After spending the past four weeks talking about who God made us to be as a church, this past Sunday morning we started a new conversation about what’s next. Now that we know who we are, what are some of the specific things we can start doing now to make sure we are able to move all together in the direction He has designed us to go? Keep reading to find out.
Wasn’t last week fun? If you were not here for whatever reason number one, we missed you. Number two, you will want to get your hands on a video of the service so you can experience some of the Spirit moving as we did in the room. After three weeks of unpacking the key pieces of the identity God has built into this church for the purpose of building up the larger body of Christ and expanding the kingdom starting in Oakboro and moving on outward from here, we finally put everything together as we celebrated the resurrection and found ourselves in the larger story God is writing across the ages. I thought it was a really exciting morning and I hope you did too. It was definitely a morning that I have been looking forward to for quite some time. Several of you have told me how excited you are to race forward to see what God has in store for us in the days ahead as we become fully the body of Christ He made us to be—a place where people connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. And yet this week…everything looks about like it did last week. So…what’s next?
Over the course of this week and next, I’d like to offer the beginnings of an answer to that question for you. This week and next I want to have a conversation with you about some very specific things you can be doing as we move together toward what God has waiting out ahead of us. It is going to be a single conversation divided into two parts. We’d have all of it this morning, but then we’d probably be here a while and I don’t know about you, but I didn’t bring my lunch with me today.
Now, this is a conversation we could begin from a number of different places. We could use a number of different ideas as our guide. But, since we have them now, we are going to use our threefold identity for that purpose. We’re going to start this morning by looking at how the ideal of connecting can guide our next steps. Then, next week, we’ll shift gears to see how growing and reaching point us toward some specific things we can be doing.
From the standpoint of connecting, then, what is the next thing you can do to make sure you are a part of what God is up to in our midst? Well, the very first thing is simply to connect here as fully and formally as possible. How do you do that? By becoming a member.
Now, the idea of membership is an interesting one in our culture. In some places it is alive and well. In others…not so much. Many different stores work very hard to convince their shoppers to become members of their rewards programs. The idea is that by offering sufficiently tantalizing perks to regular customers they can increase brand loyalty and make sure your dollars go to them instead of their competitors. For instance, Lowe’s has the My Lowe’s card which will track all of your home purchases for you so that you can keep everything in one place. It’ll do things like remind you to buy certain regularly-consumed or -replaced items such as furnace filters. Amazon has its famous Prime program which allows members to receive free two-day shipping on just about anything they buy as well as access to a music streaming service and a video streaming service that is working diligently to compete with Netflix in terms of its share of the streaming market. Some, like Sam’s require you to be a member to even shop there. Customers pay a fee to have the privilege of accessing certain deals and products that are hard to find quite like that anywhere else. In places like these, the concept of membership is alive, well, and vigorously encouraged.
The big idea for groups that seek out members is that membership has to mean something. There have to be perks and services and products available to members that are simply not available by any other means. They have to be not merely comparable to what’s otherwise out there, but in fact better.
Do you know, though, where the idea and practice of membership are not going so well? It’s a place where membership has long been a defining feature. It’s churches. For most of the 20th century, when you settled on a church to which you were going to make a long-term commitment, you joined that church. Among Baptist churches this has traditionally happened in several different ways. Some people join by baptism. The idea is that if we dunk you, we’re going to count you as ours until you tell us to do otherwise. Some join by a profession of faith (with the assumption that believer’s baptism is on the near horizon). Some join by transferring their membership from another Baptist church. The technical, insider-lingo for this is that they “move their letter.” Used to be (and still in some places), churches kept membership letters for their members. If you joined another church, that letter was forwarded on to your new home. You literally moved your letter from one place to another. This is all just what you did.
But then the culture began to change. As the sheer number of options for…well…everything expanded beyond what folks alive at the turn of the 20th century could have even imagined, and with retail chains getting into the membership business, people began to increasingly seek to keep their options open. And as our society became increasingly more consumer-driven, if the membership perks at one church were consider subpar, folks could always go check out what was being offered down the street. Eventually, many churches got rid of the concept of membership altogether. I am convinced, though, that membership at a church is still something that matters. As for why, let’s turn to the Scriptures for a few minutes and see what we can find there.
The idea of formally becoming a part of the people of God has deep roots. We can see glimpses of this idea all the way back before Moses gave the Law to the people of Israel. Way back before the people even left Egypt, God gave some instructions while preparing the people for the very first Passover that pointed toward His intention that His people be a missionary people; that pointed toward the idea that there were people who weren’t currently part of God’s people and yet who were going to want to become so.
Listen to this from Exodus 12:43: “And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it.’”
Now, there’s some funny-sounding stuff there that is worth a conversation, but not right now. What is worth noting, though, is that God was calling the people to do some things in which outsiders were not going to be welcome to participate. Did you notice that He told them a foreigner was not to be participating in the Passover? And as if that weren’t enough, they weren’t even to take the elements of the meal outside their houses. The context suggests a corollary to that: Where a foreigner might get ahold of it.
Look at what comes next, though: “If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord…” In other words: If one of these foreigners would like to take part in it, I’m about to give you an allowance by which that can happen. Continuing: “…let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.” Are you with me? Nobody who was not a part of the people of Israel was welcome to participate in this insiders-only event. But, if somebody wanted to become an insider, they were welcome to do so, at which point they would be welcome to participate.
So, what does this mean for us? Well, acknowledging fully and freely that this was spoken to a people with a cultural situation radically different from our own, I think there are a few things we can say. There are some things we do in the body of Christ that aren’t going to make any sense to somebody who’s not a part of it to the extent that they should be actively excluded from their practice. Making that even more personal and concrete, there are some functions of a church that are rightly reserved for members. But, for someone who is interested in becoming a part of the body, the doors are wide open. More than that, there are some hoops that are okay to put in place before full membership is going to be granted. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for churches to insist on surgery in order to join—I think that would work pretty well to keep membership numbers low. But, asking for people to make a formal commitment in some fashion isn’t outside the realm of reasonableness.
Now, we don’t see any kind of formal image of membership in the New Testament, but we do see James in Acts 15 asking Gentile converts in Antioch to avoid idolatry and sexual immorality in order to be fully a part of the church body. He kept the hoops as big and broad as possible—and a whole lot bigger and broader than many of the other Jewish Christians wanted them to be—but there were some hoops. Being a part of the body looks different from being not a part of the body and from the Scriptures, it seems like it’s not unreasonable to put some boundaries in place to make this clear.
Let’s get right down to it. The first thing you can do in light of who God made us to be is to make sure you are fully connected to the body here by becoming a member. If you are to do this, what does it mean? It means you are fully on board with the identity and direction of the church to the point that you want to align yourself with it formally. It means you agree with the fundamental theological beliefs of the church such that you are willing to become an active promoter of those. It means you are on board with the mission of the church such that you want to take an active role in seeing it advanced. The fact is, some parts of the church’s ministry are open and available to anybody to join in the fun. But, there are some parts that need to be limited to members. Membership in a church should be a lot of things, but a few things it shouldn’t be is empty, consequence-less, expectation-less, or dictatorial in what it demands of people. It should be a badge of pride and honor for all who wear it.
Membership matters and in coming months we are going to begin talking more directly about what it means to be a member here. And just for the sake of clarity out of the gate, if you aren’t a member here, we aren’t going to behave any differently toward you than we already do. We’re going to love and serve you just the same. But, there’s something powerful about making formal the connection you have here. It allows us and you to be more intentional about where we’re going together and how we are going to get there. It’s a counter-cultural move to be sure, but it’s one that will pay off for you and for us over the long haul.
But, here’s where the next part of connecting comes powerfully into play. Let’s say you take this big step and become fully a member of the church. Or perhaps, let’s say you already are a member of the church. Maybe you’ve been a member of this church for a long time. Some of you, I know for a fact, have been members multiple decades longer than I’ve been alive. What are you supposed to be doing? Well, to start with, you can simply be here.
In the letter of Hebrews, the author spends the major middle section making a lengthy argument about why Jesus and the new covenant He instituted is better than Moses and the system of the Law. The argument amounts to basically this: We can get to God permanently through Jesus in a way the sacrificial system of the Law that we talked about last week never allowed because He was the perfect sacrifice in a way an animal never could have been. In chapter 10, he finally begins wrapping up the argument to move on to some applications of it. Starting in v. 19 he writes this: “Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the holy places [that is, the presence of God] by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God…” In what follows now, the author offers a series of exhortations. These are things we should be doing in light of the access to God Jesus gained for us. The first is essentially that since we can draw near to God through Jesus, let’s do that. The second is a call to remain steadfast in our confession of faith. The third is to encourage one another on to love and good works. The gist of the threefold call is for us to connect to God by believing the right things and doing the right things.
In v. 25, then, he offers a counter example. This is something presented as the opposite of those first three. We should connect to God by believing and then doing rightly instead of “…neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…” Think about this now. It would have made sense for him to say here something like, “not buying into false doctrine and the destructive habits that accompany it,” or perhaps, “not being led astray by lies and loosening your grip on the true faith,” or something else along those lines. In a since, we would have expected something that went along with what He had just said. But instead, he says, “get connected to God by believing and doing the right things instead of failing to spend regular time together as some have fallen into doing.” This seems a little random at first, doesn’t it? Is there a connection? Of course there is! The connection is this: Not meeting together regularly is what leads to someone drifting from God, buying into false beliefs, and out of these false beliefs, doing the wrong things.
Come on, you know this is the case. Some of you may know this is the case because it’s what you experienced yourself at one point in your life. You went through a season during which for some reason you couldn’t spend as much time with your church family as you used to be able to do. You couldn’t be at church as regularly as you used to be. You fell out of the habit of going to church. The longer you were out of the habit, the easier it was to find reasons to not be there. Then, because you weren’t seeing those people as frequently anymore (and were likely seeing a different group of folks more frequently instead), you began to find yourself making decisions that you knew they wouldn’t approve of if they knew about them. This happened about the same time you started to ask questions in the back of your mind as to whether or not the whole church thing was really worthwhile. After all, here you were pulling away from it more and more and weren’t experiencing any of the cataclysmic consequences you may have had driven into your head at some point in your past. Your life didn’t seem so different now that you weren’t doing the God thing as when you were. As you processed through this set of thoughts, you found making those once taboo decisions—let’s just go ahead and call them sins—to be getting easier and easier. After a while, you ran into one of your old church family members and things were…awkward. They said they missed you. You made some excuses for not being there as often that both of you knew were terrible. And you went away both thinking that you were a different person than you had been before.
Here’s the thing: The people with whom we spend not simply the most time, but the most intentional time are the ones who have the greatest impact on our worldview. If that time is spent with folks who aren’t part of your church family—particularly if it is a group of secular folks outside the church family—their relational pull is going to be away from the church and, more importantly, away from the Christian worldview. As the writer of Hebrews hints at here, when you stop believing the right things (or even when you stop believing them with the conviction you once had), your behavior soon follows.
Now, this doesn’t at all mean we should spend every waking hour in the church and away from folks who don’t share our worldview. Quite the opposite. Far too many church folks find themselves in a place in which they don’t have any friends who are non-believers. That’s not healthy for a number of reasons, but mostly because it means you aren’t doing any evangelism or disciple-making, and that’s a serious problem. What it does mean is that if you are a part of the body of Christ—more specifically, if you are part of this body of Christ—then you need to be with them—with us—on a regular, frequent basis.
Think about it like this: Paul described the body of Christ as a human body in 1 Corinthians 12. Well, imagine if a part of your body began to disconnect on occasion to go spend time with another body. How is that going to affect you? You’re going to be hurting because you need every part of your body functioning properly to be as healthy as you can be. And before you go thinking of something like an appendix as a counter argument, the most current medical research is finding that the appendix may play a significant enough role in the body’s immune system that if it’s possible, appendicitis is being treated with really strong antibiotics rather than an appendectomy. My surgeon a couple of years ago gave me that route as a potential option, but ultimately recommended we take it out as the best approach for my particular case. On the other side of things, think about how this would affect the part of your body that is starting to play the field a bit. As soon as it disconnects from you, it starts to die. Yes, some parts of the body can remain viable apart from the body for a short period of time as in the case of an organ transplant, doctors have to move quickly to get them reconnected to a new body or else they begin to die.
The bottom line here is this: If you are a part of this body, if you aren’t here, we’re not as healthy as we could be and neither are you. In fact, while we’re going to recover and keep moving forward because we have the whole body to lean on, absent connecting intentionally with another body of Christ, you won’t stay healthy for long. You can’t. You will have disconnected yourself from your only source of life. Without life, death tends to take over rather quickly. And I don’t say this to scare or somehow threaten you, but simply to set before you what is. What you do with it is up to you.
That being said, I will tell you this: If you want to be a fully connected part of what God is doing here at First Baptist, you don’t only need to be a member here, you’ve got to be here. Indeed, in far too many churches there is a belief on the part of some that joining the church is the end goal and in fact something of fairly little consequence. Once you’ve done that, you have arrived and you can get on about your other business. In college I joined a club like that. It was an academic organization that you paid $75 for a lifetime membership at which point you didn’t have to do anything else. You just got to put on your resume that you were a member. I remember thinking it was just a racket and didn’t want to bother. Some people think about church membership like this. I hear folks referring to someone who hasn’t been here but more than once or twice a year for several years and isn’t involved in any other meaningful sense as a “member,” but getting fussy when someone who hasn’t joined formally but is actively present and involved and serving and giving (in other words functioning as a member without yet making it official) is given work to do that might typically be reserved for members. My take: If someone hasn’t been involved meaningfully in five years or more and there’s not a medical reason for this state of affairs, it’s not honest or meaningful to consider them a “member” anymore. More than being a member, you’ve got to be here as often as you possibly can be for as many activities as you possibly can be and if you’ve got things that regularly threaten to get in the way, choose your priorities very carefully. Or perhaps to put that even more simply: If you want to be a part of the action, you’ve got to be here.
Listen, God is up to some awesome things here at First Baptist. We’ve talked about several of those over the past few weeks. I had a conversation with someone here who came away from Palm Sunday particularly excited. She said, “You know, there is a feeling among some folks here that the church is just heading down and we aren’t really doing anything and the place is slowly rolling into irrelevancy. But hearing about all the things we are doing—the things God is doing in our midst—puts a totally new spin on things.” As the song says: “God is on the move, on the move, Hallelujah. God is on the move in many mighty ways.” And if you want to be a part of the action, you’ve got to be here.
Be here so you can be more intentional about how you are investing yourself in the things that matter most. Be here so you can receive the encouragement and accountability you need to hold fast to your confession and spur each other on toward love and good works. Be here so that we as a body are working with all the parts God has given us. Be here so that we can together become fully who God made us to be as a community. Be here, because in the coming months this is where the action is going to be…or rather, it’s going to originate here and be happening all over our community and beyond. And if you want to be a part of the action, you’ve got to be here.