Becoming a member of Emmaus was a foreign experience compared to the church context I grew up in. Before coming to Kansas City and Emmaus, I was previously a member of three different churches, and at all three becoming a member worked exactly the same way. On a Sunday morning, I walked down the aisle and said I wanted to join the church. The pastor asked me if I was a believer and if I had been baptized. If the answer was yes, then I was presented as a member of the church. Not a ton of hassle.
Emmaus was different. Becoming a member of Emmaus is a process. At the time, membership applicants had to attend six new members’ classes held on Sunday after the service. Then (as is still the case) new members had to have interviews with the pastors (our interview was at Panera Bread, which made up for the six membership classes). Finally, after going through both the classes and the interview, we were allowed to sign the church covenant, making us official members of Emmaus!
The process of becoming a member of Emmaus was surreal, but that is only the start. What is truly foreign to my church context is what was expected of us after we became members. When I signed the Emmaus Church Covenant, I was covenanting to a myriad of responsibilities. I was covenanting to be at church, to be a member of a community group, to love and serve the church, and to love and pray for my pastors. I was promising to abstain from sin, and to pursue holiness, and lead my wife well. Church members covenanting to responsibilities on the front end is a far cry from the membership that I grew up accustomed to.
Many of my fellow Emmaus members can identify with how strange that process can feel. This is because many of us grew up in churches that did not practice meaningful church membership.
Meaningful Membership vs. Casual Membership
The term “meaningful church membership” is, to an extent, biblically redundant. It’s like saying “a Christian who loves Christ,” or, “a non-believer who is not a believer.” Of course a Christian loves Christ, and of course a non-believer is not a believer. The same is true of a church with meaningful membership: of course membership in a local church is meaningful and committed.
The distinction is needed, though, because many churches do not practice meaningful membership. Instead, they practice a “casual membership.” Across America, church membership rolls are littered with the names of people who joined the church on a whim and never returned, or who have long since moved across the country, or who died in 1987. They are filled with the names of people who are only casually associated with that church. They are not membership rolls so much as guest books, signed by whomever decides that walking down in front of a crowd is not too large a price.
We Americans are particularly prone to casual membership. Church becomes a place that is frequented as we see fit, not a place (and a people) that demands priority in our lives. It becomes a place where we are entertained. It becomes a place that makes us feel good. It becomes a place that primarily exists to be our social club, or daycare, or self-help seminar. It is a place where we want all of the benefits – or what we think are the benefits – without any of the hassle, and in so doing we misconstrue the true benefits of membership.
That is not the portrait of membership the Bible paints.
A Portrait of Meaningful Membership
How does “meaningful membership” differ with “casual membership?” In short, meaningful membership means accepting equally both the responsibilities and the benefits of church membership.
To understand what these responsibilities and benefits are, we must look at how the Bible describes membership. So, what does meaningful membership look like in the Bible?
1. Meaningful membership places a priority on church. Believe it or not, Christians are actually commanded to go to church. In Hebrews 10:23-24, the author says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Church members are not merely given good advice to go to church, or told to go to church when they can, but are instructed to not neglect meeting together.
Unfortunately, our generation has swung the pendulum from a legalistic, “go to church or the devil may get you” mindset that was pervasive during our grandparents’ generation to a “church is optional” mindset. However, we must remember that going to church is not only mandated by Scripture, but it reaps unimaginable benefits for the church member. Paul says that Christ is present with us in a special way when we gather together (1 Cor. 5:4), Again in 1 Cor., Paul says that unbelievers will recognize God’s presence in an assembled church worshipping (1 Cor. 14:24-25), and as we will discuss shortly, gathered church members are able to bring spiritual maturity (Christlikeness) in a unique way – but only if they first gather.
Of course, nowhere does the Bible say how much absence constitutes “neglecting to meet together,” but the point is not that we know just how much we can skip before we sin, but that church should take priority in our lives and schedules. I knew families growing up that missed most church services due to travel ball (spoiler: none of those kids even made it to play in college). I know couples that seem to be out of town half of the weekends of the year for one reason or another. How do these members navigate around the command to not neglect the church? They can’t. They run their ships right smack dab into that iceberg. Not going to church isn’t necessarily a sin, but it absolutely can be.
2. Church members are to live for one another. The phrase “one another” appears over 100 times in the New Testament for dozens of reasons. Church members are to be united to one another (Phil. 2:2, 1 Pt. 3:8, 1 Cor. 1:10), they are to love one another (Rom. 13:8, 1 Thes. 3:12, 1 Pt. 1:22), they are to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), they are to encourage one another (1 Thes. 5:11), and they are to stir one another up in faith and good works (Heb. 10:24). There are so many examples to give, but the point is this: Church members live with the well-being of the whole church in mind. They don’t show up to church when it is convenient. They don’t expect to be catered to every waking second. They don’t suck the life out of others but instead pour themselves out for one another.
This is impossible when membership is reduced to an individual selfishly looking for what they can get out of church. If members live on the peripherals of the church rather than throwing themselves headfirst into the church, then it is impossible to fully obey the “one-another” commands of the New Testament, and equally impossible to receive the benefits of those commands!
3. Church members share in the responsibility of maintaining the holiness of the church. Along with the pastors, the church members are called to protect the holiness of the church from the poison of sin. Hebrews 12:15 states, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Hebrews 10:23-24 again says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” It is the responsibility of the church members, then, to help pull up any weed of dissention and to stir one another to faith and good works (i.e, holiness) so that “no one misses the grace of God.”
Not only do the church members actively press each other to faith and good works, but they are also tasked with pushing out unholiness. It is the church members who are tasked with enacting discipline on members who have fallen into sin (Matt. 18:17, 1 Cor. 5:12-13). The idea of a church actively punishing sin seems harsh, but as F. F. Bruce argues, “If some incipient sin manifests itself in [the church’s] midst, it must be eradicated at once; if it is tolerated, this is a sure way of falling short of God’s grace, for the whole community will then be contaminated.” Church discipline is necessary to protect and remedy the members from the poison of sin.
How does it benefit church members to have a church body keep watch over each other’s souls and enact discipline when necessary? After all, the thought of dozens of other believers having a vested interest in your spiritual life could set anyone’s teeth on edge. But the church is not your 11th grade civics teacher who hides behind corners to see if he can catch you with gum in your mouth. The church functions as a parent, helping to guide, correct, push, and sometimes discipline us so that we may purse Christ and holiness. The goal of watchful care and discipline is for the church member to grow in Christlikeness.
With casual membership, how does the church keep up with “members” enough to know the state of their spiritual life? How can a church discipline a member in sin (with the goal of repentance and grace) if that member only shows up to church every so often? On a more personal note, how can you help your brother and sisters in Christ be more Christlike if you don’t even know their last name? How can the church help you to be more Christlike if you are not willing to help the church be Christlike?
4. Church Members are to care for their pastors. Lastly for our list, the church members have a special responsibility to care for and honor their pastors. Paul instructs church members to respect their leaders and hold them to high esteem (1 Thess. 5:12-13), to be slow to bring charges against elders (1 Tim. 5:19), to imitate the faith of their elders (Heb. 13:7), to provide material support for their elders (1 Cor. 9:14, Gal. 6:6), to pray for their pastors (Eph. 6:19, Col. 3:4), and to obey and submit to their authority (Heb. 13:17). Church members do not just sacrificially love and serve other church members, but they love and serve the pastors whom God has appointed to shepherd over them (1 Pet. 5:2).
Again, how can a shepherd care for a sheep that refuses to actually be a part of the flock? If the members of the church are only casually associated with the church as a whole, who is standing in the gap for our pastors? Who is providing for our pastors as they set about the ministry of the world? How will we be fed with the gospel if we do not listen to our pastors? How will we be pushed into holiness if we recoil at any guidance from our pastors? Casual church members must be convinced that they are sheep who need no shepherd, since they are not committed to loving and being loved by the undershepherd that God has appointed to protect us until he returns or calls us home.
Meaningful Membership at Emmaus
This is the portrait that the Bible paints of Biblical, meaningful church membership. It is our conviction at Emmaus that we are to carefully hang this portrait in our own house, taking the principles that the Bible requires of members and applying it to our own context.
So, what does meaningful membership look like at Emmaus?
1. Emmaus members are expected to come to church. We take serious the charge to not neglect meeting together. When new members sign our church covenant, they sign to commit to “pursue spiritual growth…through worship gatherings.” Obviously we do not have a running ledger of who comes how many times, but if it is noticed that a member has missed either several weeks in a row or regularly over a noticeable length of time, the church will reach out to them to find out if there are needs that need to be met, or sin to be dealt with.
2. Emmaus members are expected to live sacrificially for one another. At Emmaus, one of the primary ways that we serve one another is the context of a community group. By joining a community group, members are able to pray for one another, serve one another, bear one another’s burdens, and fulfill many of the other “one another” commands in small, intimate settings which serve as microcosms of the whole church.
Another way that members serve one another is by volunteering. Every member of Emmaus is expected to serve on a team that helps to make our Sunday morning gatherings successful, whether it’s in the band, as a barista, or serving in the kids ministry.
3. Emmaus members are expected to watch out for one another. Unlike the church contexts that many of us grew up in, members of Emmaus are expected to take a vested interest in the lives of their fellow church members – especially in the lives of their small group members. Emmaus members are expected to pray for one another, confess sin to one another, love one another, and, if needed, correct one another. Correcting one another is often awkward and painful, but the end result is so beautiful that it makes the awkwardness and pain worth the while, because there is a special beauty in a believer becoming aware of sin, repenting of that sin, and enjoying anew the grace of Jesus.
4. Emmaus members are expected to be easy sheep to shepherd. New Emmaus members also covenant to obey and submit to our elders. Again, this may seem weird or scary, but it’s important to remember that our pastors are ordained by God to care for us until Jesus returns. We are commanded to honor, respect, care for, and pray for them while being easy sheep to shepherded – and lest the idea of being an easy sheep seems daunting, if you are committed to coming to church, loving your fellow church members, watching out over your fellow church members, and loving and obeying your pastors then rest assured, you will be an easy sheep.
At Emmaus we wish to cultivate an understanding of membership that does justice to both the actual benefits and the responsibilities that are inherent with church membership. Membership is neither casual nor selfish, but is instead an intentional, selfless giving of oneself to a church family. May we consider membership to Emmaus with the same consideration that Christ considers Emmaus, and the whole church, when he gave himself up for her.
Jake Rainwater is the Director of Membership and a pastoral resident at Emmaus. He attends Midwestern Seminary where he is pursuing a Master of Divinity in Biblical Languages. Jake is married to his high school sweet heart, Tabitha. They have a Great Dane named Scotland. Follow him on Twitter at @JakeRainwater