“A Hedging and Fencing”: How Charles Spurgeon Promoted Meaningful Membership

Article
01.11.2022

In 1851, right around the time Charles Spurgeon began preaching, a religious census was taken throughout the United Kingdom. About 61 percent of the population reportedly attended church. By way of comparison, here in America in 2020, church attendance is around 20 percent; in the UK, it’s closer to 5 percent. Can you imagine if all of our churches tripled in size? Given the religious decline in our day, it’s easy for us to be impressed with these 175-year-old statistics. Simply put, in Spurgeon’s day, to be English was to be a Christian.

But Spurgeon wasn’t impressed. Despite of all the religious activity around him, Spurgeon saw that not all of it was truly spiritual. Speaking in 1856, he said,

In going up and down this land, I am obliged to come to this conclusion, that throughout the churches there are multitudes who have “a name to live and are dead.” Religion has become fashionable. The shopkeeper could scarcely succeed in a respectable business if he were not united with a church. It is reckoned to be reputable and honorable to attend a place of worship, and hence men are made religious.[1]

Unfortunately, many churches weren’t helping with the situation. Their pastors watered down the distinction between the church and the world in an effort to reach the unsaved. Spurgeon reflects,

They say, “Do not let us draw any hard and fast lines. A great many good people attend our services who may not be quite decided, but still their opinion should be consulted, and their vote should be taken upon the choice of a minister, and there should be entertainments and amusements, in which they can assist.” The theory seems to be, that it is well to have a broad pathway from the church to the world; if this be carried out, the result will be that the nominal church will use that path to go over to the world, but it will not be used in the other direction.[2]

With the rise of theological liberalism in his day, there was less and less about the church that was distinct from the world, both in what they believed and how they lived. Even as Christian nominalism was rampant, the church looked more and more like the world.

So how did Spurgeon fight back against all this?

If you’ve ever heard the story of Spurgeon’s life and ministry, you’ve probably heard something about all the sermons he preached,  the books he published, the orphanages he started, the Pastors’ College he ran, and on and on. But we tend to overlook that, more than anything else, Spurgeon was a pastor. He wasn’t primarily a Christian speaker or CEO-at-large. No, he pastored a local church. And as a Baptist, one of his fundamental convictions was that churches should only be made up of born-again believers.

This is what we call regenerate church membership. Here’s what Spurgeon says about church membership:

Touching all the members of this select assembly there is an eternal purpose which is the original reason of their being called, and to each of them there is an effectual calling whereby they actually gather into the church; then, also, there is a hedging and fencing about of this church, by which it is maintained as a separate body, distinct from all the rest of mankind.[3]

This work of “hedging and fencing” is what keeps the church distinct from the world. And as the pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Spurgeon saw it was one of his chief duties.

THE PRACTICES OF THE METROPOLITAN TABERNACLE

Now, it’s one thing to talk the church being distinct. But how did Spurgeon practice meaningful membership in a church with over 5,000 members?

1. They guarded the front door.

One of the primary ways Spurgeon promoted meaningful church membership was through his church’s rigorous membership process.

To summarize, this process had at least six steps:

An elder interview

A visitor would come on a weekday to meet with an elder of the church to share their testimony and their understanding of the gospel. The elder would ask follow-up questions and record the testimony in one of the church’s Testimony Books. If the elder felt this was a sincere profession of faith, they would be recommended to meet with the Pastor.

Pastoral interview

Spurgeon would review the testimonies that were recorded, and, on another day, the candidate would come to meet with him. Some interviews were clear cases of conversion and Spurgeon had the joy of rejoicing in God’s grace with the candidate. Other cases resulted in further questions, as Spurgeon examined their story and their understanding of the gospel. It could be intimidating to meet with an elder or pastor, but that was never Spurgeon’s intention. Rather, he saw each membership interview as a chance to begin shepherding. He writes,

Whenever I hear of candidates being alarmed at coming before our elders, or seeing the pastor, or making confession of faith before the church, I wish I could say to them: “Dismiss your fears, beloved ones; we shall be glad to see you, and you will find your intercourse with us a pleasure rather than a trial.” So far from wishing to repel you, if you really do love the Savior, we shall be glad enough to welcome you. If we cannot see in you the evidence of a great change, we shall kindly point out to you our fears, and shall be thrice happy to point you to the Savior; but be sure of this, if you have really believed in Jesus, you shall not find the church terrible to you.[4]

Proposal to the congregation and the assignment of a messenger

The next step would be for the elder who performed the interview to present the name of the applicant and propose him for membership at a congregational meeting of the church. The congregation would then vote to approve a messenger to make an inquiry.

Messenger inquiry

The appointed messenger (usually a deacon or an elder) would visit the candidate’s place of work, home, or neighborhood and make an inquiry about his character and reputation. What were they like at home? Did they have a good reputation at work? On one occasion, a suspended policeman applied for membership at the Tabernacle, and Spurgeon encouraged the messenger to make a careful inquiry at the police station as to the details of the suspension. These inquiries not only verified the candidate’s profession of faith, but they also opened doors for the gospel.

Congregational interview and vote

Once the messenger finished his inquiry, at the next the congregational meeting, he would report on his findings. The candidate would also be present at the meeting, and he would be introduced to the congregation via a brief interview from the chair. Then he would be dismissed, and the congregation voted on his membership.

Baptism (if necessary) and communion

Finally, the candidate would be scheduled for a baptism, if necessary, and after the baptism, at the next communion service, he would receive the right hand of fellowship before the congregation and officially become a member of the church.

The Church Meeting Minutes of the Metropolitan Tabernacle from 1854–1892 reveals that 13,797 people submitted themselves to this rigorous membership process. Even as hundreds of people were joining the church each month, this process was followed consistently throughout Spurgeon’s ministry.

Personally, facts like that encourage me to believe that what took place under Spurgeon’s ministry was a genuine revival. So often, Spurgeon saw great crowds turn out for his open-air preaching. But he often observed that after the service, the people would simply disperse. There was little opportunity for follow-up. But at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, as people were converted, they were baptized, brought into the church, discipled, and engaged in the work of the church. This membership process was the way Spurgeon harvested the fruit of the Spirit’s work of revival. Spurgeon’s brother, his co-pastor, wrote this about the membership process:

We have never yet found it tend to keep members out of our midst, while we have known it of service in detecting a mistake or satisfying a doubt previously entertained. We deny that it keeps away any worth having. Surely if their Christianity cannot stand before a body of believers, and speak amongst loving sympathizing hearts, it is as well to ask if it be the cross-bearing public confessing faith of the Bible?[5]

2. They paid careful attention to the membership rolls.

As the pastor of a large and growing church, Spurgeon faced the challenge of maintaining an accurate account of membership. Speaking to his students, Spurgeon once lamented how some churches simply ignored this responsibility.

I would urge upon the resolve to have no church unless it be a real one. The fact is, that too frequently religious statistics are shockingly false. . . . Let us not keep names on our books when they are only names. Certain of the good old people like to keep them there, and cannot bear to have them removed; but when you do not know where the individuals are, nor what they are, how can you count them? They are gone to America, or Australia, or to heaven, but as far as your roll is concerned they are with you still. Is this a right thing? It may not be possible to be absolutely accurate, but let us aim at it.[6]

When Spurgeon became the pastor of the church, one of the first things he did was to go through the membership directory and find out what happened to the people there. Being in a historic church, the membership roll numbered in the hundreds, but there were only a few dozen attending. As they followed up with people, some expressed interest in coming back because of the new pastor, and they were welcomed back. But others said that they were no longer interested. Some had moved out of the area. Some were dead. Many they couldn’t find. These were all removed from membership. And Spurgeon would keep this work up. It was hard work not only taking people into membership, but also keeping track of people once they joined the church.

In a church so large, how did Spurgeon maintain an accurate membership? One of the primary methods was the use of communion tickets. Upon joining the church, each member received a perforated communion card containing numbered tickets. At a communion service each month, the tickets were collected, indicating the attendance of each member. Those who were absent for more than three months were visited by an elder or sent a letter from the church.

The labor that went into tracking members can be seen in the Elders Minute Books in the Metropolitan Tabernacle Archives. The elders met together frequently, at least once a month, usually on Mondays before the prayer meeting. The primary business of these meetings was to track non-attending members, though occasionally, they discussed other business concerning the life of the church.

Sometimes an investigation resulted in the bittersweet discovery that a member had died, or “gone to heaven.” If the elders discovered that these members had joined other churches, letters were granted and they were removed from membership.  Spurgeon believed that Christians should not be members of multiple churches, but should be committed to one church.

In many cases, the inquiry would result in an explanation for the member’s non-attendance. The reasons would vary: distance, a difficult work schedule, having missed the communion service, simply forgetting to bring the communion ticket, illness, and more. In cases of non-attendance due to hardship rather than sin, Spurgeon did not recommend their removal, but encouraged his elders to patiently care for these members.

If a sheep has strayed let us seek it; to disown it in a hurry is not the Master’s method. Ours is to be the labor and the care, for we are overseers of the flock of Christ to the end that all may be presented faultless before God. One month’s absence from the house of God is, in some cases, a deadly sign of a profession renounced, while in others a long absence is an affliction to be sympathized with, and not a crime to be capitally punished.[7]

If the elders’ visit uncovered areas of need, they would work patiently with them to encourage their participation and to provide care for them in their absence. Since each elder was assigned a particular district, he would likely work with other members in that district to provide care.

Sadly, as in any church today, there were some cases where the elders discovered serious, unrepentant sin (“a deadly sign of a profession renounced”). The elders were always involved in the investigation of these cases. The Elder Minutes reveal their regular discussions regarding cases of discipline. Multiple elders were usually involved in a particular case so that multiple witnesses could be established. If the case were serious enough, this would lead to a recommendation to the congregation for discipline. Depending on the seriousness of the case, the elders could notify the congregation of the case at varying points of the investigation.

Discipline cases during the first seven years of Spurgeon’s ministry involved instances of embezzlement, marital abandonment, financial and sexual impropriety, adultery, lasciviousness, lying, neglect of religious duties, repeated thefts, immorality, and spousal abuse. On some particularly painful occasions, the elders led the congregation in disciplining an officer in the church who had fallen into scandalous sin. Though necessary, church discipline was a painful affair for the entire church, leading to many tears.

But as painful as this process was, Spurgeon believed that true Christians could not ultimately fall away. And so, there was always the hope of restoration. In joy, the church saw God use the process of discipline to restore many to repentance. The Minute Books annual meeting membership reports record twenty-one members who were restored to membership during Spurgeon’s years. Here was yet another purpose of church discipline: to awaken backsliding members by bringing them back to the gospel.

Meaningful membership is not about maintaining a pristine church roll. It’s about helping pilgrims finish their journey to the Celestial City.

CONCLUSION

There’s so much about Spurgeon’s life and ministry that just seems mind-boggling. If you ever try to imitate Spurgeon’s schedule and ministries and activities, you probably won't make it. And that’s probably true. Spurgeon himself once said that he did 40 membership interviews in one day, and he said that nearly killed him, because he was so exhausted.

The point here isn’t for us to try to merely replicate Spurgeon’s ministry. After all, that was a work of God unique to that man’s gifts and time in history. But Spurgeon is nonetheless a model to us of faithfulness in ministry. What would it look like for us to pursue meaningful membership in our churches today just like Spurgeon and the saints at the Metropolitan Tabernacle?

* * * * *

FOOTNOTES:

[1] New Park Street Pulpit, 2:113-114.

[2] Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 33:212.

[3] MTP 24:542.

[4] MTP 17:198-199.

[5] The Sword and the Trowel, 1869:53-54.

[6] C. H. Spurgeon, The Greatest Fight in the World (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 2014), 92.

[7] S&T 1872:198.

By:
Geoff Chang

Geoff Chang serves as an assistant professor of church history and historical theology and is also the curator of the Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @geoffchang.

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