“It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” That popular saying well describes many places we might go to on vacation, but it also applies to the way many people view church membership. They might rephrase it like this: “Churches are nice places to visit, but I would not want to be committed there.” There are many cultural and spiritual battles we face in our day. No Christian can dispute that the family is under attack. For this reason, you can fill shelves with books on marriage and family issues. No Christian can dispute that we are engaged in a multi-front culture war over issues that seemingly didn’t exist a century ago. No Christian can dispute that major institutions in our society are reeling and rocking from corruption, wrong directions, unbelief, and evil.
Yet we rarely hear this being given as an answer: Go join a church. Even many of the better or more energetic evangelistic groups have often been neglectful of church membership. The word “Christian” is used as an adjective for all types of things–many of which I approve–but is not used as frequently to describe or modify the word “church.” Church life is an appendage for some. It can be a cross to bear. Or it might be an added feature, just like tinted windows on the car you buy.
The word “church” itself can be used to name a building (like the one in the picture above), a denomination, a spiritually amorphous group of both living and dead Christians, a large historical group (like the Catholic Church or Anglican Church), a place to go (as in, we go to church each Sunday), or any assembly (in the more etymological meaning of the word).
A Church You Can See by Dennis E. Bills is a much needed book for Christians. It is a book about building a church and the architecture of a church. Let me clarify that quickly: The book is subtitled Building a Case for Church Membership. This book is not about the best way to construct a physical building or design that building for acoustics or seating or multi-functional use. This book is about the absolute necessity of Christians being tied to, committed to, joined to, and dedicated to a particular local group of fellow believers in order to live out the Christian life.
Before hitting a few key points in Pastor Bills’ book, let me line out the case for not joining a church. First, no church is perfect, nor will any church fit your particular beliefs in every detail. Second, church membership will not save you. Third, many churches are routine and tradition-bound. Fourth, there are all kinds of ways you can serve God without being a church member. Fifth, where does the Bible say that you have to be a member with your name on a roll in a church? Sixth, what about all those people who are in situations (like health, geographic location, in military service, in prison, etc.) who cannot be in church?
Some really strong arguments can be crafted from those six points and others as well. But, the bottom line is that being committed to, being a member of a church is absolutely essential. (Exceptions, such as health, geography, job, access, are just that–exceptions.) While neither Pastor Bills nor I can cite a verse that says “All God’s people must have their names inscribed on the rolls of a local assembly of fellow believers,” the New Testament presupposes church membership at every stage.
The New Testament letters are written to churches and church leaders. The Book of Acts is a book about church planting. The Gospels are written to instruct believers in churches. The gifts, spiritual and otherwise, and teachings are all used in church settings. Not a single word is directed toward Christian schools, Christian music groups, Christian bookstores, Christian political parties, or any other group prefixed by the word “Christian.” While I strongly believe that all those Christian-oriented groups or causes should exist, they grow out of the church community and are not equals or peers with it.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are also church-related. I hope that sentence bothers you. I hope it sounds a bit like it was just an add-on to what the church does. I intentionally sought to do to two things: One is raise the eyebrows of discerning readers and echo the verse in Genesis 1 that casually says, “He made the stars also.”
Baptism–lay aside the matters of mode and subjects–is essential, absolutely commanded, defining, and not negotiable for one who professes faith in Christ. (Yes, I understand that if your hands and feet are pierced with nails and the Roman government is in the process of killing you, you can appeal directly to Jesus.) Baptism is a work and ordinance of the church. Along with that, the Lord’s Supper–laying aside more details about frequency and what elements are used–is a part of the Christian life in the same way that breathing is part of physical life. I hate when someone says that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are just symbols. If I tell a woman that my marriage ring is just a symbol, I hope someone bashes me over the head. (I expect my wife to do so.) In the example I use, a marriage ring really means that I am married, but it is a tradition. How much more are baptism and the Lord’s Supper real and vital since they are established by Christ Himself?
In A Church You Can See, Bills walks the reader through the stages of building a house or other structure. This metaphor is carried through the whole book to teach different aspects of church membership. This book, while good for individual reading, would really best be used by teachers and elders to instruct Sunday school classes or membership classes. It is clearly written, very practical, heavily laced with Scripture passages, and intended to result in the reader either joining a church or becoming aware of the meaning of church membership.
Pastor Bills (and I would emphasize that he is an ordained Presbyterian minister in West Virginia) writes from a Presbyterian and Reformed perspective. Those who might not line up with him on all points (meaning that they are not Presbyterian or Reformed) will still find this book incredibly useful and instructive.
This book can be purchased through Amazon for the ridiculously low price of $5.99.
Along with this book, I will mention two others I like that deal with church life.
My former pastor Curtis C. Thomas, who also co-authored The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Documented, and Defended, wrote an incredibly good book on living the Christian life in the local church. Titled Life in the Body: Privileges and Responsibilities in the Local Church, it was the book I often gave to people who were considering church membership when I was a pastor. Filled with short chapters, this book is also a great individual read or source for a group study.
Stop Dating the Church: Fall in Love with the Family of God by Joshua Harris is a vital wake-up call for believers who are shirking their responsibilities toward local church membership. It is an easy, light, but convicting read.