Thinking About: Membership

This week, Lord willing, Samantha and I will have an interview regarding becoming members at Third Avenue Baptist Church. Hopefully, we will later be voted into membership by the congregation.

The process has given me cause for reflection. I have only been a member of two churches before this; one Plymouth Brethren, and one American Baptist. Third Avenue does a good job of laying out answers for why a Christian should be a member of a local church, but I really have no struggle with why membership at a local church is important. My question for myself is this- why do I choose to be a member of a particular local church? In other words, what tends to drive my decisions regarding the church I tend to serve? And more importantly, what are some of the principles that can be replicated in other times and places?

The questions may seem simple, but the answers get sticky very quickly. For instance, it can be uncomfortable telling my seminary friends that even though there was a gospel-centered, complementarian, theologically solid church (besides the paedo-baptism) just up the road, I chose to attend an egalitarian, theologically questionable church. Worse yet, I dragged Samantha away from the first church toward the second church when we got engaged! How do I come to these decisions?

I'm sure this isn't comprehensive, but here are a few things that I ask myself when I'm preparing to join a church in a new situation. After each question, I'll "answer" it in two different ways- first from my perspective in joining a less theologically solid church in college (UBC), then from my perspective here at seminary.

Q1: Where am I at in my spiritual walk? Am I in need of clear teaching about the basics of the faith? Will I need lots of guidance on issues of discernment? Am I seeking to help develop the church, or be guided by it?

A1: In college, I was constantly learning from reading theological books. No pastor in the world would have had the time to answer my questions as fast as I had them, so my primary source of learning was to find the answers in books and articles. Instead, I was looking for a place where I could build close relationships with people of a variety of ages. I knew that it was easy for me to relate to kids my own age, and that I needed the discipline of struggling through different types of relationships. I also believed that I should be learning to teach, and needed a church that would give me opportunities to do that.

A1b: Here at seminary, I don't have the amount of time I would need to teach as consistently as I did back in Lansing. Further, I know that some of Louisville's churches are blessed with intelligent and godly leaders. Samantha and I view our time here as one of learning, and we felt a church should assist that process. At the same time, I am someone who learns more from discipleship than from lectures. We wanted a church where we could grow in knowledge and understanding, but still have close relationships and godly discipleship.

Q2: What is my purpose? How do I view this time period in my life? Am I settling in at this church for the rest of my life, or for the short term? How does this church fit my understanding of what God is doing in my life?

A2: This was a huge part of my decision in college. I knew I would only be in Lansing temporarily, and that was very freeing. Further, I knew that I would not be likely to have kids during my time there. When I chose a church, I did not need to worry that bad theology would hurt my family or confuse them. Instead, I could focus on using my time there to prepare for whatever God had next for me. I looked for a church that could facilitate relationships, teaching opportunities, and situations that would prepare me for the next stage of life.

A2b: Here at seminary, our purposes are once again temporary. We will likely be moving on eventually, so we seek a church that will complement the seminary experience. We still want to serve and be involved, but in less of a teaching and more of a serving role. At the same time, we want to develop our ability to teach through discipleship and friendships.

Q3: How do I intend to serve?

A3: In Lansing I was able to serve by leading the college ministry, serving as a deacon, leading a small group, and teaching Sunday School for two and a half years. This proactive type of service could best be carried out in a smaller, tired church where few people are willing to "take the reigns." Further, a lower knowledge level allows greater interaction when you teach new ideas or concepts, because people had not considered the implications of the teaching before.

A3b: In Louisville, I won't have the same amount of preparation time for a teaching ministry. However, discipleship can be carried out without much preparation. I'm excited to serve the church through relationships and fellowship. Further, I'll look to find ways to help move various ministries forward, whether through helping out those who lead them or through sharing ideas and experiences I've had.

Q4: What is my time here preparing me for? How is it changing or developing my spiritual walk?

A4: In Lansing, I needed time with people of various ages, and opportunities to serve. In many ways, it was like an internship, because I experienced many of the ups and downs a church leader must deal with in a church setting. UBC was great at giving me all those opportunities. Also, the pastor was extremely kind in teaching me about every area of ministry. Though he and I didn't agree on some things, he was a great mentor for me in church leadership service.

A4b: At Third, Samantha and I are looking to learn more developed theology, from a Reformed perspective that we tend to have more trust for. We see this as a time of learning, in greater detail, how to correctly divide and teach the Word of God. Further, I hope to learn from the lives of so many men who are godlier than I how to work through various areas of theology and discernment.

Q5: How can I best glorify God right now? This is the ultimate question, and one that involves all the others.

A5: In Lansing, I really believe God called me to prepare for full-time ministry by leading, teaching, and being actively involved in a small and theologically weak church. We saw him work through that service, as many came to understand conservative Reformed theology in an egalitarian American Baptist Church! I have no doubt that our desire to be faithful glorified him even in a theologically weaker church.

A5b: In Louisville, we are once again seeking to be faithful. We decided against two other churches (both wonderful, faithful churches) because we are trying to honor the context God has placed us in as best we can. If the Lord wills, we will soon be a part of a church where we can participate in a strong discipleship culture, bring a unique perspective as non-Southern Baptist northerners, and learn from minds much more gifted than our own.

I hope you've seen here (despite my oft-awkward way of communicating myself) that church membership is not about going to whichever church clings most tightly to the most accurate statement of faith (though that is one valuable thing churches should strive for). Instead, it's about trying to honor God with the context, gifting, and life pursuit He has given you. For Samantha and I, this means Third Avenue Baptist, and we could not be more excited!


Luis Carlos said...

Hi Ben! I am glad that you have made such a thoughtful decision about the church you are joining. I am becoming a member of UBC myself, and I look forward to it. I pray God will show me opportunities to serve and enable me to do it well, even as most of my time is consumed by school. I hope things are going all right. Greetings from the theologically weaker!

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