consider how to be core in membership.
Local Church only – the horizontal relationship
Okay, we have looked at the danger of thinking that church is only a place where you do business with God – as if church membership is thinking only about the vertical relationship between you and God.
Let’s consider the opposite danger.
There are times when a believer says that they are only committed to their local church. If Christians focus only on their local church then they run the risk of losing connection to the wider body and so becoming isolated and insular. The emphasis here is very horizontal.
Yes, there are times when the universal church, represented by Christians we don’t even know, do things that are embarrassing and it would be good to say that is just them and not us. Be that as it may, the Bible calls the ‘church’ to do many things some of which involve specialisation (e.g. care for the widows, homeless, vulnerable, children, refugees etc.) but that is the church collective not just the church individual.
It is possible that God could have chosen to do all his work through each individual if he wanted to, but for some reason he has decided that it is best to give different gifts to different individuals who belong to different churches and then through them, care for his world.
The universal church has the capacity to serve in more specific yet still important areas than what the local church may be able to do. In the country that I live there are terrific Christian organisations who do the specific work of reaching and caring for others – the Church Missionary Society, Bush Church Aid, City Bible Forum, Compassion Sponsorship, Scripture Union, Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and of course the denominations and theological colleges to which our local churches are affiliated with. All are examples of the universal church in action.
These ministries are made up of Christians who by and large come from the local church. And our local church is made up of Christians who have often come through these Christian organisations. This partnership should not be one or the other. It is good of a Christian to find a way to be supportively involved at a universal level alongside their local involvement.
Core in Membership
So what does it look like to be core in membership?
Allow me to paint two contrasting pictures which will hopefully draw out the benefit of being core in gospel membership.
Picture 1 – The Me-First Church!
This is the church full of people who put the gospel secondary. A church with people who were there first and foremost for themselves. A church of people who did a lot of watching but were involved only a little. A place where people gave lip service but not active service to the gospel. A place where people turned up when they didn’t have something else they preferred (sport, work, social, weekends away etc.). A place that was more about social connection than a commitment to the gospel. A place where people were more of a passenger than a driver – expecting a service. A place where we could not say helpful (and sometimes hard things) to one another to spur one another on. A place where accountability was only an ideal. It would be a confusing place because it would not be clear what it meant to be Christian as being Christian was not obvious in the deeds of its ‘members’. A place where people were acquaintances because they weren’t there regularly enough to make friends.
The Me-First Church is not the church that the New Testament paints as the model church.
Picture 2 – the Love-God-then-Others Church
This is a church full of people who put the gospel first. A church where members ask; ‘What does the gospel ask of me?’ A church where people grasp hold of each other in responsibility and love. A church where repentance was valued, belief was honoured and obedience encouraged. A church that reflected a confidence in the blood of Jesus. A church where each week what was taught and sung and read and prayed was intentional and taken seriously. A church where people served for the sake of others and even at their own expense. It would be a place where someone could be taught, rebuked, corrected and encouraged without offense or indignation. It would be a place where there was loving accountability. A place where people were spurring others on toward love and good deeds. A place where people protected their time to ensure they met together. A place where there was ownership and intentionality. It would be a place where friendships mattered.
The Love-God-then-Others Church is the church that the New Testament paints as the model church. It is also the church that sounds far more attractive and worthwhile.
Being core in membership at church is about loving God and loving others before ourselves. Being core in membership at church is about putting the gospel first.
Here are ten practical suggestions (which seem obvious), but may help you express your membership in Church.
- (During the week before) Read the Bible Passage which will be preached. Remember to take your Bible/Bible App with you to church.
- Plan to be there and plan to be there before the start time! If it takes you fifteen minutes to travel to church, then give yourself twenty-five minutes!
- (If you drive) park furthest away – not miles away, but park where it will allow others to have more convenient parks.
- If it the custom of your church, wear a name tag/label (yes, I know is can be dorky, but it sure helps people relate more easily).
- When you arrive, look for someone you don’t know and sit with them.
- Avoid sitting at the ends of row seat/pew as it blocks off the rest of the row.
- Pray – for church, for the people who will sit nearby, for the preacher, for what will be preached, and for opportunities to talk about Jesus.
- Fill in a Comment/Welcome Card – as a core member of church, it will help those who are new or unsure to feel better about filling in a card.
- Sing with joy, listen with interest, think with discernment, speak with grace.
- Plan to stay and chat after – or kick on for lunch or dinner, and use the opportunity at some point to talk about what you heard at church.
Christians should find a local church and be committed to that body of believers – with their time, energy, money, service, presence and skill. And Christians should find a universal church ministry and be committed to it – in prayer, service, support, money, involvement and concern.
For other articles in this series:
Belonging to Church
The Church – universal and local!
Draw Near to God and to Others
Core in Membership