By Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
When we enter into a community of faith, we’re not graduating, we’re matriculating. In the journey of faith, we don’t cross the finish line at the new members’ class, the seminary graduation, or the installation at the new church. We are always merely beginning a new lap of a race. Daniel & Copenhaver This Odd Wondrous Calling p56
This morning our session met and five people became new members of Sharon church. At the end of the sermon we are going to welcome them publicly. This raises the question for me, “Why membership?” I’m sure we can all think of people who are members of a church who live their lives in a way that no one would know that they are Christians. At the same time we can think of people who are not members of a church yet they support the church financially and live in a way that puts to shame many Christians. What difference does membership make?
One author claimed that the concept of membership actually started with the church. In our modern world we have watered down the meaning of membership. When I was a pastor at Beulah Church I was a member of Sam’s Club. The church paid for a membership for all of the staff so we could buy things there. When I left Beulah that membership ended. I am a member of our YMCA, AAA and Best Buy, and probably several other places. Do those memberships have the same meaning as being a member of a church?
Technically, the constitution of the Presbyterian Church tells us that there are two benefits of being a church member. First, if you are a member of a Presbyterian church you can be an elder or deacon, or serve on the Pastor Nominating Committee in a church. Second, if you come to a congregational meeting you can vote. Aren’t those exciting reasons to join a church?
I admit a little sarcasm in that statement. Part of me doesn’t really care if a person is a member or not. What is really important is accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior coming to worship and growing in your faith, not having your name on the membership role of a church. However, I would like to suggest that there are certain benefits that come from being a member.
I’d like to share several of those benefits with you this morning. Before I do that, let me remind you that benefits always come with responsibilities. There is always a flip side to these benefits. For every advantage there is also an expectation.
First, one of the benefits of becoming a member of a church is that it provides the opportunity to make a commitment. To join a church is to say to the world “I belong to Jesus and to this particular church.”
Years ago my parents went to a wedding that really bothered them. The vows that the couple made said something about being married “until our love ends.” It wasn’t a commitment until life ends, but only we stop loving each other. In our day and age it seems as if couples living together without the commitment of marriage has become the norm. The rationale is that “we want to see if it is going to work.” The problem with that is that the divorce rate is higher among couples who have lived together first. The lack of commitment makes it harder to sustain the marriage. Every married couple knows that there are times when your love will strengthen your commitment, but there are also times when you need your commitment to strengthen your love.
Whether it is in marriage or joining a church, commitment will strengthen your relationship. If you want to keep growing in your faith, if you want a faith that goes deep enough to survive the greatest struggles of life and death, if you want a faith that will carry you through the greatest struggles of life, then you need commitment. Joining a church is one act of commitment.
Second, becoming a member of a church gives you an identity. Peter tells us that as Christians we “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9). Through Jesus we have become God’s beloved children. Joining a church includes proclaiming our faith in Christ, which gives us our identity.
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, when God looks at you he doesn’t see your sin and your weakness. God doesn’t look at you and see that you went through a divorce, or that you failed in your career, or that you have an alcohol problem, or that your kids have walked away from the church. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God looks at you and sees Jesus. That is your identity.
Several years ago I received a letter from my college. It was a typical alumni letter asking for money. The catch was that they were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the college. The letter said that over the years the school had six different names: Humboldt State Normal School; Humboldt State Teachers College and Junior College; Humboldt State Teachers College; Humboldt State College; California State University, Humboldt; Humboldt State University. The list of names ended with this statement. “However, the name is much less important than the place.” Is a name really that insignificant?
When we were putting together the bulletin this week we had some confusion about how to spell the names of our new members. Is Stacy, S T A C E Y or just S T A C Y? Is Stephen spelled with a v or a ph? Or maybe it’s S T E P H A N. Or do you prefer “Steve?” And Hepzibah, we have probably misspelled your name several times since you’ve been here. I hope we spelled your names right. If not, please let us know. You would probably be gracious, but our names give us our identity. We want others to get that right.
When you join the church you are making a commitment to Jesus Christ and you are affirming your ultimate identity. Through Jesus you are God’s beloved children.
Third, membership brings with it a community. Membership means that you belong to this church. Peter doesn’t say that you are a chosen individual, or a holy person who belongs to God. “You are a chosen people, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Peter 2:9). We are part of a community.
Dwight Moody, the great evangelist of the 19th century, went to visit a man who had heard the Christian message but was still wrestling with being a Christian. It was a cold winter night. They sat by the fireplace and talked for several hours. This man argued that a person could be saved, could be a good Christian, without being part of a church. Moody listened for a while, then got up out of his chair. He walked over to the fireplace. He took the poker and pulled a flaming coal. At first he held it up in the air, and the flame went out. Then he put it on the stone hearth. Moody watched as the coal slowly faded and went out. He turned and looked at the man, and still said nothing. After a long silence the man replied, “Mr. Moody, you have made your point. Apart from the rest of the fire, the ember goes out.” We need to belong. To keep our faith alive we need the community of faith.
The great joy is that when we join the church we become part of the community of faith. We are no longer alone in this thing we call life. We have others who help us and support us. We are surrounded by people who will be there for us when we need help. We belong.
The fourth benefit of being a member is worship. We can certainly worship when we are by ourselves, and we should. Everyone ought to be spending time on a regular basis praying and reading the Bible. However, we also need to worship together, as the body of Christ.
There is a story of a wealthy European nobleman who wanted to build a church in the mountain village where he lived. After it was completed, the people gathered for the grand opening of the cathedral. They marveled at its beauty. It was a masterpiece. But someone asked, “It’s dark in here. Where are the lamps? How will the church be lighted?” The nobleman pointed to some brackets on the walls. Then he gave each family a lamp and said, “Each time you are here, the place where you will be seated will be lighted. Each time you aren’t here, that place will be dark. This is to remind you that whenever you fail to come to worship, some part of God’s house will be dark.”
One of the most important things you can do as a member of a church is come to worship. I know that I am a better preacher and the choir sings better and we all worship better when the sanctuary is full. I don’t want to become legalistic about it, but one of the greatest gifts you can give to this church is coming on Sunday morning. One of the responsibilities of church membership is coming to worship.
There is also a great benefit to belonging to a church and coming to worship. Let’s be honest, there are times when we don’t feel very spiritual. There are times when we really don’t want to come to worship. There are times we would rather stay home, or go out to the golf course or go early to a Pirates game or a Steelers game. The beauty of belonging to a church and going to worship is that you don’t have to feel spiritual to worship. You don’t have to have a sense of God’s presence to worship. You don’t have to read and study the Scriptures to hear God speak. Hopefully the preacher does that for you. You don’t need a heart that is lifted up and feeling joy to join in the praise of God. The choir will do that for you. You don’t have to want to pray to benefit from the prayers of the congregation. When our faith is weak, when we are struggling with God, when life has knocked us down, all we need to do to worship is show up. Sometimes, the rest of the members of the church will do all of the work of worship for you. And you can receive the benefit.
Why membership? Membership gives us the opportunity to express our commitment to Jesus Christ. Membership gives us our identity. Membership gives us a community. Membership helps us worship. And so, today we celebrate five new members of the church.