Reclaiming Committed Local Church Membership

Here is a good word from Thom Rainer out of his recent book, I Am a Church Member. He admonishes those who view church membership from a consumerist standpoint while exhorting a return to a committed local church membership.

Based on our research of 557 churches from 2004 to 2010, nine out of ten churches in America are declining or growing at a pace that is slower than that of their communities. Simply stated, churches are losing ground in their own backyards.
Another way of looking at it is generationally. About two-thirds of the Builder generation, those born before 1946, are Christians. But only 15 percent of the Millennials are Christians. The Millennials are the largest generation in America’s history with almost eighty million members. They were born between 1980 and 2000. And we have all but lost that generation.
We can blame it on the secular culture. And we often do.
We can blame it on the godless politics of our nation. We do that as well.
We can even blame it on the churches, the hypocritical members, and the uncaring pastors. Lots of Christians are doing that.
But I am proposing that we who are church members need to look in the mirror. 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 a part of the body of Christ.
We join churches expecting others to serve us, to feed us, and to care for us.
We don’t like the hypocrites in the church, but we fail to see our own hypocrisies.
God did not give us local churches to become country clubs where membership means we have privileges and perks.
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.
Many churches are weak because we have members who have turned the meaning of membership upside down. It’s time to get it right. It’s time to become a church member as God intended. It’s time to give instead of being entitled.
(Thom S. Rainer, I Am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude that Makes the Difference [Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Publishing Group, 2013], 5-6)

The Church: Supplemental Biblical Instruction

In this post Dagg speaks to the value of Bible study with three instructions:

  1. There should be times of Bible study outside of the “public ministrations of the word.”  Whether it be by individuals, classes, or Sunday School/Christian Education classes.
  2. The teachers should not always be given over the young.  “Gray heads” should impart Biblical instruction seasoned with a years of living out the truths he is teaching.  
  3. Good Christian reading material should accompany Bible study.  It’s good for a church to have a library with resources that the congregation can borrow.  

Besides the public ministrations of the word, other means of promoting religious knowledge ought to receive attention and support of the churches. The study of the Bible ought to be encouraged, whether by individuals, by Bible classes, or by Sunday schools. It is a great fault if the work of instructing is entirely given up to the young. Let the heads which have grown gray in the service if the Lord, bow with pleasure to impart instruction to the opening minds of the rising generation, and sow in this promising soil the seed which will produce a rich harvest, when the gray-haired instructor shall have gone to his eternal reward. Let the circulation of good religious books and periodical publications be promoted, and a spirit of religious inquiry be fostered in every proper way. Let men be taught, both by the words and the deeds of those who claim to be Christ’s, that religion is the chief concern.

Church Attendance: Natasha-Like Faithfulness

The following account of Natasha is moving.  The power of her testimony is seen in her profound commitment to gathering with other Christians, not assuaged by the most difficult of circumstances.  The story is lengthy but powerful and worthwhile.  This heartrending testimony is told by Sergei Kourdakov, who was commissioned by the Russian secret police to raid prayer gatherings and persecute believers with extraordinary brutality.

I saw Victor Matveyev reach and grab for a young girl [Natasha Zhdanova] who was trying to escape to another room.  She was a beautiful young girl.  What a waste to be a Believer.  Victor caught her, picked her up above his head, and held her high in the air for a second. She was pleading, “Don’t, please don’t.  Dear God, help us!”  Victor threw her so hard she hit the wall at the same height she was thrown, then dropped to the floor, semiconscious, moaning.  Victor turned and laughed and exclaimed, “I’ll bet the idea of God went flying out of her head.”

On a later raid, Sergei was shocked to see Natasha again.

I quickly surveyed the room and saw a sight I couldn’t believe!  There she was, the same girl!  It couldn’t be.  But it was.  Only three nights before, she had been viciously thrown across the room.  It was the first time I really got a good look at her.  She was more beautiful than I had first remembered—a very beautiful girl with long, flowing, blond hair, large blue eyes, and smooth skin, one of the most naturally beautiful girls I have ever seen . . .

I picked her up and flung her on a table facedown.  Two of us stripped her clothes off.  One of my men held her down and I began to beat her again and again.  My hand began to sting under the blows.  Her skin started to blister.  I continued to beat her until pieces of bloody flesh came off on my hand.  She moaned but fought desperately not to cry.  To suppress her cries, she bit her lower lip until it was bitten through and blood ran down her chin.

At last she gave in and began sobbing.  When I was so exhausted I couldn’t raise my arm for even one more blow, and her backside was a mass of raw flesh, I pushed her off the table, and she collapsed on the floor.

To Sergei’s shock, he later encountered her at yet another prayer meeting.  But this time something was different.

There she was again—Natasha Zhdanova! 

Several of the guys saw her too.  Alex Gulyaev moved toward Natasha. Hatred filling his face, his club raised above his head.

Then something I never expected to see suddenly happened.  Without warning, Victor jumped between Natasha and Alex, facing Alex head-on.

“Get out of my way,” Alex shouted angrily.

Victor’s feet didn’t move.  He raised his club and said menacingly, “Alex, I’m telling you, don’t touch her!  No one touches her!”

I listened in amazement.  Incredibly, one of my most brutal men was protecting one of the Believers!  “Get back!” he shouted to Alex.  “Get back or I’ll let you have it.”  He shielded Natasha, who was cowering on the floor. 

Angered, Alex shouted, “You want her for yourself, don’t you?”

“No,” Victor shouted back.  “She has something we don’t have!  Nobody touches her!  Nobody!”

. . . For one of the first times in my life, I was deeply moved . . . Natasha did have something!  She had been beaten horribly.  She had been warned and threatened. She had gone through unbelievable suffering, but here she was again.  Even Victor had been moved and recognized it.  She had something we didn’t have.  I wanted to run after her and ask, “What is it?”  I wanted to talk to her, but she was gone.  This heroic Christian girl who had suffered so much at our hands somehow touched and troubled me very much.

The Lord opened Sergei’s heart to the glorious good news of Jesus Christ.  As he later reflected on Natasha, whom he never saw again, he wrote:

And, finally, to Natasha, whom I beat terribly and who was willing to be beaten a third time for her faith, I want to say, Natasha, largely because of you, my life is now changed and I am a fellow Believer in Christ with you.  I have a new life before me.  God has forgiven me; I hope you can also.

Thank you, Natasha, wherever you are.

I will never, never forget you.

(Sergei Kourdakov, The Persecutor [Carmel, N.Y.: Fleming H. Revell, 1973], 192, 194, 195, 199, 200, 251 in John Piper, Desiring God, 275-8).

The Church: Attendance

This is the third submission in my series of posts on the church from J.L. Dagg’s, A Treatise on Church Order.  In this section he speaks about church attendance.  To be sure, it can be difficult to rouse the saints to come to church.  A story is told about a mother encouraging her son to go to church one Sunday morning.  Let’s listen in . . . 

A mother woke her son up on Sunday morning and told him he needed to get ready to go to church. The son replied to his mother that he didn’t want to go to church this morning. She told him nonsense he should get up and go to church. 

“But mom” he replied, “Everybody hates me, the sermons are boring and none of my friends ever come.”

His mother replied, “Now, son…!  First, everybody doesn’t hate you, only a couple of bullies and you just have to stand up to them.  Second, the sermons mean a lot to many people.  If you listened to them, you’d be surprised at how good they are in helping people.  Third, you have lots of friends at church.  They are always having you over to their house.  And finally, you have to go, you’re the pastor!”

As this humorous story reveals, we may not always feel like going to church.  However, we find a clear NT instruction not to forsake the formal and informal gatherings with God’s people (Hebrews 10:25).  “Not neglecting” is a present participle which indicates that missing church services should not be the habitual practice of a believer.  To habitually neglect the meetings of the body of Christ is to thumb our nose, as it were, at the Christ of the body.  In this section Dagg encourages “punctual attendance” and “regular attendance.”

Punctual attendance of the ministrations of the word, is necessary to the spiritual improvement of the church. It is necessary to encourage the heart of the minister. He cannot be expected to preach with earnestness and persevering zeal, if his people manifest no pleasure in listening to the truth which he proclaims. Let him know that they drink in the word with delight, that their souls are refreshed by it, and that it greatly increases their fruitfulness in holiness; with this knowledge he will be stimulated to go forward in his work with boldness, and to endure all his toils with the sustaining assurance that his labor is not in vain in the Lord.

Regular attendance on the ministrations of the word is necessary, that the hearers may grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ. Food is not more necessary to the body, than spiritual nourishment is to the soul; and the word is the appointed means of spiritual nourishment. It is the sincere milk, which babes in Christ desire, and by which they are nourished; and it is the strong meat, which they can use profitably who have attained to mature age in the divine life. Nor can spiritual health be expected, if the spiritual nourishment which God has provided, be received at far distant and irregular intervals. A regular return of one day in seven has been wisely appointed by the great Author of our being, who knows our frame, and perfectly understands what is best for the promotion of our highest interests. They who neglect this provision of his benevolence, reject the counsel of God against themselves, and bring spiritual leanness on their souls.

The Church: Reciprocal Benefits of Christian Ministry

This second post from J.L. Dagg’s A Treatise on Church Order deals with the reciprocal benefits of Christian ministry.  You can find the first post here.  From my own experience, I know how mutually edifying it is to hear when the preaching and teaching of the word falls on fertile soil.    

God has given the Christian ministry for the edification of his people; and every church ought to avail itself of this divine gift, and use it to the best advantage. For this purpose, the minister should be supported by cheerful contributions from the members of the church, that he may devote himself to the promotion of their spiritual interests. He should be encouraged in every possible way to diligence and fidelity in his duties. His imperfections should be treated with tenderness; and if, at any time, he should become remiss in his work, or turn aside from it to secular pursuits, the church ought, in gentleness and love, to address him with such language as Paul directed to be used to Archippus. But such an address cannot be made with good effect by a church which does not sustain its minister, and free him from the necessity of worldly care.

The Church: Local Churches are Temporary but Christ-Honoring Institutions

My next several posts will consist of citations from J.L. Dagg’s A Treatise on Church Order.  These citations are portions from Chapter 9: Discipline, Section 2: Spiritual Improvement.  What a great summary of the church being the church!   

The spirit of unity pervades Christianity, and tends to bring the disciples of Christ into association with one another. Under the influence of this tendency, churches are formed; and in them an opportunity is given for display of brotherly love.  By the display, Christ is honored, and the world become convinced that his religion is divine. For the sake of Christ, therefore, and for the sake of the world, every church should labor to promote brotherly love.

The churches are the glory of Christ, not only in the brotherly love which they exhibit, but in their purity and devotion to the service of God. They are but small and temporary associations; yet they may reflect the glory of Christ to the view of an admiring world, as pure dew‑drops reflect the brightness of the sun. So to honor Christ, should be the constant effort of the churches; and to effect this, care should be exercised over the spirituality of every member. The pastor should devote himself, with incessant toil and prayer, to the spiritual good of his flock; the deacons should unite their efforts with his for the attainment of the great end; and the members should watch over one another, exhort one another, and provoke one another to love and good works.