Numbers 3 and 4 are below, and 5 and 6 should finish us off tomorrow, unless I think of some other compelling reasons why you need to be a formal member of your church.
3. You need to help give direction to your church.
Of course, the elders and pastors that God has set in positions of leadership in the church bear the primary responsibility for casting vision and giving direction to a local body. But in a healthy church the rest of the members must not sit back and passively receive direction and guidance as though they have no stake in the direction of the church and are without a care as to where the elders lead it.
Paul wasn’t disappointed and enraged with the Corinthian elders alone, but with the entire church (1 Cor. 5:1-2), who were clearly sinfully tolerating what the elders tolerated. Paul rejoices not only over the Philippian elders, but over the entire church that was actively participating in the fruitful direction of the church (cf. Phil. 1:1). The laity of the church have a vital role to play in the guidance of the local church, and to sit back and remain passively dismissive is tantamount to being dismissive to the progress of God’s Kingdom on earth.
In a church that takes membership seriously, only members are able to have a decisive say in the direction of the church. In most churches, this takes the form of voting in official congregational decisions, but this responsibility is not limited to voting. As an elder or a senior pastor, in general I would certainly listen more carefully and weigh more heavily the counsel and direction of a member than I would a non-member—someone who has submitted to the leadership of the elders and pastors in demonstrating their commitment to this local church and are under the accountability and discipline of the leaders to whom they are offering advice, guidance, suggestions, vision, etc.
Obviously, there are exceptions. If Don Carson walks into my office and tells me I ought strongly to consider doing such and such, I’ll probably lend him an ear because he (1) is a member in good standing of his church, (2) is extremely wise, and (3) has counseled and helped a hundred churches for decades and therefore knows what’s up.
But if two non-Don people walk into my office with conflicting visions for where our church should go, one a member and one not, in general I will listen more closely to the member because that person has formally committed to the life and vitality of this church and has a stake in what becomes of it. To use the very biblical family metaphor again: I’m going to listen more closely to what my wife has to say about the direction she thinks our family should go in than what any of you have to say, because she is a member of my family. You all wish you were members of my family, but sorry, you can’t be until your daughter is fortunate enough to marry Owen.
4. You need the pastor’s time and he doesn’t have a lot of time.
Unfortunately, God has not made timelessness and/or omnipresence communicable attributes. If he had, maybe this wouldn’t be an issue and every pastor, elder, church leader, counselor, and mentor could meet with, work with, counsel, disciple, pray for, care for, encourage, hold accountable, and bail out every person who ever darkens the door of their church.
The church has limited resources. Most of them are renewable resources, like pastoral care and counsel, benevolence funds, leadership training, etc., but they are not unlimited and every pastor, elder, and church as a whole needs to make some decisions about who will become the primary beneficiaries of these resources, which (at one point or another) every church-goer is going to need. I’m not even a senior pastor and I don’t have nearly enough time to meet with all the people who would like to meet with me. Not if I want to stay sane and have a healthy marriage. So, how do we decide?
In some rare cases, triage wins. If a non-member calls me and tells me his son just committed suicide and asks if could I come and be with them, but I have a coffee meeting scheduled during that time with a member to talk about men’s ministries, obviously I’ll give the member a ring and tell him I need to reschedule.
But in general, priority in the time and resources of a church must always go to the formal members. I see warrant for this policy in places like Gal. 6:10: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8). In other words, it seems Paul would say, if you have $2,000 in the benevolence fund and a member and a non-member each need $1,000 to pay a medical bill that they cannot afford to pay, then you give $1,000 to both of them. But if there’s only $500 in the fund (all things being equal) you give it to the the member.
For example, our church is located in an area of the city where we get dozens of drop-ins looking for money every month. Church members are asked to fill out some brief paperwork to help us figure out how best we can help them in their need. But, except in dire circumstances, non-members are generally asked to seek help from their own church. Because, if we give our (limited) resources to anyone and everyone, at some point we won’t have resources to be able to invest in the people who have invested in the church as members.
Similarly, if I have 5 free hours to meet with people during the week (again, all things being equal) and I have requests for 10 hours of my time, I’ll make it a priority to meet with the members because it is a primary responsibility of a pastor to care for those in his “household.” I’m more than happy to give non-members the leftovers, but there aren’t always leftovers. In a church that takes membership seriously, this should be the way pastors think about the resources of a church.
It isn’t arbitrary favoritism, or a club with secret handshakes and a “we’re in, you’re out” mentality. Joining a church is easy! Anyone is welcome to go through the membership process. You don’t need any money to join a church. You don’t need to be smart. You don’t need a job. You don’t need a suit (in fact, I think suits in church ought to be outlawed). You don’t need to know how to read. You don’t need a photo ID. All you need is to have entrusted your life to Jesus Christ and to commit formally to that local expression of his body.