Church Membership: Do I Stay or Do I Go Now?

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[Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on September 11, 2013.]

One of the topics I  teach on regularly at Southeastern Seminary and in local churches is the nature of church membership. When teaching on membership, I’m frequently asked two questions: 1) What criteria should I use when deciding whether or not to join a particular church? 2) What criteria should I use when deciding whether or not to leave the church of which I’m a member? I answer by sharing four criteria for each question. I list them below, in the order that I personally prioritize them.

Criteria for Joining a Church

1. Doctrine: What does the church believe about primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines? How clear are they in their doctrinal commitments? Do you share the church’s core beliefs? Are you willing to submit to the teaching ministry of the church when it comes to (presumably minor) doctrines where you might disagree?

2. Emphases: Does the pastor (or pastors) emphasize text-driven preaching and teaching? Does the church emphasize discipleship, accountability, and spiritual formation for all its members? Does the church emphasize personal evangelism and global missions?

3. Geography: Do you live close enough to regularly worship with this particular body of believers? Do you live close enough to regularly serve alongside the members of this church? If you live more than 20 minutes away from the church’s gathering place, are you willing to either drive frequently or relocate closer so that you can be vitally involved in the body life of the church?

4. Preferences: Are you comfortable with the church’s approach to music and worship? Are you comfortable with the church’s approach to age- or gender-specific ministry? Are you comfortable with the general ambience or atmosphere that is being fostered by the church?

Criteria for Leaving a Church

1. Geography: Have you relocated far enough from the church’s gathering place that it is no longer possible to be meaningfully involved? (e.g. you move across town)

2. Doctrine: Has there been a change in the doctrinal convictions you hold or those espoused by the church’s leadership that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the church changes its position on female pastors, baptism, speaking in tongues, or eternal security)

3. Emphases: Has there been a change in the church’s emphases that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the pastor has abandoned text-driven teaching and preaching or the leadership refuses to emphasize evangelism and missions)

4. Preferences: Has there been a change in how the church handles some of your preferences that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the music style has changed, the children’s ministry strategy has changed, church gatherings have become more or less casual than they were)

I am convinced that one of the reasons we have so much church-shopping and church-hopping in American evangelicalism is because we tend to join and leave a church based more upon our preferences rather than other matters that are more important. Perhaps better ordering our priorities will help us to be more discerning in pursuing and/or ending church membership.

Some of you may quibble with me over where I rank some of these matters–there is room for debate. Nevertheless, I hope you find these lists helpful.


Are We Multicultural Because of Our Community, or Because of Heaven?

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This following is borne out of a conversation among some of our staff about the importance of multiculturalism in worship. The question: do we incorporate various cultural and ethnic elements because of our surrounding community, or because of the final vision of “every tribe, tongue, and nation” worshipping around God’s throne in Revelation 5?

When I mentioned multiculturalism and worship in a sermon a few weeks ago, I mentioned that the church in our age is only a sign, not the fulfillment of Revelation 5. So we give a dim shadow, where we can, of what is to come. Even our best multicultural effort here is still all in English, which is not really multicultural, because heart language is the most basic element of a culture.

The following is borne out of a conversation among some of our staff about the importance of multiculturalism in worship. The question: do we incorporate various cultural and ethnic elements because of the makeup of our surrounding community, or do we do it because we are trying to replicate the final vision of “every tribe, tongue, and nation” worshipping around God’s throne in Revelation 5?

When I mentioned multiculturalism and worship in a sermon a few weeks ago, I mentioned that the church in our age is only a sign, not the fulfillment of Revelation 5. That means, at our best, we can only give a dim shadow of what is to come. Our best efforts here are severely limited. For one, even our best multicultural efforts here are still all in English, which is not really multicultural, because heart language is the most basic element of a culture.

Furthermore, geography makes certain kinds of multiculturalism impractical. To judge a church in Northern Ireland for not being multicultural when their entire community for miles around is made up of only one race is unfair. Using Revelation 5 as the goal for a church overlooks the distinction between the church as “sign” of the coming age and “fulfillment” of that age. Only in heaven will we experience the fulfillment of multiculturalism. Here, we give a glimpse of it whenever we can. But the best we can do is give a glimpse.

Think about it: Can any church say it truly “looks like heaven?” Not many churches in America pursue elements of Arabic and Eskimo music, even though those groups will be in heaven with us.

In our community, we have large African-American, white, Asian and Hispanic populations. Thus, we believe our church (and church leadership) should reflect that. We believe God is more glorified through a multiplicity of cultures in worship, and we believe that picture gives a glimpse to our community of the unity found only in Christ  (Revelation 5:9; Eph 3:10-11). But that we don’t have an Middle Eastern pastor on staff (yet) should not dismay us, even though there will be lots of Middle Easterners around the throne in heaven. They’re just not as heavily represented in our community yet.

Furthermore, our pursuit of multiculturalism has to be balanced by another biblical command: the command to reach the lost in the majority culture around us and the need to contextualize the gospel into their culture to do so. Paul indicated that lost Greeks would be reached by his becoming “like a Greek” to them (1 Cor 9:19-21). He did not expect lost Greeks to be won to Christ by seeing the gospel in its multicultural dimensions (though that may help); he expected Greeks to be reached as he put the gospel into Greek clothes, Greek expressions, and Greek styles. In other words, he doesn’t expect the lost Greeks to become multicultural before they are saved; he will adapt himself as closely as he can to the culture of the Greeks in order to reach those Greeks. After all, embracing other cultures is a sign of maturity–and how can we expect that of people before they are saved? Thus, we have to balance our pursuit of multiculturalism with the demand to clothe the gospel in the culture of those God has positioned us to reach.

Furthermore, God makes each person, and each congregation, particularly suited to reach certain kinds of people (or specifically calls them to certain groups), and they need to adapt their presentations of the gospel to those people. There’s nothing wrong with that–it’s at the heart of what Paul says in 1 Cor 9. But each church should be seeking to teach those people to love, fellowship, and submit to believers from other cultures as they reach them.

I think there’s a real potential to go off course here. I’ve observed a number of ministries make a good thing–multiculturalism, the only important thing. But the core of the Great Commission is making disciples of lost people; it’s the one thing Jesus enumerated when he gave that Commission. So, as we set up our ministries, we have to balance the pursuit of multiculturalism with the need to keep contextualizing the gospel to make disciples of the majority culture around us. But as believers in the majority culture are reached, we need to lead them to appreciate and embrace multicultural expressions of worship, as modeled by Paul and Luke in Acts 13:1-4 and Eph 2-3. That’s part of discipling them.

It’s not wrong for our ministry styles and leadership to reflect many of the forms of the majority culture around us–in some ways, it’s being faithful to 1 Cor 9. But we believe that believers in the majority culture should be seeking to adapt themselves to believers of other ethnicities–that they should go first and farther in their adaptation. Why must they go first? That’s just the way of the gospel—those in a position of “strength” must consider others (and other races) to be more important than themselves (Phil 2:1–5). But, that majority culture has to remember that, as they seek to adapt to other cultures, they still have a lot of lost people within their own culture to reach, which means continuing to express the gospel in ways that the majority culture can understand and are culturally comfortable with. Or, to put it Paul’s language, If a Greek is charged to reach other Greeks, he has to keep expressing the gospel in Greek ways.

We have to reach our own lost community as fast as possible. But the most culturally diverse place in the whole community ought to be the church, so we out to push the majority culture to embrace and love the cultural diversity of God’s kingdom.

Well, I’m simply thinking out loud here and probably being really repetitive. At the Summit, we still have a long way to go, but we are are actively pursuing this as God enables us. I’m grateful for all the patience church members are giving us as we pursue these biblical objectives, and I welcome the continual dialogue as we grow together.

So for now, we have to take many of our cues from the cultures that are in our midstand in proportion to how much they are represented. We also have to balance our pursuit of the demonstration of this sign with the fact that multiculturalism is not our only goal: making disciples is, and that requires some elements of homogeneity. To the Greek, Paul says, he became as a Greek, not that he insisted the Greeks learn to appreciate Arabs before they were saved. It’s unfair to expect people to act mature in Christ before they are mature, and embracing other cultures is a sign of maturity.

I have seen a lot of churches go badly off course here. They replace the one most important thing—disciple-making—with a good thing, multiculturalism. And when a good thing becomes ultimate, it becomes an idol. We can’t let that happen. Our context is still, at present, largely white, and it’s okay if a lot our music and leadership still reflects that. And that we don’t have an Arab pastor on staff (yet) should not dismay us. That’s not to say we still don’t have a long way to go, or that we stop seeking these things. I just want us to be clear on our expectations.

I certainly don’t want this to end the discussion. Nor do I think that I see this issue with perfect clarity. This is my perspective, and I welcome others to enrich our thought as we continue to grow in diversity.


*Not his actual name. Sadly, we have no one named “Frank” on our staff . . . yet.

Book Notice: “Elders in the Life of the Church”

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Elders-in-the-Life-of-the-ChurchI am serving advance notice: Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (Kregel, 2014) is well worth the money spent to purchase it and the time spent to read it. Written by Phil Newton (newly minted PhD from SEBTS) and Matt Schmucker, the book provides biblical, historical, and practical reasons for leading the church by a plurality of elders.

The book, and the argument, unfolds in three parts. The three parts serve to address three interrelated questions, as noted by Mark Dever in the foreword: “Is it Baptist? . . . Is it biblical? . . . Is it best?” (pp. 10–11) Part 1 (chapters 1–6) contains discussion of the historical reasons for elders in the church. Newton and Schmucker ask the key question, “Why did Baptists commonly practice elder plurality in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, but moved away from it––at least in the United States––in the 20th century?” (p. 21) Part 2 (chapters 7–14) includes detailed exposition of four biblical texts that address the matter of church leadership, specifically elders. Part 3 (chapters 15–21) concludes the book with practical reasons and implications for a plurality of elders.

Phil Newton in chapter 1 (pp. 27–37) surveys the practice of Baptist churches in England and America, and the statements of historic Baptist confessions (e.g. the London Confession of 1644 and the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message), both of which affirmed the biblical and practical function of elders in the church leadership. Newton concludes that not all Baptists practiced a plurality of elders, but it is historically inaccurate to say that elders are “un-Baptist.” This historical argument is supplemented with a brief but lively testimony from Schmucker on Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s (CHBC) transition to plural eldership (pp. 59–63)––it can be done without blowing up a church! Ultimately, Newton and Schmucker argue, “Plural eldership serves to prevent one man from falling prey to the temptation of dominating a congregation.” (p. 80)

The basis for this very practical and godly rationale is found in Scripture. Newton argues this point in four key chapters (chapters 7, 9, 11, 13) on the four key biblical texts (Acts 20:17–31; 1 Tim. 3:1–7; Heb. 13:17–19; 1 Pet. 5:1–5). Discussing Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders (plural), Newton writes clearly on the mandate from Scripture:

The dangers we face in twenty-first century America are of the same nature as those faced by our first-century counterparts. The same Lord who directed the apostles to appoint spiritual leaders over the early church directs us to do the same in modern churches. When selecting those leaders, popularity must be laid aside and biblical qualifications emphasized instead. (p. 103)

Schmucker then discusses the failing then successful attempts at CHBC to move to a plurality of elders. Read with the previous chapter, this recounting ably illustrates how concern for the integrity and witness of a church’s leadership must stem from the Scriptures.

Such practical reflection is the real strength of the book. Part three contains several chapters from both authors, who discuss the process for transitioning from non-elder leadership to a plurality of elders. Chapter 19, entitled “Putting It All Together,” helps pastors and churches do just that. Newton gives sage advice: “So you are pondering the idea of making a change in your church structure later. If that is you, get started now. Focus on faithfully teaching Scripture to your church . . . The polity will follow in due time, because a congregation that loves the Word of God and desires to follow whatever the Lord has spoken will be open to plural eldership.” (pp. 212–13) This is not a book for those who wish to lord over a church, either for the sake of elders or against them. This is a book for careful reading and humble response.

Newton and Schmucker’s words are full of wisdom gained from Scripture and years of pastoral experience. Indeed, they are examples of what they argue for in this book. This makes them exceedingly qualified to write it. And they have written it very well. Any pastor, deacon, elder, or lay member of a Baptist church will benefit greatly from reading it. Students and pastoral interns will want to pour over it, discuss it, and apply it. Highly recommended.