Why Australian Churches Need Membership
“You can’t have community without commitment.”
That’s the initial point I make whenever I bridge the topic of membership in the local church. I start there because I think it’s a clear concept that people understand. The barista at my local coffee shop. The schoolteacher at my kids’ school. The CrossFit box owner. My atheist neighbour. They all get it. It’s an intuitive concept.
It implies that community is more than just skin-deep. It implies a community is made up of team players, each playing their part. It implies that true community is willing to stick it out through thick and thin. It implies a unity around a common interest or theme or goal.
That sounds a lot like a local church. But the church already has a helpful word to describe this concept: membership.
As I consider the landscape of Australian Christianity, I want to make the case for why I think Australian churches need meaningful membership.
Australia is a beautiful, prosperous, and socially progressive nation. Once a far-flung penal colony, the nation has risen through the ranks and become one of the most desirable countries in the world. With that prestige comes all the entanglements of the modern world. Australia is a hyper-connected, individualistic, consumer-oriented, and sun-kissed land. Here, it seems, you can have it all. You can have the good life.
These factors create an egalitarian culture that is skeptical of authority and celebrates autonomy.
If church membership runs against the grain of our natural and national inclinations, then we need to be wise as to how we promote it. Why? Because church membership is valuable, even necessary. Below are five reasons Australian churches need church membership.
1. To define "the church."
Pastor, do unbelievers who attend your church understand themselves to be part of the local church? Do children who have not professed Christ believe themselves to be part of your church? What about those folks who only attend once a month?
Too many Australian churches lack a willingness to distinguish between who is in the church and who isn’t because they mistakenly fear it’s unloving.
By dismissing membership we end up unintentionally affirming many people as Christians when in fact the opposite may be true. When this happens, at best, we’re encouraging a view of the Christian life that doesn’t require anything of us. At worst, we’re perpetuating the wrong idea that attending church occasionally makes someone a Christian.
Here’s the point: it doesn’t serve anyone to be less clear on what the church is—who’s in and who’s out. Clarity is both helpful and loving.
2. To preserve biblical truth.
I will show my hand here, and say I believe Scripture teaches the congregational model of church governance. Congregationalism also works well with the biblical teaching on regenerate church membership. Of course, meaningful membership doesn’t require a church to be congregational, but any church’s constitution should allow for the membership to override the leaders of the church if they’re acting out of step with orthodoxy.
Consider the integrity of biblical truth. If bad teaching creeps into a church, who’s responsible to root it out? If the gospel is hijacked, perhaps even by the leadership of the church, who acts to fire those leaders and preserve the faith passed down to them?
These are not unique problems—churches turn bad everywhere. The letter to the Galatians was written precisely with this problem in mind. A once faithful church had allowed errant teaching and thus compromised the gospel. When Paul wrote to them, he didn’t call upon the leadership to give an account, but the whole church. They had allowed the false teaching to go unchecked.
Pastor, if the church you’ve laboured so long to serve is ever overtaken with false teaching, your failure to promote membership will come back to haunt you. Why? Because the very mechanism by which the church can reject heresy has itself been rejected.
Healthy church membership means equipping your people to recognise heresy and protect biblical truth. When this happens, church members become active defenders of the faith instead of passive consumers.
3. To uphold good authority.
Australians have a reputation for being egalitarian and skeptical of authority. This reputation is earned, and we consider it a strength. Healthy skepticism rejects bad authority, but unhealthy skepticism cannot discern good authority.
We see good examples of authority all around us: a healthy marriage, good parenting, just law enforcement, excellent teachers. As it relates to the local church, God intends for Christians to mature while submitting under the authority of godly elders. Elders function as under-shepherds who serve the flock under the Chief Shepherd, Jesus.
Pastor, encourage your flock to value God’s plan of good authority over them. And encourage them to join a local church so that elders can know who they will one day give an account for before the Lord.
4. To promote discipleship.
Possibly the most common pushback I get in the Australia is, “Why should I become a member of a local church?”
Pastor, when you hear questions like this, you get to practice humility and freely admit your own need for church membership. Here’s what I mean: Christians understand that we are not the experts on ourselves. Our hearts are fickle and easily deceived. And as much as we’d like to admit that we’re doing well, the truth is that most of the New Testament epistles would not have needed to be written if that were true.
In his incredible wisdom and love, God has given Christians other Christians—those who have committed to serve in the same local church for our good and their own. I frequently tell people that one of the reasons I love church membership is because I need all the help I can get.
5. To foster unity and to crush selfishness, individualism, and consumerism.
Membership requires that we take an active role in the future of the church, rather than revert to the Australian tendency to be passive. If you want to create a culture of indifference, jettison membership and give all authority to a select few. But if you want to create a culture of selflessness and sacrificial service, put membership front and centre.
Pastors should want their people to take ownership for the future of the church. It’s their responsibility to ensure the church grows and matures as the gospel is passed on to the next generation.
Pastor, you know already how Australian culture produces consumers. To help your people take the axe to their own individualistic tendencies, institute meaningful membership in your church. It will help them see there’s something more valuable than their own comfort. It will help them see that God’s plans extend beyond themselves. It will help them see that loving others and bearing with one another is hard work that requires real sacrifice. It will help them to slow down and reconsider before they throw in the towel and leave for the church down the road. It will help them see that God’s means of maturing them requires they stick around for the good parts and the bad, the easy days and the difficult ones.
As individualism dies, unity flourishes. Your people will see a purpose beyond themselves, which is to honour God in union with other believers.