Why African Churches Need Membership
I’m always astounded by the number of people in my country who flock to churches on Sunday. If you asked the average Zambian whether they go to church, they’ll almost always answer in the affirmative. I assume their answer would remain the same if you then asked them if they’re members of the church they attend.
Unfortunately, few Zambian Christians understand formal membership. For many, merely attending a church is equal to membership. It’s quite common for people to become members simply because they want to be buried well when they die.1
It’s safe to say there are varied reactions to the concept of formal church membership among Christians in Africa. The reactions range from suspicion to confusion to resentment; thankfully, some respond with joyful acceptance.
Churches in Africa—like churches everywhere—need a biblical understanding and practice of church membership for three particular reasons: (1) it resolves the misleading African sense of belonging, (2) it helps to fix the scourge of nominal Christianity, (3) and it addresses the problem of relativism.
1. Meaningful church membership resolves the misleading African understanding of belonging.
African culture has a strong sense of belonging and community. The individual is defined and identified by the community they are a part of and not necessarily by their individuality. So it’s not uncommon in Africa for people to be defined by their family name, school, company, town, or church. We claim this sense of belonging even if we have no meaningful relationships, simply because identification with a group is sufficient. This is also true when it comes to church. People easily identify with a church whether they’re members or not.
Furthermore, you have people who attend a church due to their family and friends. If someone’s parents are members, it’s often taken for granted that everyone else under their roof or in their family tree will also be members. When you consider the dynamics of extended families, it becomes clear that African churches will have potential landmines all around. This sense of community makes church discipline a potentially divisive affair.
Two Pastoral illustrations
I’m seated in my office one morning and a guy comes through requesting to see the pastor. I inform him that I am the pastor, and then he proceeds to ask me for a recommendation letter. He’s applying for a place at nearby university and they require a recommendation from the applicant’s church. This is all well and good—except for the fact that I don’t know this guy and he’s not a member of Faith Baptist Church. Neither is he a regular attender.
When I mention these facts to him, he replies without flinching that he attended the church when he was a kid for a few months. And as far as he was concerned, he was and remains a member of our church.
I run into a gentleman at a shopping mall. He’s with a group of friends, and upon seeing me, he introduced me as his pastor from his church. But here’s the problem: this man has attended three or four Sundays. He’s not a member, and I’m not even sure he’s a Christian. But as far as he’s concerned, he belongs to our church; he’s a part of our family.
Lots of people think like this. In their minds, merely mentally associating with a congregation is equal to being a member. Here’s the result: you end up with uncommitted or, at worst, unsaved “members.”
That Africans are a largely religious people simply compounds the problem. For many, the church is simply a social group, a part of the community that you’re expected to participate in.
Therefore, it’s imperative for pastors in Africa to intentionally explain what the church is and the requirements and expectations for membership. Publicly teaching about membership and its demands will clarify in people’s minds the distinction between members and non-members—perhaps it will even create the categories—and thereby deal with their misleading sense of belonging.
2. Meaningful church membership combats the confusion of nominal Christianity.
The misleading sense of belonging and confusion over church membership has tilled the ground for nominal Christianity to grow. To make matters worse, my country, Zambia, is a constitutionally Christian nation. In many ways, this descriptor is superficial. It doesn’t mean we’re solely governed by biblical values—nor are the citizens required to be born-again believers who are submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Most people are fine being identified as Christians but want nothing to do with the implications of following Christ. They want a Christianity that costs them nothing and makes no demands on how they live.
Meaningful church membership combats this confusing problem. Membership is a call to covenant with other believers so that you will walk alongside and support each other as you follow Jesus. Membership means intentionally putting yourself in discipling relationships, willingly submitting to a body of believers who provide accountability for you, and faithfully using your gifts to serve others and build them up in the faith.
In essence, biblical church membership is anti-nominalism. Churches that practice biblical church membership become uncomfortable for nominal Christians. As they begin to hear and see the demands of membership lovingly taught and faithfully practiced, they will hopefully begin to examine their own relationship to Jesus and his people.
3. Meaningful church membership addresses the ideas of relativism.
The effects of postmodernism have reached Africa. This shouldn’t be surprising as traditional African religion doesn’t necessarily teach exclusivity. As a result, most people who call themselves Christians reject both the sole authority of the Bible and the exclusivity of the gospel. This is because of the general belief that there are different ways to get to God.
This thinking becomes dangerous because people will embrace error and heresy as long as it has a religious flavor. In the same vein, those who teach absolute truth and condemn error will be frowned upon.
This thinking makes church discipline extremely difficult to practice in most African churches particularly when it comes heretical views. People will readily excommunicate a murderer, but they’ll have reservations when it comes to a false teacher.
This kind of relativism harms the church, and loosens its grip on the gospel across generations. Thankfully, this can be addressed by believers who have covenanted together in order to hold fast to sound doctrine and live out the things they believe. Church membership enables this kind of Christian life.
The church in Africa needs to teach and practice biblical church membership because it helps address the false sense of community, nominal Christianity, and the subtle relativism. Church membership is the right antidote to these problems because it provides clarity, structure, and protection.
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1 Having a funeral service at church is a big deal in many African countries. This largely springs from the notion that prayers for the departed can change their final destination.