Membership Has Its Privileges

Hebrews 13:7,17

Can we take a little time this morning to talk about church membership?  It’s not one of those subjects that you can look up in your Bible concordance and find a list of passages to consult.  And it’s one of those things that we so take for granted that we assume everyone knows what we’re talking about.  But I’ve discovered that that’s not true.  In fact, if I were to hand out a sheet of paper this morning with the first three words, “Church membership means…” and asked you to write your own definition, we would probably have 100 different definitions. 

That doesn’t mean you’re wrong, or that your definition isn’t valid, but this morning, I want to spend some time getting us on the same page, so that when we invite visitors to be members at the Glenwood Church, we are all assuming the same things.  And so that, when we talk about expecting certain things from our members here at Glenwood, there’s no misunderstanding about what those expectations are.

We’ll take a couple of weeks to do this, and next week we will talk about the responsibilities of membership, but this morning let’s begin by talking about the privileges.  You remember the old American Express commercial with the slogan, “membership has its privileges”?  The implication was that when you were a part of this inner circle, you received certain privileges that were not available to just anybody.  That is certainly true of the church.  Not in an exclusive, arrogant sense – but simply recognizing that God has designated the church as the recipient of his richest blessings. 

Now, of course, God’s blessings are not restrictive.  Even Jesus said, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45).  But there are some blessings – especially spiritual blessings – that are available only within the family of believers.

Let me start out by saying that as Christians we are all members of the larger body of Christ – the universal church.  I have brothers and sisters in Christ from Mbarara, Uganda to Cape Town, South Africa to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Tijuana, Mexico.  And I have brothers and sisters in Christ here in the valley who attend other churches, but are saved by the grace of God and dedicated followers of Jesus just like you and me.  And the apostle Paul spoke often of the vastness of the church that included saints across the world.  We have a connection with people we will never meet.  And when the Bible talks about the relationship Jesus has with his church it is in this larger context that we all share in the blessings in the church – the forgiveness of sin, the promise of eternal life, the joy of salvation.

But Paul also speaks about the local church – that family of saints who have a more intimate connection with each other through a shared life in Christ.  While I may have brothers and sisters in Mbarara, Uganda, it is with you that I am a part of the family.  And just like a family, we enjoy blessings by being part of this congregation here at the Glenwood church.

What are they? 

Blessing #1 - I am known

As far as I know, there are no anonymous members of my family (at least none that I could claim as a deduction on my income taxes!)  Everybody who sits around our dinner table is there because they are important to us.  I have never referred to my children as deduction #1,2,3.  We are family – we don’t just know each other’s names, we know what’s going on in each others’ lives.  When one doesn’t show up for dinner, we don’t just shrug our shoulders and wonder if they’re sitting at someone else’s dinner table, we hunt them down and check in with each other.  Why?  Because we’re nosy and want to spread guilt around?  No – that’s just what families do. 

When you are a member of a congregation, there is not only an implicit, but an explicit expectation that you will keep up with each other.  It’s not enough that I know your name, I want to know you – about your family, what’s going on in your life, what brings you joy, what you’re struggling with.  And when you’re not here on a Sunday morning, I’m going to check in with you.  Why?  Because I’m nosy and want to spread some guilt around?  No – that’s just what families do.  And folks, we haven’t done enough of that.  We assume people don’t want you checking up on them – but the truth is – we really do want someone to care enough about us that they will call. We want to be missed.

When you’re not a member of a congregation, and you just show up at whatever church is convenient, it’s like showing up at a restaurant for dinner.  They might be glad you’re there, but when you don’t show up tomorrow night, they’re not concerned – you don’t mean anything to them.  And while we’re glad for our visitors, until you say, “I want to be a member of this family,” you haven’t given us permission to be concerned about your spiritual welfare.

When you become a member at the Glenwood Church, you become a part of our family.  Our elders accept the responsibility of being shepherds of your soul.  You’re no longer just a name on a visitor card – you become somebody we will lay down our lives for.   

Blessing #2 - I am needed

There is really no worse feeling than feeling useless – to feel like you’re not needed – that nobody would notice if you weren’t there.  That was what Paul was talking about in 1 Cor. 12:12-27, when he described the church as a body: 

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

There may be some places you’re not needed, but this isn’t it.  You – every single one of you – is important to this body.  We can’t function effectively without you.  And that’s why we’re struggling right now – some of you aren’t doing what God has designed you to do.  

Illust – Engine hitting on 4 cylinders  Suppose my truck engine starts coughing and sputtering and I take it to the mechanic and he says, “It looks like only four of your six cylinders are  firing.”  You might think – he’s got 4 cylinders, that’s 2 more than most cars, why is he complaining?  The problem is, my truck was designed to run on 6, and when 2 aren’t working, something is seriously wrong. 

And you might think – the church seems to run just fine without me – but the truth is, without you, we’re limping along on partial power.  Oh, we’ll keep the doors open, we’ll have men up front to serve you communion, but if you aren’t doing what God created you and gifted you to do, we’re not working as effectively as God designed us.

And that’s not a manipulative ploy at getting you to sign up for something.  It is the joyful realization that you are needed – you are significant to what God wants to do here at the Glenwood church. 

And so, if you are a member here at Glenwood, we need you to be involved in ministry of some kind.  Now, next week, I’m going to look at this from the other side and remind you of your responsibility to be involved, but not before I remind you of what a privilege and blessing it is to be needed.  Just like soldiers on the battlefield who cheer when the reinforcements show up, we’re cheering when we see you step in to take your place of service.

Blessing #3 - I am loved and cared for

Not long ago, we spent some time talking about the 13th chapter of Hebrews – specifically in verses 7 and 17.  Those are the verses that admonish us to “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” Those verses really aren’t about leaders, but about followers (You know all these seminars and workshops on leadership – but have you ever heard of a seminar on being a good follower?)  We need both – in fact we need far more instruction on what it means to be a good follower.  But listen to the last of vs. 17, “They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

What it tells us about leaders, it also tells us about being a part of a church family. 

First of all, those leaders keep watch over you.  It’s nice to know someone cares enough about me to pay attention to what’s going on in my life.  We need someone to look after us and make sure we’re well fed and properly clothed, spiritually.  We may think we’re self-sufficient and independent, but let me tell you – that’s Satan’s voice.  Earlier in the book of Hebrews the writer wrote, “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first” (Heb. 3:12-14).  We need a church family, we need shepherds who will watch over us.  And when we place our membership in a congregation, we are intentionally placing ourselves under the leadership of the elders in that congregation.  When we don’t become a member, and we just float around like a free agent, we are saying, “stay out of my business, I don’t need anyone helping me” and we put ourselves in great spiritual risk.

It’s like watching a two-year old who is getting a sense of his independence and goes around telling everybody – “I do it myself.”  Trying to do things that he doesn’t have the strength or the understanding to do, but belligerently pushing you out of his way while he insists on attempting something he can’t do himself.  It’s cute for awhile in a two year old.  It’s sad in a 40 year old who keeps trying to do something he doesn’t have the strength or the skill or the understanding to do, but insists that he can do it himself.

The truth is, we can’t do it ourselves – you can’t, I can’t.  One of the greatest blessings of being a member of a congregation is that I know there are people who care for me, and love me enough to come to my side when I am trying to carry a burden too heavy for me to bear; who love me enough to help me fight a battle against an enemy too strong for me to defeat on my own; who recognize my weaknesses well enough to come challenge me when they see me struggling with something that will shipwreck my faith.

When I’m not a member of a congregation, I’m alone in the fight.  I don’t have a church family to care for me and shepherds who will keep watch over me. 

The second thing the Hebrews writer tells us there in vs. 17, “Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

When you’re a member of a congregation, and you’ve placed yourself under the leadership of the elders, the outcome of that relationship is supposed to bring joy and be an advantage.  And not just joy to the leader, but joy to you.  I’ve been around long enough to have known a few folks who bristled at the idea of somebody – anybody – having spiritual authority over them (to tell the truth, they really didn’t like the idea of God being over them).  They didn’t like it and they took every opportunity to make the elders’ work a burden.  And you know what?  The burden worked both ways.  The elders’ job was harder, and the member’s life was less joyful. 

How many times have your kids complained about rules and curfews and discipline?  Your kids think you’re doing it to make them miserable.  But I don’t know of any parent who sits around thinking, “How can I make my kid’s miserable?”  Our purpose as a parent is to make our children’s lives more joyful.  But joy doesn’t come from the absence of rules and restrictions, it comes when parents love their children enough to guide their lives with loving discipline.  Just listen to what the Hebrews writer says again in Heb. 12:10-11 “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

When Paul was writing to the Corinthians about a man who was living an immoral lifestyle – it was so bad, even the pagans wouldn’t have put up with it.  And Paul tells them to put the man out of their fellowship.  And this is what is really amazing – not for the purpose of getting rid of him, or even for punishing him – but to make him so painfully aware of what has been taken away from him that he will repent and change his life so that he can be restored to fellowship with the church.  The only way removing fellowship has any ability to change somebody is if that fellowship means something in the first place.  Unless there are relationships and privileges that are so important to a person that removing them creates pain, then all the dis-fellowshipping in the world doesn’t mean a thing. 

That’s a pretty sobering question to ask yourself this morning:  If for some reason, the church was taken away from you – the fellowship, the worship, the relationships – would it affect your life in any significant way?  Or is the church just an afterthought?  If your relationship with the church isn’t important enough that it would hurt you to lose it, it isn’t what God wants it to be.

I want you to experience, this morning, and every other day of your life as a Christian the full blessings of being in Christ.  And I’m telling you the truth that those blessings can only fully be experienced in a committed relationship with Jesus Christ and with his church in a local congregation.  Not just a Christian at large, without connection, without relationships, but being a member of a congregation.  Not just with your name on the roll, but active and involved – is not an optional extra.  It is essential and crucial to being a part of Christ.