On the Necessity and Importance of Church Membership

Recently, I observed many of my fellow Christians expressing serious frustration and embarrassment on social media regarding a number of public figures (one in particular trumps them all) who self-identify as Christians. To many of my friends, the words and actions of these famous persons who claim a Christian identity not only seem out of step with the Christian faith but bring ridicule and shame upon the Church. My fellow Christians did all they could to signal to others that these people don’t represent Christianity.

This frustration and embarrassment is understandable, but it’s a necessary symptom of ignoring the importance of church membership as most American churches, pastors, and Christians have done. In other words, if we deny the importance of church membership and if we accept the claim that a person can be a Christian and part of the “invisible church” without covenanting with a local body of believers under proper biblical government, then there will always be individuals out there who claim to represent the Christian faith who will deny core doctrines and embrace behaviors out of step with Christ’s kingdom, and we won’t have any basis to deny it.

My point here is this: If you are embarrassed by people who refuse to live repentantly and yet still claim to be Christians, then become a member of a church where church discipline and real membership is practiced. If you float from church to church, if you attend a huge church where there is no possible way pastors can know the sheep and watch over them in any meaningful way, if you are a member of a church that keeps people on its rolls that haven’t been around in years, if your church doesn’t practice restorative discipline, then you are part of the problem and the reason why we will continue to be embarrassed by famous people claiming to represent Christ who will be believed by the world. However, if all of us start taking church membership and discipline seriously, we’ll simply be able to ask such persons, “To which church do you belong? To whom are you accountable?”

When asked if he is a Christian, the famous Neo-Anabaptist theologian from Duke Divinity School, Stanley Hauerwas, has said many times something like this in response: “My friends tell me that I am.” His point in answering this way is to refuse to claim authority as an individual to self-identify with Christ. Hauerwas is getting at the idea that Jesus has given authority to the church to recognize who belongs to him. There is a sense in which none of us has the right to claim to be a Christian apart from baptism and membership in a particular body under biblical lawful government.

With that in mind, here are 6 basic biblical arguments borrowed and summarized from How Jesus Runs the Church by Guy Waters on why Christians must join a church.

  1. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) requires that we baptize people into communities where they continue to learn to obey all Jesus commanded.
  2. Many New Testament commands assume and require membership in a particular and defined church body in order to be obeyed, particularly those “one another commands” and those calling Christians to respect, submit to, and esteem those “over you.”
  3. The teaching of Jesus and Paul on church discipline in which the unrepentant are set outside the community assumes church membership.
  4. The practice of the Lord’s Table requires a concrete and particular fellowship to be a meaningful practice where those who have professed Christ are welcomed.
  5. Many passages in the New Testament, like Ephesians 4, speak collectively of spiritual growth. The body of Christ is to grow up together as members are joined to one another.
  6. Elders are given responsibility before God for a particular group of Christians under their care.



Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton coined the term “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (MTD) to describe the spiritual lives of American teenagers. Based on a research project called the “National Study of Youth and Religion,” Smith and Denton observed a set of beliefs (doctrines, if you will) commonly held by teenagers today:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Since the publication of this book, MTD has become a familiar summarizing term that captures the general religious outlook of our youth. Many have argued that this description fits the wider population’s spirituality as well. Some even think this is a good thing! Any Christian who has been catechized in sound doctrine will recognize this (unconscious) creed conflicts with orthodox Christian faith. In MTD, there’s no need for Trinity (≠deism), incarnation (≠therapy), or redemption (≠moralism).

An Easy Target

I’ve read and heard numerous Christians lament this creed as fundamentally unchristian, and it is. But in Evangelical circles, MTD has become a bit of an easy target to attack because it so obviously diverges from orthodoxy. Everyone knows it’s wrong, and we all shake our heads at those other people who so misguidedly fail to grasp the truth.

But Smith and Denton have put their finger on something that runs much deeper than this anemic creed, something of which all of us, including my Evangelical brothers and sisters, are guilty. MTD isn’t just a bad creed. It’s a fundamentally upside-down orientation to life, and it’s an orientation that all of us, secular or not, naturally share. And that means it’s not enough to simply look at the creed and shake our heads in disagreement. In fact, Smith and Denton created this creed as a summarizing term not because people actually walk around with those doctrines in their heads but because they were trying to put their finger on this orientation.

In short, MTD is an orientation in the making since the Enlightenment that sees God in obligation to us and not the other way around. MTD describes our deeply felt convictions that God must be about our well-being and happiness (hence therapeutic). It’s not us who must be justified before God, rather, God must justify Godself to us.

Seeing Ourselves

That’s why the problem of evil is such a pressing question for Westerners whereas in Ancient times it was not the most troubling question with which people wrestled. If we are owed happiness and circumstances that please us, then God better do some explaining as to why my life isn’t going the way I want. If I cannot see any good reason why God would allow suffering in my life, then God must either not exist or be a moral monster.

The MTD orientation also explains why churches have become highly focused on relevance, being positive and encouraging, and meeting people’s perceived needs and preferences regarding corporate worship and programming. We moderns don’t come to God needing to be justified. We come demanding God work for us. I can reject the creed of MTD but still involve myself with a Christian community that “pursues God in a way that works for me.”

This insight is reason #2,567 why I am convinced we have to return to biblical and historic church practices (both in worship and community) that reorient us properly to God. The form of worship and ministry in most Evangelical churches shares rather than repels the orientation of MTD, and so while we can see the errors of the creed, we can’t see our own reflection in it.

Church Planting: Models and Expectations

This morning I came a across a post by Dr. David Fitch written some time ago but reposted on his blog today. Fitch is a Christian in the Neo-Anabaptist tradition, a tradition that has significant differences with my own Reformed tradition. But Fitch is someone I listen to because he consistently sheds light onto the current cultural context and helps me think about what it means to live on mission today. He is a professor at Northern Seminary in Chicago (Ph.D. from Northwestern University), an author of several books, a church planter, and a pastor at Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, IL.

His [re]post this morning contrasts different church planting models, points us toward the proper  approach, and encourages us to adopt certain expectations.

Church planting in United States and Canada has been traditionally all about gathering a large crowd, making a big splash in a community and building a building.  Success is measured by how big and how fast. Though I recognize there is some legitimacy in gathering converts quickly. This can happen within Christendom parts of America where indeed what we’re doing in church planting is “upgrading” church and making it more relevant for the children of Christian parents who have lost interest in their parents’ form of church. This I suggest still has some validity.But in more parts of America and Canada we are no longer converting the children of Christian parents.  There are less and less left who are interested in Christianity. We are in essence therefore left to plant communities in mission. The goal is not making Christianity more relevant to dormant Christians or children of Christians. It is to be a new witness to the Kingdom in a place that lacks such an expression. This ‘shift’ fundamentally changes our expectations for what a church plant should look like. In this regard I find John Howard Yoder’s (RYFC) quote from Theology of Mission (p. 218-19)  helpful

“We do not start by assuming the church must take over the place. We start by assuming the number of believers will be modest and the decision to follow Christ will be a costly one, therefore a decision that not many will make. This does not mean an a priori decision that there should never be a mass movement … It means we do not hang our hopes on strategies of effectiveness of the message getting a wide hearing quickly or gaining support from powerful people.”

You should check out the rest of his post here where he explains some of the implications this shift has for church planters (and those belonging to a church plant) regarding their practices and expectations.

The Exciting and Attractive Church

Exciting. Big. Energetic. Practical. Passionate. Positive. Encouraging. These words are often found in the slogans and values of exciting and attractional churches.

What is an attractional church? How do you know if you are a part of an attractional church? Austin Fischer is a teaching pastor at Vista Community Church in Temple, Texas who recently wrote an article for Christianity Today examining the attractional church model through the lens of one of its most “successful” practitioners, Andy Stanley.

The model, espoused by Stanley and implemented throughout evangelical America, recognizes that people typically approach life as consumers in a marketplace and relates to them as such in order to bolster the church’s reach. Fischer explains it like this:

When we talk about leveraging “consumer instincts” in the way we practice church, we are taking the ideology of the market and the narrative of acquisitive freedom as the highest good and baptizing them. We are telling our people that their wants and felt needs need no further justification and need not be questioned. What is most important is not that they become like Jesus (unless of course they feel like it), but that they are free (and comfortable) to become whatever they want to become.

Stanley’s own explanation goes like this:

We are unapologetically attractional. In our search for common ground with unchurched people, we’ve discovered that, like us, they are consumers. So we leverage their consumer instincts.

In my own experience, churches don’t necessarily think of what they are doing in these terms, but the logic of the marketplace still unconsciously pervades the strategy of church leaders. They are more prone to think about what people want from a church and then establish programs, “worship” experiences, and studies that meet those desires as a hook or door to introduce them to the gospel.

  • People want to be encouraged and supported because they feel so busy and stressed, so let’s have a bible study on joy and hope!
  • People want to feel like God is really working in their life, so let’s put on a powerful performance with lots of people and energy so everyone gets the sense that they are a part of something bigger than themselves.
  • People want convenience because of their busy schedules, so let’s provide multiple services in multiple locations that allow flexibility in participation.
  • People want easy relational connections because they’re lonely, so let’s organize our fellowships by life stage so that people can become friends with others without the barriers of age and marital status complicating the situation.

You can see the logic here. You can also see the earnest desire to reach and serve more people.

But long ago, I started to suspect that this model is not only ineffective at producing mature disciples but that it severely distorts the witness of the church by clouding the message of the gospel. The form, structure, and logic of the church life and ministry are just as formational as the content of the message being preached. In other words, a pastor or teacher can be explaining the gospel, inviting people to receive Jesus, and preaching biblical texts with relatively faithful exposition while at the same time undermining the process of discipleship by drawing people into a church life that does not comport with the the gospel and the life of discipleship. Perhaps the article says it best:

Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken pastored a church that also believed we could and should exploit consumerism. But through a long and arduous process of examination, they changed their mind. They came to believe that the way we practice church forms us in ways that rival, and at times, preempt the things we say. We can tell people to practice self-denial, but when everything we do caters to their felt needs as consumers (from their placement in small groups, to their participation, or lack thereof, in worship), our practice contradicts the teaching. It’s no wonder so many well-meaning church goers find the call to a cruciform life utterly incoherent.

I encourage you to read the article and to consider both your church’s model and the logic of your own involvement with your church whether as a leader, member, or attender. If you really want to dig into the issue, pick up Selling Out the Church by Philip D. Kenneson and James L. Street.

I’d love to hear feedback in the comments. I think this is one of the most pressing issues in the American church.

A Response to J.D. Greear on the Fidelity of the Multi-Site Church Model

A few weeks ago, J.D. Greear, the lead pastor at The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, posted four blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4) defending the multi-site church model (hereafter, MSM) against objections and concerns raised primarily by Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks.

While many arguments could be levied against the MSM and against Greear’s posts (which you must read first in order to appreciate what I will say below), I want to offer two main responses arguing that the MSM is not biblically faithful. First, I want to point out the problematic unspoken assumption behind Greear’s arguments in favor of the MSM. Second, I want to critique Greear’s argument in his second post about the biblical fidelity of the MSM regarding the essence or identity of the church.

I write as a pastor who previously worked on the pastoral staff of a multi-site church here in North Carolina that looked to The Summit as a model and that invited Greear to come speak on a number of occasions to provide counsel and leadership advice. I have shared a meal with Greear and spoken to him on a few other occasions, and I always found him to be kind, intelligent, and full of charisma. While I have concerns about the model he and The Summit have adopted, I want to be clear that my criticism should not be interpreted as personal attacks but as concerns for Christians I care about and desire to see thrive. But I am concerned with the MSM and with The Summit in particular, especially in light of the recent events at Mars Hill in Seattle with Mark Driscoll (a friend and example to Greear).

A Problematic, Unspoken Assumption

Greear’s main argument in favor of the multi-site model comes in his first post regarding the evangelistic faithfulness of the model. His explicit aim in adopting the MSM is to reach more people for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have no objection to the desire to reach more people for Christ. But what Greear fails to admit in any of his posts is the belief that, in order for The Summit to do this, they must plant campuses throughout the Raleigh-Durham area instead of planting churches because of the appeal of his celebrity-pastor status. This assumption is overlooked as Greear cites statistics, the 80% seating capacity principle, and arguments about how church members won’t leave to plant churches. He doesn’t seem to see that everything needed to plant a site in the ways he describes throughout his posts contains all the ingredients needed to plant a church. This reveals that the real reason why they plant campuses as opposed to sites is because of the unspoken (perhaps correct) assumption that the church is evangelistically effective because people come to the church to hear J.D. Greear. If they plant churches, there would be no Greear appeal.

So let me briefly show why it’s the case that a church could be planted just as easily as a site according to Greear’s own arguments. Virtually everything Greear argues in his third post on pastoral care would be the same arguments which those espousing a “single service only” model would make to plant churches as a response to church growth (especially under Presbyterian governance). First, congregations of 500 or less can more effectively keep track of and care for the sheep. Second, not everyone needs to be connected to the “senior-pastor” (an office that is problematic in my estimation as well, but that is for another post) but can be shepherded by elders who worship with them in the same place, so smaller congregations are better than huge congregations regarding pastoral care. Third, we want people to stay, serve, and live where they are and be the church in their community. Fourth, we should constantly develop new leaders by providing other pastors opportunities to preach and carry out other pastoral responsibilities. If these arguments justify planting sites, aren’t they even better reasons to plant a church?

Greear explains that The Summit’s philosophy of church planting and site planting runs like this: they plant churches in areas where there are currently no Summit members commuting and sites where many Summit members commute 20+ minutes. But Greear never explains why the sites themselves cannot simply be planted as churches. He cannot bring himself to acknowledge that they do so because they believe their “brand” and the appeal of Greear himself prevents them from giving sites autonomy. Despite the claim that Greear desires to send people rather than build an empire, that is exactly what he is doing by planting sites rather than campuses. The MSM model tells people to stay where they live and be the church there, but it allows them to hold on to hearing from Greear each Sunday.

The only time Greear appears to be aware of the model’s dependence upon a celebrity-pastor comes in his third post, but he quickly dismisses this concern by arguing that the problem was worse when The Summit did not yet have any sites. Besides, he says, the problem isn’t unique to multi-site churches. But this response hardly addresses the concern. Just because something is a problem in many churches doesn’t mean that it cannot be held against the MSM. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that his celebrity-pastor appeal was more prominent when The Summit gathered as 500 people in one location than when they gather near 10,000 in 9 locations. If that was true, then what advantage is there to planting sites instead of churches? The real reason for the MSM is that people come to The Summit to hear J.D. Greear, and The Summit is leveraging that reality to “reach more people for Christ.”

Now Greear can deny this, and if you listen to other multi-site lead pastors, they will deny it too. But the events of this past few week over at Mars Hill in Seattle regarding Mark Driscoll ought to help us see through the denials. Driscoll’s resignation and the decision by the elders there to dismantle the multi-site model in favor of particularization demonstrate that the whole corporate conglomeration depended upon the leadership and appeal of the top leader. If there is one thing the events at Mars Hill ought to make clear, it’s that, despite all the objections to the contrary, the multi-site model is all about the celebrity pastor. If the celebrity pastor goes down in shame or leaves, there is no reason to keep all the sites together under one central hierarchy anymore (unless an equally appealing celebrity-pastor can replace the former).

Those espousing the multi-site model need to acknowledge the real reasons why they have adopted the model. It isn’t because they cannot train up elders/pastors fast enough. Greear says that each campus has local elders that shepherd the people there. It isn’t because of finances. These sites usually start with enough congregants/members to operate, or they can receive support from the planting church. Churches like The Summit adopt the multi-site model because they want to leverage their “brand” and famous preacher to attract more people in the hopes of reaching more people.[1]

Building a church model on a personality, a brand, or a mother church’s DNA is a serious mistake. It runs counter to Paul’s arguments in the beginning of 1 Corinthians about the danger of appealing to people on the basis of anything other than the preaching of Christ crucified. Paul goes to great lengths to denounce adopting ministry practices or models that utilize the draw of a personality or the flashy methods of the world. The model stands and falls with the one pastor. As Mars Hill and plenty of other mega-church collapses demonstrate, when you build a church on a man other than Christ, that church will decline (usually rapidly) and the witness of the church is damaged when the man leaves or fails in any dramatic and public way.

The Biblical Fidelity of the Model

My larger concern with the model rests on biblical arguments regarding the essence or identity of the church. Simply put, Greear is guilty of reductionism. He argues that the essence of the church is covenant not assembly. He says that assembly is a function of the covenant community but that there is no biblical support for the idea that churches must gather in one place at the same time each week. Before I discuss the reductionism of this argument, I need to briefly comment on the last part of that assertion.

Greear is correct about how, where, and when a church is to gather only if he only has to demonstrate that no passage explicitly commands gathering all together at the same time weekly in those terms. But interpreting Scripture requires a much broader theological approach than that. Only until very very recently, the church has universally believed that local churches should gather together on the Lord’s Day because of the fourth commandment and the pattern of the New Testament church.

The case many make attempting to defend the MSM by appealing to the supposed prevalence of “house church networks in one city” in the first century is weak at best. Appealing to the initial formation of the church in Jerusalem to justify a church model is to appeal to the context before the Apostles began organizing the church into what would emerge as the healthy and universal gathering pattern and governing structure. Just because a church in one city is referred to as one entity, much like the way we would talk about the church in any geographic area (e.g. “the church in the United States”), does not mean that the church had adopted a MSM. I would argue that the early church had something more akin to what we would call a Presbyterian system. But even if one disputes that, those who seem to root the MSM model in the New Testament ignore the case made time and time again that the early church looked to the synagogue as its model. Synagogues were led by a council of men from several families that lived in the community where they gathered weekly to hear the Law read and to pray.

The more substantial concern I have with Greear’s biblical case is the reductionism of his ecclesiology. If the church is essentially a covenant community, then all we need is a covenant in order to have a church. Everything else that marks the church can be done to the degree that we find them practical, effective, or convenient. If Greear considered all the church models that could follow from this argument, he might take pause.

Now, he acknowledges that churches must gather together, but he essentially accuses Leeman of being too uptight about that since there is not explicit command as to how often, where, and when. The Summit finds it most effective to gather all together once a year. But this line of reasoning is about as ridiculous as saying that a family is essentially a covenant community (entered into through marriage, birth, or adoption), and so a family need not live, eat, work, play, worship, or serve together since being together is not the essence of a family. Certainly, we can grant that families still exists when being together is not possible. But wouldn’t we all agree that a rich, healthy, and ideal family life is one where members share in life together in these ways? Wouldn’t we agree that the formation of children demands a rich shared life where parents can instruct, model, and work along side of the children? And when a child grows older and marries, leaving his family to hold fast to his wife and form family of his own, wouldn’t we consider this to be a new family with its own government and life even if the two families come together often to share in fellowship and mission? Given the language of the New Testament describing the church as the family of God, and given that the pattern of governance throughout the New Testament sees mature heads of households as the leaders of the local church, shouldn’t we conclude that a local church should look a lot like a collection of families who share life together? By reducing the church’s essence to covenant, Greear relegates other church identities to relative unimportance and thereby undercuts the force of what it means to be a covenant community in the first place. Rather than reducing the church to one defining feature and then coming up with arrangements we deem to be effective, we should pursue a church structure and pattern of gathered worship that best conforms to all that the New Testament teaches about what it means to be the people of God.

At the heart of my concern with the MSM is the observation that multi-site churches have adopted a corporate structure and abandoned the family identity described and commanded in the New Testament. And we are fools to think that this doesn’t impact the formation of disciples. Greear claims that his church is highly effective evangelistically. I am just not so sure. Drawing crowds of people and baptizing huge numbers does not convince me that many real disciples are being formed. The Great Commission is as concerned with the maturation of disciples learning to obey all that Jesus has commanded as it is with the initial response of faith and baptism. If we take any cues from Jesus’ suspicion of the crowds in his own ministry due to their desire to see miraculous things and be a part of something significant given the tumultuous cultural situation of Roman occupation, we will be suspicious of large crowds that gather in contexts where spectacle and celebrity appeal is high and commitment is low. If we win people by appealing to their desire for a low commitment experience of inspiring teaching and powerful musical worship, then we shouldn’t be surprised that they are hesitant to engage in high commitment endeavors like planting new churches.

The corporate structure of The Summit and other MSM churches is marked by a corporate hierarchy aimed at efficiency (something unsurprisingly absent from the concerns driving Jesus’ ministry). Despite The Summit’s attempt to ground their governance in biblical arguments, anyone thinking carefully will quickly see that their practice doesn’t conform to the very arguments they make about church officers/leaders. If the NT uses the terms elder, pastor, and overseer interchangeably (as they argue and with which I agree), then why aren’t all the pastors and elders “directional” elders (the ones who actually rule the church)? The answer is that there would be too many elders to make decisions efficiently. But in order to be able to say that each campus is led by elders, people who do not have any ruling authority are given the title of pastor/elder. So instead of localizing the elders and planting churches, The Summit adopts a corporate board (the directional elders) subject to the votes of the shareholders (the members), executed by the CEO (J.D. Greear), and carried out by the CEO’s staff (pastors excluded from participation in the directional elder board). It’s plainly misguided to argue that one is adopting a biblical model of church governance under these conditions.

The corporate structure of The Summit and other MSM churches depends upon the DNA or brand first established by the original campus. Because of its “success,” The Summit has chosen to plant sites that can carry The Summit’s DNA into other parts of the city. I don’t have space here to develop an argument as to why this is problematic, but it rests in the conviction that churches should contextualize the gospel to the particular context in which it gathers and scatters. Churches should seek to live incarnationally with the actual people, problems, social injustices, groups, institutions, and challenges each geographic area presents. The incarnational philosophy will push against all attempts to replicate the DNA, brand, or culture of a congregation in a different place.

The church is a sign, a foretaste, and a herald of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the MSM fails to faithfully embody this identity. The shape or form of a local church must conform to the gospel message. In other words, if the gospel is true (which it is), it will produce a people who take on a certain life together that exposes the idols of the culture in which it lives. The church itself, its fellowship, worship, and message, will be a taste of what God’s kingdom will be like when Christ returns. Rather than being a taste of the kingdom, the MSM is a form adopted from our consumeristic culture. The very reason Greear has to defend himself against the critique of consumerism is because the MSM is based on consumerism. He is right that other churches fail to witness against consumerism. Even churches that adopt a faithful model and structure will be tempted by consumerism. It is the water in which we live and breathe in the U.S. But this is exactly why we must maintain a church form and hold fast to a gospel message that resists approaching all of life as consumers. We cannot form disciples who are learning to die to self while at the same time attracting them to our church with a celebrity.

What to make of it all?

No one doubts that multi-site churches can boast tremendous growth numbers. I don’t intend to dispute the large number of churches that have been planted by multi-site churches (almost always in different cities). I also don’t mean to suggest that nothing good has come from these endeavors. But we simply cannot accept the argument that because multi-site churches can boast such huge growth numbers, they must be considered faithful to God’s biblical vision for the church. On the contrary, humility demands that we be all the more diligent to watch ourselves and listen to others. The more “successful” and exalted these celebrity-pastors become, the more danger exists that the pastors themselves and those who share in their importance and impact will be foolishly blinded in pride. Many voices have been raising concerns about the MSM, and recent events at Mars Hill once again demand reconsideration of a dangerous church model. The fidelity of the church’s witness is at stake.

[1] I recognize that a minority of multi-site churches do not broadcast or drive the lead pastor to preach at every site but have campus pastors preach each week. In these cases, the mother church is leveraging its brand and prominence rather than the senior pastor.