Sunday morning a few weeks ago, as Dawn and I stood before the congregation of Ivy Creek Church declaring our vows of membership, something unexpected happened…
A surprising joy washed over me.
[handmade project photo courtesy of Lisa Leonard Online]
It was sudden and strong, unlooked for and unhoped for. It was the sort of arresting moment that said, “Pay attention! A pearl of wisdom lies hidden nearby.” I shared my experience with Dawn later, and she confirmed that she had felt the same surprising joy. But as we talked it over, we realized that we shouldn’t have been surprised.
I know what you’re thinking.
Is there anything less in vogue than church membership? That’s so 19th-century.
Today in America, most people who consider themselves Christians didn’t attend worship last Sunday, let alone consider themselves members. In an age where church can be streamed online, even many devout followers of Christ consider church membership optional, a religious relic of a bygone day with no spiritual significance. (Though, perhaps this is not true among Catholic believers.)
So, it’s very likely that you, reader, very much doubt that church membership could inspire any such thing as joy, certainly not your own joy.
Well, before you dismiss the possibility with a good-for-you pat on my average head, let me share my post-experience reflections on that surprising moment. Then, perhaps you’ll agree that there is good reason for me and you to rejoice in being church members.
I think there are at least three good reasons:
〉WHAT THE CHURCH IS
We learn from the New Testament, that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, of which Christ is the head. This means the Church, the body of Christ, is the object of all the blessing that comes from the head, Jesus Christ.
The Church collectively is the only recipient of the grace of all true spiritual life, growth and fruit in Christ. It’s where God is at, to use the phrase.
If I belong to Christ the head, I, as a consequence, belong to His body. Now belonging to His body implies the sharing of spiritual and natural resources, sharing of gifts and sacraments, sharing of love and mission. And this sharing can only be done, practically speaking, through a gathering of local believers, a local church.
If I neglect or refuse these shared privileges and responsibilities, both I, and the local church, experiences the loss.
〉WHAT A PERSON IS
Ask any psychologist, ask any theologian from any religion you can imagine, even ask any biologist, and each will confirm this simple fact:
A person functions most fully, and experiences most fulfillment when he or she belongs to a larger whole: a family, a tribe, a club, a team, a school, a guild, a church.
People have a built-in need to belong to one another.
Even the extreme introvert, the loner, the hermit wants to belong. They just haven’t figured out how.
I think there’s a reason we crave belonging. Maybe we were made that way. And, belonging (not our near-religious ideal of the individual) is the God-given foundation of true identity.
Thus, the desire to belong to a body of people who call upon the name of Jesus, is the foundation of a truly Christian identity. It is an essentially Christian longing.
〉WHAT CHURCH MEMBERSHIP IS
And what is church membership other than a church declaring, “You belong to us. You are one of us. You are home now. Our strength and weakness is yours; and yours, ours. Together our identity is in Christ, our Head. Together, we belong to Jesus.”
(Can’t you see the cause for joy in this?)
I know modern people eschew such formalities. The only time we’re comfortable with public promises of love and faithfulness is a wedding (if then). But not God. Belonging to God has always involved ceremonies, sacrifices, covenants, declarations, and oaths.
In both testaments.
In the Bible you find belonging to Jehovah (old covenant) and Jesus (new covenant) marked by 1) a formal acceptance process, 2) marks of a new identity as His, and 3) joyful public acknowledgement that we are His, that His promised blessings are ours.
So, why not now?
〉WHAT OUR STORY IS
In our case, I think, there is one additional reason joy snuck up and surprised us as it did.
It has to do with our story. See, we’ve always had a high view of church membership. So, we’ve always been members somewhere.
Except for the last two years.
For reasons I won’t go into here, we left our former congregation on good terms after 13 years. (I wrote a bit about it here, and here.) But the process of finding a new church home took much longer than we anticipated. We also had a painful, this-is-it-no-it-isn’t, experience.
We were like two planes unable to find the right runway. So when we finally landed at Ivy Creek Church, what a moment that was for us!
We were home.
Having reflecting on these things, I will offer you this advice:
If you’re a church member, rejoice that you belong to Him, and them. Don’t neglect your family.
If not, I hope you’ll reconsider what the Church is, what you, a person, are, and what church membership is.
God’s grace to you,