What to Say to Non-Committal Church Attenders
By Jonathan Leeman
Joe has attended your church for about a year. He says he’s a Christian. But he has not joined. Should you encourage him to join? How?
If you don’t think church membership is biblical, then you should say nothing. If you do, then keep reading.
First off, I do think you should address Joe. It’s easier to say nothing, but it may be self-protection that’s motivating you to keep quiet. It’s not love for Joe.
HOW WELL DO I KNOW THEM?
When I find out someone has not joined, I usually begin by asking if he or she plans on joining. Where I go from there partly depends on how well I know the person.
Just met: If Joe and I are shaking hands for the first time over bad coffee in a Styrofoam cup in the church foyer, I probably won’t say anything.Fifteen minutes: If Joe and I have been talking for fifteen minutes, and there’s an easy rapport between us, and we’re on a second cup of bad coffee, I just might, in the most affable manner I can muster, say, “You should think about joining!” And yes, I’ll say it with an exclamation point—a wagging-tail Labrador-like exclamation point.Relationship: If Joe and I have known each other for any length of time, then I will probably push toward a more deliberate conversation.
REASONS TO JOIN THE CHURCH
These more deliberate conversations veer back and forth between the biblical and the practical. Typically, I generally encourage a person to join the church
For the sake of the pastors. It lets the pastors know who you are, and makes them responsible for you (see Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17).For the sake of obedience to Jesus. Jesus did not give you the keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing. He gave the keys to the apostolic local church (Matt. 16:13-20; 18:15-20). You don’t have the authority to baptize yourself or feed yourself the Lord’s Supper. It requires a church to affirm your profession of faith, which is what membership is at its very heart (see Acts 2:38).For the sake of other believers. Joining makes you responsible for one local congregation, and they for you. You now own or have a share in their discipleship to Christ. That is, you are now responsible for their growth and professions of faith, insofar as you are responsible for the church’s faithful gospel preaching (Gal. 1) and that individual’s discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5).For one’s own spiritual good and safety. Suppose YOU ever become that lamb who wanders away from the fold (Matt. 18:12-14). It’s your church that Jesus will send after you (Matt. 18:15-20).For the sake of non-Christian neighbors. Membership helps to protect and promote the reputation of Christ on earth by guarding the church’s witness (see Matt. 5:13-16; 28:18-20; John 13:34-35). Membership is how the world knows who represents Jesus!
DIFFERENT REASONS FOR NOT JOINING
The more specific counsel that I offer depends on why the person is not joining:
“I’m a member elsewhere.” Sometimes people say they don’t want to join because they are a member of a church elsewhere. If that’s the case, I try to explain that church membership is not a sentimental attachment. It’s a living, breathing relationship. If you’re in a place for more than a few months, you should join the church you attend.“I had a bad experience with a church.” Maybe a person had bad, even abusive experience with a previous church. When that’s the case, patience and understanding should certainly be shown. Their challenge is like the challenge of someone coming out of an abusive marriage. It’s hard to trust again, and one cannot force trust. But you also know that recovering relational health means learning to trust again, which always involves taking a risk. Bottom line: you should still encourage the person to join, even if your manner and pace might adjust.“I don’t trust the leadership.” If a person refuses to join because they don’t trust the leadership, then they should be encouraged to find a church where they can trust the leadership and join it. After all, do you really think you’ll grow in Christian maturity when you don’t trust the ones leading you toward it?“I don’t agree with everything in the statement of faith.” See last answer (find a church where you do and join it).“It’s not in the Bible.” For the person who is not convinced a matter is biblical, I’ll usually ask them to consider Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. I’ll also explain that, no, “club membership” is not in the Bible, but that church membership is more like citizenship, which is why Jesus gave the apostolic local church the keys of the kingdom.
NOT TAKING THE LORD’S SUPPER
I don’t usually hound a person who won’t join a church. But there was one occasion in which, after numerous conversations, I encouraged a professing Christian who had not joined any church in a decade to stop receiving the Lord’s Supper.
I explained that my counsel was not an authoritative word; it was pastoral advice. He was acting like a free agent, which most certainly does not exist in the Bible. The apostolic local church has the authority to publicly affirm credible professions of faith before the nations through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Yet he had not allowed any church to affirm his profession of faith through the accountability structures of membership. So he should stop “borrowing” the church’s public sign of the Lord’s Supper. It was like grabbing a team jersey when no one is looking and wearing it, even though he wasn’t an official member of a team.
What many Christians don’t realize is, to remain aloof from a committed fellowship to a local church is to walk in spiritually dangerous territory. It’s thin ice. Such a person is unaccountable and unprotected.
We love people by encouraging them to come into a fold.
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