W. Jackson Watts
I’m often reluctant to speak of things “mattering more than ever.” These kinds of statements tend to ignore historical precedents and other factors that make our own times less unique than we imagine.
Take pandemics as an example. Plague and pestilence were present in many times and places in the ancient world, including the world of our biblical forefathers. Yet what we’ve experienced across the globe in 2020–2021 certainly has no exact forerunner. While the Spanish Flu of 1918 bears some similarities, our recent experience has happened in the so-called Global Village . Our world’s interconnectedness has created profound benefits but also great sorrow.
Ironically, much of the sorrow has much to do with the disconnect between churches and their members. Followers of Jesus Christ have always had to be told to keep their hearts close to God and close to each other. “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb. 3:13). Encouragement, perseverance, and spiritual sensitivity are always on short supply in a fallen world. This is precisely why Christ came to form a church, not a bunch of rugged individualists. It’s why He came to be the head of a body, not CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation.
Yet the very integrity of His body has been under intense pressure for the last 20 months. Pastors, church leaders, and committed laypersons have been grappling with the balance between reasonable safety and the commitment to gather. They’ve been trying to reconcile competing visions of how the church should minister in our present political environment. They’ve even been trying to answer the question of what constitutes a worship gathering itself. These aren’t small matters for shepherds trying to locate the sheep, gather them, and keep them together.
In this period of ministry, churches’ approach to membership is something of a Rorschach test. Does our church believe that there is such a thing as biblical church membership, or is it a desirable but optional accessory to the Christian experience on earth? Was Paul just reaching for a metaphor when he called the church a “body with members,” or was the Holy Spirit using Him to show us and invite us to an essential reality?
Depending on how churches answered these questions before the pandemic significantly impacted how they fared during it, as well as this “endemic” phase many epidemiologists say we’ve now entered.
Biblical church membership describes both a spiritual reality of what God’s people are, as well as the reality they’re called to embrace. Much like being declared righteous in God’s sight (justification) leads to us live righteously (sanctification) before God, those who have been regenerated and ushered into Christ’s universal, invisible church are, as a matter of obedience, to be baptized and publicly identify themselves with Christ’s local, visible church. We must hold both truths together since the New Testament teaches both. It can tell us that Christ is building a Church on the one hand (Mt. 16:13–20), and that Euodia and Synteche in the Philippian Church had a quarrel, and they now need to reconcile (Phil. 4:2).
So what does this have to do with ministry in the wake of a pandemic? Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman, in their recent book Rediscover Church, state it so helpfully:
Sometimes people like to say that ‘a church is a people, not a place.’ It’s slightly more accurate to say that a church is a people assembled in a place. Regularly assembling or gathering makes a church a church. This doesn’t mean a church stops being a church when the people aren’t gathered, any more than a soccer ‘team’ stops being a team when the members are not playing. The point is, regularly gathering together is necessary for a church to be a church, just like a team has to gather to play in order to be a team. Jesus organized Christianity this way. He means to center our Christianity around regularly gathering together, seeing one another, learning from one another, encouraging and correcting one another, and loving one another .
Now if our churches believe that membership is biblical, as well as this perspective on the nature of gathering as a church, why are we having such a difficult time putting the two together?
Who isn’t Returning?
What we are inviting people back to must also consider who we are inviting back. Who was the church, pre-pandemic? Literally, who were our people? How do we know? If, biblically, the church is those who have rightly professed Christ, been obedient to Him in baptism, and been added to the church, then this is the church whom we must call back. We’re simply calling them to obedience. To do that is also a matter of obedience for church leaders and members. And while prudence will be needed to adjudicate what counts as a reasonable health concern at this stage in our various communities, this type of exhortation is a feature of the ministry, not a bug.
This kind of straightforward, biblical clarity is needed because most congregational gatherings are certainly a mixture of different souls. Some are members of Christ’s body. We have others whom we perceive to be believers, but who haven’t yet been obedient to Christ’s full message about baptism and church commitment. Then there are those who once attended semi-regularly whom we believed to be unconverted persons we hope to reach with the gospel. Yet the first two groups seem to be the people many churches are struggling with.
Some churches lack clarity about what they should biblically ask of members. Many members really don’t think their membership is anything more than a consumer experience. This must be confronted biblically, even if it will be more difficult because of a lax membership ethos before the pandemic.
With the second group, perhaps we’re often expecting non-members to live up to the expectations of members. When they don’t, this creates profound frustrations. Why aren’t they back? I saw them at Walmart, but not once in worship!
We need a good dose of biblical realism as we examine where we are and how we got here. I don’t mean to oversimplify a complex set of circumstances. But as is often the case with disappointments, our prior expectations and actions have laid the groundwork for our circumstances.
Let’s pray that this season of ministry will engender fresh, biblical reflection on what biblical church membership is, what it requires, and what it will look like to work patiently, courageously, and intentionally toward healthier churches.
 John Barry helpfully documents this event in The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).
 Collin Hansen & Jonathan Leeman, Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ is Essential (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 48-49.