“I Am a Church Member”

 Thom Rainer’s I Am A Church Member (Nashville: B&H, 2013) is a helpful little booklet that sets forth a healthy Christian attitude towards church membership.  It isn’t a detailed theological treatise about church membership, but it is a good and straightforward introduction to biblical church membership.  It is written in clear language, is quite short (less than 80 small pages), and gives a decent summary of how a Christian should be an active member of a local church.   At the end of each short chapter is a set of questions and a pledge for each Christian to make as a member of a church.

I appreciated how Rainer applied the gospel throughout the book.  I also appreciated the pastoral warmth that was evident in the book.  I was convicted by Rainer’s frank admission that we can blame the church’s decline in the last 20 or 30 years on several things, but one of those things is this: “I am suggesting that congregations across America are weak because many of us church members have lost the biblical understanding of what it means to be part of the body of Christ.  We join churches expecting others to serve us, to feed us to care for us.  We don’t like the hypocrites in the church, but we fail to see our own hypocrisies.”

“[But] God did not give us local churches to become country clubs where membership means we have privileges and perks.  [Rather,] He placed us in churches to serve, to care for others, to pray for leaders, to learn, to teach, to give, and, in some cases, to die for the sake of the gospel” (p. 5-6).

Finally, I liked how Rainer explained that church membership is not like country club membership:

“For [people who view church membership like country club membership], membership is about receiving instead of giving, being served instead of serving, rights instead of responsibilities, and entitlements instead of sacrifices” (p.11).

Rainer doesn’t just critique/deconstruct in this book.  He also sets a positive, Christian, and biblical way to view church membership and live as Christians in a body.  If you’re looking for a starting point in how to view church membership, this is a good one to get: I Am A Church Member.  Since Rainer doesn’t discuss everything about church membership, you’ll have to get other books if you want more in-depth reading.  However, this is one that I’d give to someone who needs a brief, simple, and straightforward description of what it means to serve in the family of God.

Thom Rainer, I Am A Church Member (Nashville: B&H, 2013).

shane lems

Cowboys, Detectives, and Loner Christians

Culture Vultures In Habits of the Heart (2008 ed.) the authors brilliantly illustrate American individualism by examining American stories – specifically stories of the cowboy and the detective.  Even more interesting is what John Locke has to do with cowboys and detectives.

“Individualism lies at the very core of American culture. …John Locke is the key figure and one enormously influential in America.  The essence of the Lockean position is an almost ontological individualism.  The individual is prior to society, which comes into existence only through the voluntary contract of individuals trying to maximize their own self-interest.  It is from this position that we have derived the tradition of utilitarian individualism.  But because one can only know what is useful to one by consulting one’s desires and sentiments, this is also ultimately the source of the expressive individualist tradition as well.”

“…A deep and continuing theme in American literature is the hero who must leave society, alone or with one or a few others, in order to realize the moral good in the wilderness, at sea, or on the margins of settled society.”

“American is also the inventor of that most mythical individual hero, the cowboy, who again and again saves a society he can never completely fit into.  The cowboy has a special talent – he can shoot straighter and faster than other men – and a special sense of justice.  But these characteristics make him so unique that he can never fully belong to society.  His destiny is to defend society without ever really joining it.  He rides off alone into the sunset….”

“The connection of moral courage and lonely individualism is even tighter for that other, more modern American hero, the hard-boiled detective.  …The detective is a loner.  He is often unsuccessful in conventional terms, working out of a shabby office where the phone never rings.  Wily, tough, smart, he is nonetheless unappreciated.  But his marginality is also his strength.  …To seek justice in a corrupt society, the American detective must be tough, and above all, he must be a loner.  …The hard-boiled detective, who may long for love and success, for a place in society, is finally driven to stand alone, resisting the blandishments of society, to pursue a lonely crusade for justice.”

In this chapter (6), the authors also wonder out loud if radically individualistic people are “capable of sustaining either a public or a private life.”  This discussion is also a good one for Christians to think about.  Such radical individualism is antithetical to the biblical concepts of covenant and communion (fellowship of the saints).  I would even say that this individualism is one thing that has weakened and is still weakening the Christian church in the United States.  Many Christians regularly avoid the assembly of the saints and view church membership as an imposition upon their individual rights and preferences.

God, however, didn’t create people to be loners (Gen. 2:18), and when he redeems sinners, he calls them into regular and personal fellowship and worship with other Christians (Acts 2:42, Heb. 10:24-25).  Christians living alone are going against the grain of the biblical faith and no doubt suffer for it.  We all need to pray against our own individualism and for those wandering alone from the flock of Christ.

The above quotes were taken from Robert Bellah, et. al, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press ,2008).

rev shane lems

Yes, I Believe that Jesus is Lord…

 Around 100 years ago, Abraham Kuyper wrote a book for those wishing to make public profession of faith in a Reformed church.  The book is called The Implications of Public ConfessionIn this short book, Kuyper discusses the relationship of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  He also talks about children praying, believing, repenting, and confessing the doctrines of grace.  Kuyper mentions what confession is and what a confessing church sounds like in unison.  This is a book worth getting – I think there are a few used ones on Amazon for around $10.  Here’s one paragraph from the book that I appreciate.

“Your confession of your Savior and Lord before the congregation must include a confession of your personal wretchedness.  A confession which desires Jesus but which is not characterized by a profound conviction of personal sin and guilt is false.  Paul would call that a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.  Indeed, it would be a weak and flimsy confession.  That is self-evident.  Why a Redeemer if there be no need for redemption?  How yearn for a Savior except there be a consciousness  of the bonds of death?  And again, why should you seek the Physician if you do not sense that your soul is sick?”

“Yes, there should be a consciousness, a poignant, painful consciousness of personal sin and guilt.  That does not mean that you must have the full and profound consciousness of your depravity in the moment you say ‘yes’ before the congregation.  Those who profess the necessity of that, drift toward emotionalism and depart from the meaning of the Word of God.  But it is unequivocally true that he who confesses his Savior must confess his wretchedness also.  He must, to a degree and in a way appropriate to his age and experience, fully sense that he is lost, and that therefore he, together with all God’s children, is taking refuge under the Savior’s wings.”

Abraham Kuyper, The Implications of Public Confession, p. 28.

shane lems

Church Membership – Really?

 Many people today have all sorts of memberships.  From monthly Netflix plans to smart phone contracts to fitness clubs to political movements, not many people hesitate to sign the dotted line that binds them to certain membership obligations.  However, when it comes to being a public, professing member of a local church, quite a few people hesitate and even snicker: “What if I don’t want to join?!”  To make a long post short, I strongly believe church membership of some sort is a biblical thing.  I like what Marion Clark has to say about this in chapter four of The Communion of Saints

“If the church is established by God, ruled by Christ, and governed by the Word of his Spirit, then how can anyone refuse to join it?  For Christians so to refuse is to fail to meet one of their fundamental obligations as followers of Christ.”

“Christians who resist the idea of formal membership sometimes question whether the Bible says that they officially have to join the church.  However, it is clear from the New Testament that the first Christians believed in church membership and kept careful track of their members.  Already at Pentecost, new converts were described as ‘being added to their number’ (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14).  The appointment of the first deacons was in response to the danger that some members who were on the rolls of the Jerusalem church were being overlooked (Acts 6:1-7).  Timothy’s church at Ephesus maintained a list of the widows under its care (1 Tim. 5:9), which is not surprising, given that the apostle Paul had addressed them as ‘members of God’s household’ (Eph. 2:19).  When there was a case of grievous sin at Corinth, Paul instructed the church to ‘put out of [their] fellowship the man who did this’ (1 Cor. 5:2).  He assumed that the elders could distinguish between those who were inside and those who were outside the church, a differentiation that requires fellowship on some sort of formal basis.  Similarly the apostle John was able to discriminate between those who ‘belonged to us’ and ‘did not really belong to us’ (1 John 2:19).”

He concludes,

“It only makes sense: if elders must ‘give an account’ (Heb. 13:17), they must know for whom they are accountable.  To put this another way, shepherds must know who their sheep are.”

There is biblical support for some sort of membership in a local church.  What really makes this hard today is when churches themselves no longer worry about membership.  People end up coming and going from church without anyone really knowing who’s who – there’s no accountability and it’s impossible to do solid shepherding in these types of situations.  So I’m an advocate of church membership and the church I serve takes it seriously.  I’d even suggest that if your church has been neglecting this aspect of its fellowship, contact your elders and/or pastor(s) and discuss this topic with them.

Of course, I recommend reading this chapter (four) of The Communion of Saints for futher stody.  The entire book is also worth reading; it is a biblical and Reformed discussion of what it means to say the phrase in the Creed: “I believe…in the communion of the saints.”

shane lems

Belonging and Believing: Going to Church

 As I mentioned earlier, (with a few caveats) I enjoyed Belcher’s book, Deep Church (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).  One section I appreciated is where he discusses the Emergent emphasis on belonging before believing.  Many Emergent churches don’t like the traditional way of first making someone believe x, y, and z before they join your church and experience community.  Emergent churches rather emphasize belonging before believing.   You enter the community, belong, get involved, while undergoing the slow and sometimes painful transformation that Christianity involves.

I understand this, and like Belcher, I think that “community plays a huge role in conversion” (p.96).  With Belcher, “I understand the importance of creating a safe, welcoming environment for those who are asking questions and looking for answers” (Ibid.).  I don’t think solid biblical churches should have the proverbial doctrine “bouncer” at the door who rejects anyone who thinks differently.  For me, this is an area where the Emergent critique of traditional churches has truth to it, truth which we should not dismiss.

At the same time, I also believe there are boundary markers for Christian churches (Ibid., 97).  Jesus himself challenged his followers to commit themselves to him (which means rejecting certain beliefs and practices; cf. John 6).   Here’s Belcher.

“Belonging is important.  Jesus invited many into his community.  This is what got him into so much trouble with the Pharisees (the original bounded-set people?).  But at the same time he did not shy away from the truth of the gospel and the need for his followers to repent of their idols.  They had to believe in his kingdom, his kingship, and his death and resurrection.  Yes, belonging is important, but we still have to believe at some point” (Ibid., 101).

I’m a critic of the traditional church at quite a few points (i.e. many horrendous traditional hymns!), and one reason I read Emergent stuff is to learn from them (even when I violently disagree!).  But I don’t think Emergent is the answer, nor do I think traditionalism is the answer.  Call it Deep Church, call it a third way, there is a solidly confessional way between traditionalism and postmodernism.  I probably would write a few parts differently than Belcher did, but his book is a good thing to wrestle over if you think about these things as much as I do.  If you’ve read this book in full, I’d love to hear your comments (via email if you’d rather not comment below).

shane lems

sunnyside wa