In this wider series we’ve been exploring the nature of the Church and membership in it. This post seeks to answer the following question: if church membership visibly expresses my invisible membership in the universal church, should my membership be of a geographically local church?
*Note: I am writing this post in response to someone who lives in a community without an evangelical church about my views on being a part of a local church. This post comes from my heart. It in no way seeks to drive away our own members who travel nor compel members of other churches who are closer to our church than their own to switch their membership. It is, rather, an expression of an ideal which I believe has Biblical support and which I wish Christians near and far would seriously consider as their approach to membership for the bolstering of the local church’s witness.
Nowhere in the Bible is there a “thus saith the Lord” verse to command us to be members of a faithful Gospel church within our own local community. There are, however, many principles and practical considerations, which if taken collectively provide a compelling case to this end.
Historically, until modern modes of transport made this possible, worshippers were constrained by geography to worship locally. Whether that was in ancient times or the 19th Century, one could only go as far as their feet or horse would take them (though in exceptional circumstances the faithful would travel great distances to be with fellow believers and worship). If you lived between churches then you had to make an informed decision. This, and sometimes demographics or denominational affiliations, is why historically there were many more centres of Christian worship.
But was this or is this question purely practical? I believe the closest Bible verse to a command on this subject suggest, “no.” Acts 1:8 says, “And you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem [local], Judea and Samaria [regional and national] and to the ends of the earth [international].” Yes, this is a key structure in Acts regarding the outward spread of the Gospel. Yes, it is likewise a direct commission to the 11 disciples. However, indirectly it is still a command for missions which directs us to be involved in local missions, the chief vehicle of which is the local church.
Enter the automobile, which revolutionized so much in our culture, including the Church. Now if you were of this faith and order you didn’t need to worry about relying on another church or starting one in your community, you could just drive to the next. If you got in a fight with someone you didn’t need to be reconciled, you could just drive to the next town. If something didn’t suit you or you got bored at this church you could simply drive along to that church. Transportation enabled us to defy geography but with it we also succumbed to many temptations to put self ahead of the interests of the local church.
The American President JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” That quote may be changed to say, “Ask not what your church can do for you but what you can do for your church.” Churches are fundamentally not service providers but equipping centres for discipleship (and mission). I’ve even know some Christians to be so selfless they’ve collectively moved into a community with no church in order to reach it for the Gospel. We ought not to see the church as simply a service provider to meet our needs but to contribute to its spiritual vitality so it might bring a Gospel blessing to our community. Christians are inherently other focused just as Christ Himself was selfless. We honour the head of the body by doing what it best for the local manifestation of it.
Now, there are legitimate reasons to be part of a church outside of your local community: maybe there is no Gospel church; no church of your faith and order; maybe the local church is orthodox but dead (perhaps you could be the Lord is calling to fan its flame?); maybe your temporarily seeking to bolster another church; maybe language or ethnicity is an issue (perhaps you could learn the local language?). However, I know far too many Christians who travel past several Gospel churches to arrive at their church of choice, thus wasting time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere (it also means you cannot be as involved in your church in areas like fellowship, events, outreach, etc).
What might drive this? Well, rather than a principled commitment to the ideal of the local church what about the great ways of thinking that shape our society and which have sadly infiltrated the church: individualism, consumerism and materialism. The individualistic church seeker does what they want rather than what Christ is calling them to (Is there self-will, die to self; Is there conflict, seek to resolve it even if it may be difficult or uncomfortable). This feeds over into consumerism. The consumeristic seeker is driven by personal preference: that church doesn’t have good music (Is music all a church is about? Might you be called to use your gift of music to help that church?); they don’t have any children’s programming (Might your family be called to be the seed to help initiate a children’s ministry there?); It’s tradition, it’s my family church (While that’s wonderful, there are other ways to meaningfully support a church you have strong ties to); I’d have to leave my family or friends and make news ones (yes, what a joy—to meet new brothers and sisters in Christ that is!). The materialistic seeker likes to boast in how big or wealthy or physically beautiful or gifted their church is (Is this not pride knocking? May the Lord be calling you to devote your gifts and giftings to the support of some needy cause?).
Even though the Bible stands opposed to such “isms” in our culture, these alone are not the primary principle to illuminate this reflection. The foundational principle is Act 1:8 and how we can be part of Christ’s local mission if we’re not a part of His local body? I believe once a church has a sizable contingent coming from one community, we shouldn’t make our building bigger, but instead partner with other area Gospel churches to do a church plant (I dream of planting an evangelical church in Durham, Chatsworth, Flesherton (?) and Dundalk). If you don’t have a local church, ask your church about considering a church plant.
This is a vast subject and as such I cannot cover every consideration. It’s an area which may raise many questions and I hope will fuel further reflection.
If you feel led to relocate what should you do? First, tell both your Elders and the Elders of the prospective church about your considerations. Ask them to pray with you. It can be difficult to the present church in terms of tithes and offerings, rotas, responsibilities and friendships to simply up and move, so if a move is decided lay out a timeline that best serves your present church and enables you to transition to your local church. Slowly get involved in the local church; seek to maintain meaningful ties with the old. Let people know why you are doing what you are doing. Godly ideals are always laudable to follow so let’s love Christ by loving the local church.
Author: Chris Crocker
Pastor, historian and beekeeper.