For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. (Romans 12:4-5)
I found myself thinking, for a good long time, about a tweet I read by a Virginia church planter named Joe Holland. He wrote, “Church membership is like joining a long-term mission team.” I don’t think we’re supposed to spend much time thinking about tweets, because the next one will come along at any second. But that makes them all the more suspicious to me. It seems that, by its nature, a lot of social media communication is laden with errors and off the cuff quips. I don’t mean to sound snobby, I just mean that social media seems to encourage quantity over quality. So I wondered, “Is church membership really like joining a long-term mission team?”
Missionaries, by and large, have historically been “long-term.” Missionary families and teams go to the place they’ve been called and stay there. Adoniram Judson, the first American, Congregational missionary to serve overseas, was a missionary to Burma for almost 40 years. He and his first wife, Ann, left the shores of Salem, Massachusetts in in 1813, knowing they might very well be sacrificing their lives for Christ, which eventually they did. They knew and lived among the Burmese people, loving them and telling them about the Gospel of Jesus Christ as often as they had opportunity. They had to learn the local language from scratch and Judson translated the first Burmese to English dictionary, a great help to those who would go there after him. After their first ten years in Burma, their church only had a few more than a dozen members, but they never left to find a place that was more to their liking or where they sensed God was doing a greater work. They realized that their Christian community needed them, and they needed it. They were “individually members one of the other.” They were committed to the body in which they were called, through good times and many bad.
In many ways, Judson’s story is a lot like life is supposed to be in the local church. Yet, how often do pastors and congregants view church membership like a short-term mission trip, attending and participating for a while, but without any real long-term commitment or investment? When the first sign of conflict, change or disappointment arises, they’re out of there, off to find the next perfect church, which will be ruined as soon as they arrive. We are fallen people, coming together with other fallen people, who are gathered and shepherded by fallen leaders, yet that is the context in which the Holy Spirit is at work building up and equipping Christ’s people. It is the crucible in which we are being formed. It is the very place in which every New Testament letter encourages Jesus’ followers to thrive and endure, not leave or quit. The local church is also placed in a larger community in which its members commit to make an impact on their neighbors, loving them and telling them about Jesus, that they too may be drawn into Christ’s body, nourished and sent out on mission.
So while the statement made in that tweet might not be quite perfect, I do agree that if we think of church membership as being on a long-term mission team, we will be better focused and committed to our local church and our community. Maybe it will help us to see that church membership requires sacrifice and surrender, especially to Christ. Maybe we’ll see it less about us, as individuals, and more about Jesus and His kingdom.