“I’ve never been a part of a church like this.”
It’s not uncommon for me to hear this from folks when they are moving away from our church after having been a member for some varying amount of time. When members move on from our church, we ask them to give us some form of a resignation letter—usually just an email—to encourage the congregation that they are departing from as they join a new one. And often, whether in writing or in conversation, the outgoing member speaks to the uniqueness of the community that they found while at our church.
To be clear, this is not because our church is unique—there are many churches like ours, even in our own city. But the reason for this sentiment is that the vast majority of our members are committed to a common vision of making this body and these relationships a significant priority in their lives. Meaningful church membership requires meaningful relationships built upon the gospel. And meaningful relationships require significant investment and prioritization.
To be sure, meaningful relationships are not automatic. They require time and energy. They are often catalyzed by life events and circumstances that we don’t prize and certainly don’t pursue. These meaningful relationships are not formulaic (as if certain stages of life make for more meaningful community), nor are they self-sustaining (as if we can get them to a certain point and then let them operate on cruise control).
To help us toward that end—meaningful church membership driven by meaningful relationships—I want to suggest a few commitments that catalyze such relationships into greater meaningfulness. And before I get started, my suggestions will be a bit beyond what one might normally expect. I will not suggest here the importance of praying together, or studying God’s Word together, of committing to the spread of the gospel to the nations for God’s glory together—mainly because you probably already know those. Those are foundational and hopefully already known to most readers. So my suggestions will branch beyond those, not because these foundations aren’t important, but because my hope is that you are already committed to those as a church.
1. Suffer together.
I’ll start here, as it is easily the least uplifting but without question the most solidifying in terms of creating meaningful relationships. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:26 that “if one member suffers, all suffer together.” This flies in the face of the world, which distances itself from suffering. But the Spirit of Christ tells us that, as one of us suffers, we all suffer together.
Committing to this is essential to forging the meaningful relationships that create meaningful church membership. And here’s the thing about suffering: you can’t schedule it, but you can count on it. Ask my dear spiritual sister, whose biological brother was tragically murdered in a workplace violence incident just days after moving his family to a new city to take a new job. Ask another sister of mine whose earthly father took his own life, leaving her mother and the rest of her family to grieve the horrific loss. But as a church, we refused to let these sisters suffer alone. The tragedies of drug overdoses and divorces will come. And when they do, they can have the surprising and hell-defeating effect of strengthening a church by making relationships more meaningful through shared suffering. Surely this is an apologetic that the world, which appears to be fed up with the institution of the church, needs to see!
2. Serve together.
When I first started working for my church, we were at a crossroads in terms of how best to care for the young children in our congregation. Eventually, we settled on a solution of utilizing our small groups to serve together on a rotation in our children’s ministry. This did two things for us. First, it solved the issue of having the proper number of properly qualified adults in our classrooms. But second, it drove us into more meaningful relationships with the people we served alongside, as well as the parents we were serving by caring for and teaching their kids.
While we do not expect everyone to love giving a Sunday to serving in children’s ministry, we have been thrilled to watch our members grow in love for their fellow service-mates as well as the children and families that they serve. Service needs look different in every congregation—building maintenance, taking meals to parents of newborns or to the sick and shut in, etc. But a culture of meaningful service together builds a culture of meaningful relationships. And meaningful church membership is downstream from those meaningful relationships.
3. Be serious together.
When I lead the new members class at our church, I always ask these two questions:
1) How many of you knew someone earlier in your life who professed to be a Christian but now has rejected the faith and wants nothing to do with Jesus?Almost every hand goes up, as planned. And then I hit them with the second:
2) Now, how many of you want to be that person? No hands go up. The questions strike a serious note.
I then go on to explain that church membership is one of God’s gifts to prevent any of us from going down that path. And as the church gives itself to God’s Word, committed prayer, and the cause of the gospel, we will (Lord willing) grow in our seriousness together. We all know that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone (and desiring everyone) to devour (1 Peter 5:8). So we are committing to be serious about our faith together, to be watchful and sober-minded, because we know that we are prone to wander and are just a few steps away (left to ourselves) from making a shipwreck of our faith. But, in the context of meaningful relationships, we are committed to leave no one to themselves as we seek to take the call of Christ and the craftiness of the devil seriously.
4. Have fun together.
Lest we think that meaningful relationships are a real downer, we must pair this fourth commitment with the third. Psalm 16:3 paints a picture of our delighting to be with the fellow saints. Not drudgery, but delight!
Again, this takes time—often unscheduled and always unhurried time. Suffering doesn’t happen on our schedule, and fun doesn’t always either. So we must commit to building joyful things into our relationships with one another (and note that joyful and serious are not enemies). I am grateful for the example of my pastor in this. When he planted our congregation, he left the staff of a larger church in town (our sending church), where he had good and life-giving relationships. But as he started our church, he prioritized and poured into the new relationships before him. Soon, the men that came to his theology breakfasts and lingered over coffee and unhurried conversations became his meaningful friends. When moms go to the park together, or single folks gather for a monthly supper club—it’s moments like these, built alongside the commitment to spiritual seriousness, that build meaningful relationships that build meaningful church membership.
Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, says, “There is no more important means of discipleship than deep involvement in the life of the local church.” Meaningful membership involves serious Christians who are committed first to following Jesus’ call to take up their crosses and follow him, and then second to seeing the same thing in the lives of those covenanted with them. Perhaps we could join this sentiment to Keller’s statement: there are no relationships more important for your discipleship than the meaningful relationships that you forge within the covenant community of your local church. Would that we all might have the grace to prioritize such relationships for the good of our churches and the glory of Christ in his body! So be it, Lord.