We are now about halfway into January 2022. Which makes me wonder: Did you make any New Year’s Resolutions this year? Maybe a better question at this point is, Have you kept them?
Well, whether you regularly make New Year’s Resolutions or not, if you stop and think about it, new beginnings, a change of course, or a commitment to do something different, is really about a new ending, isn’t it?
New beginnings are about new endings. Different endings. Better endings. You make a resolution in January of 2022 because you want December of 2022 to be different — to be better — than it would have been if you hadn’t. The new thing you start is much less about the newness and far more about the hope for the future that it brings. Your aim isn’t really a better now, but rather a better end to your story than the one you can see coming if you don’t make any changes.
If you look back on 2021 and feel frustrated, fearful, or dissatisfied at the state of things in your own life or walk with the Lord, ask yourself, what changes do you need to make to give your 2022 a better ending than 2021? Maybe you have 10 off the top of your head or maybe you’re drawing a blank. But permit me to make a suggestion that I think matters more than just about anything else: Make 2022 the year you finally join a local church.
That’s right. If you’re still looking for a New Year’s Resolution, if you’re seeking for a new start to yield a new end, you need to join a local church.
I will make this case in four movements. First, let me explain what I mean by joining. Second, I want to touch on communion and rightly taking the Lord’s Supper. Third, I will explain why church membership isn’t an optional part of the Christian life — it’s actually a matter of obedience to God. Finally, I will close with a historical example of this practice and some encouragements about its benefits.
When I say you should make 2022 the year you join a local church, I’m concerned that, like Ron Swanson ordering “all of the eggs and bacon” that the restaurant has, what you heard me say was, “You should go to church more often.” No, what I said was, “You should join” — that is, become a covenanting member at — a local church.
What’s the difference? For starters, simply attending church is a non-committal practice. You can come and go as you please. Mere attendance can’t foster accountability in your life in either direction, not from you towards other people in the church nor from the other members and the pastors towards you.
Don’t like what you hear on any given Sunday? No problem. You will likely feel no qualms about packing up and moving on to another church the next week. Sadly, this consumeristic approach to the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s gathering is pervasive in our culture. And make no mistake, the world sees it. They can see that many Christians treat church like a take-it-or-leave social club.
That’s where joining a church, becoming a member, comes in. As one theologian has put it: “Church membership, in other words, is all about a church taking specific responsibility for you, and you for a church.”
When you join a church, you are presenting yourself as a professing Christian to a particular, defined, and visible group of other Christians who regularly gather in obedience to Christ. You are asking that this one physical manifestation of the invisible universal church affirm your profession and welcome you into their fellowship.
Such a church, then, if they are faithful and careful with their practice of membership, will want to make sure you have a credible profession of faith. They will likely ask you to take a few classes to ensure that your beliefs line up with their confessional commitments, as expressed in a statement of faith. They will also (likely) ask you to sit down for a membership interview with a pastor.
Don’t be scared away by the process — those are good and healthy steps to help ensure you are grounded in the true, live-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). It also helps ensure that the witness of the church to the watching community remains bright and unsullied.
Another way to think about it is this: You can essentially boil the concept of church membership down to the rudiment element of rightly participating in the Lord’s Supper. As another theologian has put it, “Essentially, the membership of a church is comprised of those who are regularly admitted to the Lord’s Table.”
What do we do at the Lord’s Table? We take the Lord’s Supper. And we do it in 1) remembrance of Christ, 2) in recognition of His bloodshed for sins, 3) in acknowledgment of the New Covenant, and 4) as a proclamation of the inaugurated Kingdom of God and Christ’s future return (Luke 22:14-20).
Only those who believe this, and live accordingly, should partake. Those who don’t, and still partake, risk eating and drinking “judgment on themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:29).
Do you see where I am going with this? Logically, if a particular gathering of Christians must be able to recognize who they should not allow to the Lord’s Supper, they must also know who should be allowed — that is, those who rightly recognize Christ for who He is and what He has done. And how does a church know who is part of that group? Through the practice of meaningful and careful membership. If you’re a Christian, I trust that the Lord’s Supper is important to you. If it is, so should being a member at a local church.
The Lord’s Supper is then both the inaugural demonstration and the repeated celebration of meaningful membership. It’s a family meal for the children of King Jesus! Perhaps one of the reasons that meaningful membership has fallen by the wayside in evangelicalism is due to the decline in both the teaching and reverent celebration of Lord’s Supper. We would do well to ensure the Lord’s Supper has the place of prominence that it deserves in the life of a church, since it this same supper, in its eschatological fullness, that we will celebrate forever: “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).
So, don’t just church-hop. You need to church-join. Present yourself to a local church that preaches the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and rightly administers the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Find a pastor there and ask what it would look like for you to join. Pursue the membership process. Open yourself up to encouragement, correction, and accountability from a body of believers that will love you and help you get to heaven. It’s a far better — and biblical — alternative to church-hopping. But it’s not just good for your soul, it’s a matter of obedience.
In Hebrews 10:24-25, the author (unknown) exhorts his readers to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Look closely at those five words in verse 25: “not giving up meeting together.” What do we learn from this? We learn that meeting together was the regular and expected practice of first-century Christians. And that they should not forsake the gathering — specifically for the reason of continuing in the faith.
Or we can look at the story of the immoral brother in 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2. Here we see that the church at Corinth has a process that conferred the right of group belonging (membership) and subsequent access to the Lord’s Supper — one that could be taken away. Given the grave nature of the individual’s unrepentant sin in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul commands the church to “put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this.” But then in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul writes and instructs them to welcome the brother back in, given his genuine repentance. All of this teaches us that the very first churches practiced meaningful membership, a process which included a way to welcome into, and if needed, to put out of fellowship.
Given the rest of the New Testament teaching on this, including the teaching of Christ in Matthew 16 and 18, and the weight of the “one another” commands throughout the epistles, we can safely conclude that the idea of specifically belonging to a singular local church, which knows who you are and is helping you walk faithfully in the Christian life, is not just a matter of description but prescription. This practice is for all believers at all times. And that includes us — it includes you — in 2022.
For much of my Christian life, I have considered the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4, Luke 8, Matthew 13) to be one of the most haunting passages in the Bible. How can I be sure that my heart isn’t the rocky soil with no lasting roots? The one that hears the Word and receives it with joy, but falls away due to the troubles of the world? Or the thorny soil, which also bears some apparent fruit but allows the deceitfulness of riches and desires for other things to choke out the fresh growth of faith?
Well, one of the most surefire ways to persevere in the faith, avoiding the fate of the rocky or thorny soil, and instead yield a crop of good spiritual fruit leading to eternal life is by joining a church. In essence, church membership and Christ’s commitment to keeping His own (John 6) form the twin foundational pillars of our assurance of salvation. Or to put it in negative and stark terms, “If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell” (Mark Dever).
So, if you’re not a member of a local church, commit to joining one this year. It’s ultimately not a matter of preference. It’s not optional. It’s obedience.
Charles Spurgeon, one of the most prolific Baptist preachers of the 19th century, also led one of the largest congregational churches in London during his life and ministry, the Metropolitan Tabernacle. And he insisted that his church practice church membership. Geoff Chang, a Spurgeon scholar, writes that:
“[A]s a committed Baptist, Spurgeon’s ministry was rooted in his congregation of baptized believers. For all of his evangelistic preaching, Spurgeon refused to separate his call to the gospel with a call to be committed and accountable to a local church. In his careful practice of membership and discipline, Spurgeon once stated that ‘He would rather give up his pastorate than admit any man to the Church who was not obedient to his Lord’s command; and such a course would certainly promote the downfall of any Church that practiced it.’”
From Paul and the church in Corinth to Spurgeon and his church in London to those of us in the United States today, the idea of local church membership is as biblical and historical as the New Testament. Faithful saints have practiced this for centuries. It has fallen on hard times in our modern context, to be sure, but that’s no excuse for forsaking a matter of obedience.
But allow me to close with some of the blessings of church membership as a way of setting an ember in your chest to fuel the fire of pursuing this new commitment.
The Christian life is often represented as a pilgrimage. It is a long, slow obedience in one direction. God often calls us to walk through valleys of the shadow of death, encountering trials and suffering. Sin abounds — both around us and within our own hearts. But He doesn’t call us to walk alone. No, He gives us the gift of His church and other fellow pilgrims to journey alongside us.
As a Christian, you need regular spiritual fuel to sustain your walk with Christ. God intends for you to receive that life-giving sustenance, week in and week out, as you sit under God’s Word faithfully preached and as you partake of the Lord’s Supper. The proclamation of the Gospel through expositional preaching serves to pump fresh spiritual life into your soul week after week, just as a strong and healthy heart pumps life-giving blood through our veins moment after moment. And He intends for you to turn right back around and pour out into others.
As my pastor has said before, “If you don’t leave church both spiritually nourished and physically tired, maybe you aren’t doing it right.”
If you become a member at a church that is committed to serving God’s Word to God’s people as their spiritual food and drink, bringing light to their eyes (Psalm 19:8), your year will be better for it. Nourished by the Word faithfully preached, read, prayed, sung, and seen, you will find new relationships and a depth of intimacy within a church family that you perhaps could have never anticipated.
Will it be perfect? Of course not. In fact, remember: the Church is only for sinners. Repentant sinners, yes, but sinners still. But even if it isn’t perfect, it can still be healthy — working and striving together to speak “the truth in love [and] grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
In my decade of serious church membership, I have seen countless members who take their church covenant seriously, rolling up their sleeves and ministering to one another, building each other up in love. Church members don’t wait to get the green light from an elder, or be directed by a deacon, to care for each other. No, they see a need and meet that need. They love, pray, serve, and show hospitality, expecting nothing in return. Being a part of such a group of committed fellow Christians has changed my life — and it can change yours too.
What I am saying is this: Not only is joining a church a matter of obedience, and we should obey our King, but it is also the best thing you can do to make this year — and as many as God gives you — better than last year. Of course, you must find a Gospel-preaching church that takes this seriously. But if you do, and you join, it will open up a depth and breadth to your walk with the Lord that you simply can’t find anywhere else, and certainly not as a Lone Ranger Christian.
Your new church family will become a shelter from the storms of this world. They will help channel eternal truth and sanity in the face of the madness of the news cycle. They will apply Gospel remedies to the sin and terrors of your own heart. It will be a haven of spiritual well-being, as you are both encouraged and convicted to go deeper in fighting sin and pursuing holiness.
Joining a church is to follow the cry of the Unicorn in the closing pages of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia. As they entered Aslan’s Country, the Unicorn looked around and proclaimed:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!”
In other words, the church is a foretaste of heaven — not Aslan’s Country, but the New Jerusalem, the country of King Jesus. In our wild and wicked world, we weak and needy sinners need to have that foretaste regularly. And there is no better place — no other place — to find it on this side of glory than in a true church.
So whatever else was on your list for 2022, add this: Find and join a local church — and go further up, and further in.