“Word-Centered Church” by Jonathan Leeman

The following is a sort of mixture, both a book review and a personal commentary on some particular applications of the book’s substance.             

In his book, Word-Centered Church, Jonathan Leeman argues for a church theology and practice inundated by Scripture… in other words, a Word-centeredor Scripture-centeredchurch. Leeman writes, “[A Word-centered church] is a church where the words and teachings of Scripture reverberate back and forth, from mouth to mouth and heart to heart” (93).

So, he is not merely calling pastors to preach the Bible, he is calling all the members of a local church to participate holistically in the reverberating word-centeredness of their particular body. In this book, Leeman contends for what he calls a “faith proposition.” He says, “trusting God’s Word to build our churches is an act of faith” (29).

And yet, as any contender should, Leeman notes that many church leaders and members today are not seeking to build Word-centered churches. Numerous evangelical leaders and parishioners (Maybe the vast majority?) are seeking to build their churches by catering to a particular demographic.

In my own Baptist association in East Texas there are several “cowboy churches” and even a “biker church”! I have often wondered why some pastors haven’t stopped hiding the fact that they are seeking to build “affluent churches” or “white-urban-professional churches” or “hipster churches.” If we are targeting these demographics, why pretend we are doing something innovative or clever?

I have personally (to my shame) been a part of a collaborative effort in local church ministry to target a certain demographic on many occasions. As a matter of fact, the evangelistic parachurch ministry I once helped lead was largely built on the supposition that non-Christians needed to be drawn to church services by something other than the Scriptures and the gospel.

In addition to this parachurch experience, I was also one of four pastors on staff at a Southern Baptist church in North Texas who openly employed the Rick Warren model of targeting Saddleback Sam. This is a way of building local church practices, buildings, ambiance, and programs that would suit the tastes of a majority demographic geographically near the local church building. Leeman admits, “in the short term, this will build churches. Demographic and cultural loyalty is genuinely, empirically, demonstrably powerful” (73). I’ve heard this phrased many times as the argument by church leaders advocating for such practices.

 But Leeman is interested in more than just pragmatic strategies, and he effectively brings the reader into the place where the important question can be asked. Leeman sets the scene, inviting the reader to envision himself/herself visiting a church for the first time. He helps picture the imaginary venture, bringing the reader right to a seat in the auditorium, immediately before the start of the service.

Then Leeman asks, “What’s most important to you as you consider whether you will come back to this church?” (84). Every Christian – especially church leaders – must ask this question.

What is the most important thing about a local church?

Borrowing language from the Reformers and the Puritans, the two marks of a true churchare (1) the right preaching of God’s word and (2) the right administration of the sacraments or ordinances. Therefore, the most important thing about a local church – if it seeks to be a true church– is that it faithfully preaches God’s word. God’s word must be preached, taught, explained, believed, and treasured. This is not merely referring to the Sunday sermon, but to the whole life and ministry of the entire congregation. Still, the centrality of Scripture among a congregation certainly starts with the preaching.

In what follows, I will focus on the role of expositional preaching in the local church. I will first observe the divine authority of expositional preaching, then the expected response to expositional preaching. In each of these areas, I will point out the distinctiveness of expositional preaching from other forms of preaching I have experienced and the effects I have seen of expositional preaching under my own pastoral efforts.

Divine Authority

Expositional preaching happens when the main point of the Scriptural text is the main point of the sermon. An expositional sermon helps the hearer understand the Bible better and apply biblical truth to his/her life. In this way, expositional preaching is driven by God’s word, causing some to understand that the preacher is (in effect) speaking on God’s behalf, even as he speaks with his own words on a Sunday.

Leeman asks an important question when he writes, “How can ‘our words’ be ‘His Word’?” Indeed! How can a preacher – especially a cessationist preacher who believes in the sufficiency of Scripture – think that he is preaching “a word from God” as he preaches with his own words from his own mouth? 

I think the answer Leeman gives is helpful. He says, “God speaks through us whenever we plainly and modestly relate whatever He has already said in the Bible” (100). Thus, the preacher engages in something Leeman calls “re-revelation” (Leeman attributed this jargon to D.A. Carson) when he reads and explains God’s singular special revelation (i.e. Scripture). And this is the only grounds for any preacher to claim divine authority when he speaks.

I have noted a bizarre dichotomy of feelings in my own heart as I stand to preach behind a pulpit each Sunday. On the one hand, I am terrified. I am fearful of God’s judgment against my own sin and shortcomings. Who am I to stand before God this day and speak on His behalf?! I am fearful of the people’s judgment against my lack of knowledge and skill. Who am I to speak commandingly to so many people, some far more knowledgeable and skilled than I am?!

On the other hand, I am overwhelmingly confident. I am confident in God’s trustworthiness, His wisdom, His justice, and His grace. I am confident of the people’s need for God’s truth, their need to understand it, to believe it, to submit it, and to be nourished by it. The reason for this dichotomy is that I feel the weight of my own ineptitude and the weight of God’s own majesty. As a preacher, I can speak with divine authority when (and only when) I faithfully read, explain, and apply God’s holy word.

Therefore, expositional preaching plays the role of giving divinely authoritative direction to a particular local church. Who are we? What shall we do? How shall we live? All of these questions are answered on the pages of Scripture, and it is the job of the preacher to expound the Scripture in the context of a particular church family so that they may be hearers and doers of God’s word.

A Right Response

Because expositional preaching is the kind of preaching that best displays divinely authoritative preaching, it is also the best kind of preaching for leading the hearer toward a biblical response. Preaching is not essentially guidelines for living, steps for improving, or suggestions for success. Preaching (when it is faithfully expositional) is a divine word from God that must be believed and heeded. Leeman notes that “the Bible does two things: It announces what God has done, and it confronts its hearers with this news and its implications” (110).

Expositional preaching, then, announces the indicatives and imperatives of God’s word and confronts the hearer in his/her error. The assumption here is that the hearer is in error, and Leeman addresses that in the book as well. But, for the sake of space, I want to focus on the response that expositional preaching expects from the hearer. It expects divine transformation.

Among my congregation in rural East Texas there may be a number of Christians who are struggling to hear expositional preaching. Their palates have been trained to lap up nutrient-sparse messages of moralism and self-improvement. Many churches within a 20-mile radius of our church building continue striving to package a better therapeutic or culturally-traditional model of doing church.

Because this is true, expositional preaching has been somewhat off-putting to some church members and many visitors. They do not like the emphasis upon propositional statements over motivational ones. They sometimes wonder why there isn’t the same stress upon southern and rural American values, and they chafe at some words of admonition against cultural conformity.

Some, however, have begun to see that it is life-transformation we are after. Some exhibit the fruit of the Spirit’s work in their lives through the reverberation of the Scriptures. Some have joyfully embraced the higher goal of transformation, leaving behind the worldly goal of self-affirming spiritual guidance.

I think of Steve, who read between the lines of my gentle admonition, now looking for ways to read Scripture together with his adult daughters who are grown and gone, all three seeming to be nominal Christians. I think of Kathy, who started reading Scripture together with her mother and three sisters one night each week. Kathy heard her mother pray for the first time about a year ago, and we baptized Wanda (Kathy’s 80-yr-old mom) into membership in 2018.

I think of David, who became a deacon about 2 years ago and joined a weekly study of systematic theology in order to understand the Bible better. I think of Donald, who seems like a 70-yr-old “cage-stage” Reformed guy because he has just begun to grasp what it means that God is truly sovereign and that sound doctrine is life-giving.

Conclusion

God’s word alone has the power to transform lives. In the local church, the role of expositional preaching is to unleash the beast of God’s word without any of the trappings we might try to place upon it in our effort to dress it up a bit or make it more desirable for our modern culture. Christ is King! His word of grace saves! And His Spirit works through His word to transform all those who love and trust Him.

May God raise up many more preachers who humbly believe the “faith proposition” Leeman calls for in this book, and may God glorify Himself through the ministry of many Word-centeredchurches.

Are Baptist Pastors Licensed or Ordained?

The answer is… kind of, but probably not how you think they are.

In the western world, pastors have historically been identified with other clergymen (such as priests, bishops, and the like). Clergy comes from an old word (cleric), and simply refers to someone who is commissioned for Christian ministry. The commissioning of a person to Christian ministry takes on different forms among various ecclesiastical traditions; and different ecclesiastical traditions spring from varying perspectives of polity and ministry.

Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists are part of distinct denominations among Christianity, but the first two are not merely named groups of cooperating local churches. The Presbyterian Church of America and the United Methodist Church, both claim to be one “church” with many local congregations (the same is true of the Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Church).

Baptist churches, on the other hand, voluntarily cooperate with other Baptist churches without any substantive oversight from outside entities. Presbyterians and Methodists (as well as Anglicans and Episcopalians) license or ordain people to ministry, according to denomination-wide standards of education, experience, and doctrinal adherence. 

A person licensed as a Presbyterian or Methodist minister may carry such a license with them from one local congregation to another, because their ministerial authority comes from a denominational entity which transcends any particular church. Likewise, the denominational entity may also revoke a minister’s license, with or without the consent of any local church to which the minister might be giving service. This polity creates a kind of ordained or licensed hierarchy of ministers within the denominational structure.

Baptists have historically distinguished themselves among Protestants by practicing congregational polity, rather than presbyterian or episcopalian polity. Congregational polity holds that each local church or congregation is autonomous– self-governed – and not under the authority of any outside body. For Baptists, Christ rules each local church by His word (the Scriptures), and each body of members is responsible to collectively submit to Christ as well as exercise His authority among themselves.

While Baptists are doggedly congregational, they also understand that Christ gives pastors as gifts to lead and to care for each local church (Eph. 4:11-16; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). The biblical office is that of “elder” (from presbyteros– Titus 1:5) or “overseer” or “bishop” (from episkopos– 1 Tim. 3:1), but Baptists have historically used the term “pastor” (from poimēn– Eph. 4:11).

Since each Baptist church is autonomous, the collective members must affirm their own pastors, rather than have them assigned or appointed by some other authority. Baptist church members choose men of exemplary character (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9) who are able to teach sound doctrine (Titus 1:9) and lead as model Christians (1 Tim. 4:6-16).

In some way, the members are ultimately responsible for the kind of men they affirm and the sort of teaching they support (Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Tim. 4:1-2; 3 Tim. 4:3-4), so Baptist churches have historically exercised the authority of the members by a formal vote (based on Acts 6:5 and 2 Cor. 2:6). 

For Baptists, local church autonomy does not mean that each church must isolate itself from others. Rather, Baptist churches have historically been very happy to voluntarily cooperate with one another. Baptist churches have often benefitted from the recommendations and wisdom from other Christian churches. 

One example of this kind of cooperation and benefit is observed in the common way Baptist churches today hire a new pastor. Baptist church members often invite applicants who have already been affirmed by another Christian church as qualified to serve as a pastor. In other words, they look for men who are already ordained to minister elsewhere.

It is precisely at this point that many Baptists today can be confused about what it means for someone to be ordained.

Because Baptist churches are autonomous, and because each congregation is responsible for affirming and supporting its own pastors, ordination is not (biblically speaking) something that be conferred upon a man by anyone other than the congregation he is currently serving as a pastor. But, because of the common practice among churches, Baptists have become much like their Presbyterian and Methodist brothers and sisters in the way they think about ordination. 

Baptist pastors and churches often act as though ordination to ministry is a rite of passage, placing the ordained man into a new category among all Christians everywhere (or at least among all others in their denomination). This simply is not true. It isn’t biblical, and it isn’t historically recognizable as Baptist ecclesiology or polity.

If a man has served as a pastor (or elder) in one congregation, then he may well be later recognized as a pastor (or elder) among another church. However, the office does not travel with the man. Each local church must ultimately affirm or reject any nominated man as a pastor (or elder).

So, are Baptist pastors licensed or ordained? 

Well, Baptist churches (each exercising judgment and authority as a unique gathered congregation) in line with their biblical and historical practice set men aside for pastoral ministry by affirming their character and ability to teach and lead (2 Tim. 2:2; Titus 2:1-10). In this way, the local church formally recognizes God’s own gifting of these men as shepherds, who are to lead by godly example the people God has placed under their care (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4).

Personally, I can say that it has been one of my great joys in life to be affirmed as a pastor by those people who know and love me. I know and love them, and their tangible affirmation of God’s call upon my life to serve them is a priceless treasure.

What is a Pastor supposed to do?

The ministry of the word of God is the sum and substance of the work of every pastor. While many pastors and churches may argue that some other task can (or even should) supersede the pastoral preaching and teaching and modeling of God’s word, none can do so on the basis of Scripture. Therein, it seems to me, lies the problem.

In our day, it appears there are generally three distinct categories on a spectrum of pastoral ministry philosophy.

Pastoral Ministry Philosophy

One idea is that a pastor is much like a self-improvement coach, whose main job is to motivate, inspire, and encourage spiritually-minded underachievers. Pastors who apply this philosophy are usually fond of highlighting personal potential and using the language of pop-psychology, and they are often quite reassuring and positive. These pastors seem to value mutual affirmation and inclusivity.

Another conceptual sketch of the pastoral role is akin to an organizational CEO. In this model of pastoral ministry, the pastor is the visionary leader with an innovative and effective strategy, which can skillfully assimilate attendees through pathways that can be noticeably illustrated on a structural flowchart. These pastors often value pragmatic efficiency and results.

The third general category of pastoral ministry philosophy perceives the ultimate responsibility of the pastor to be centered upon thinking about, teaching, and living according to the Bible. Pastors who understand themselves to be ministers of God’s word are compelled to spend time reading and thinking about the Bible. These pastors also talk about the Bible when they are with others, and they make time to help other people read and think about the Bible.

The three categories I have described here are distinct from one another, but they are not separate. In fact, you’ll probably notice all three (to greater and lesser degrees) in just about any pastor you measure. Pastors should, in a sense, be like a sports coach, urging their hearer on towards personal growth and action. Pastors must also, like a business executive, manage much in a local congregation. However, a pastor’s responsibility to a local church is first-and-foremost the ministry of the word of God.

A Ministry of the Word

In Acts chapter 6, we see this idea emphasized in the division of labor among pastors/elders and deacons (though these office titles are not specifically stated there). There was a dispute about how to best administrate the distribution of resources to needy people among a congregation. The pastors/elders refused to be distracted from their primary responsibility to pray and minister the word of God, so they appointed godly men to serve in the needed administrative task. This shows a division of labor, but it does not sufficiently explain what the pastoral ministry of the word is. For an explanation of such a weighty responsibility, let’s look at a powerful charge from one minister of the word to another.

The Apostle Paul said to his younger disciple and friend,

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:1–2).

I cannot think of a stronger charge. In this sobering and inspiring charge, we can account for the “why” and the “how” of a word-centered pastoral ministry.

How?

Pastors are to be ministers of the word of God by preaching and by readily reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with complete patience and teaching. This is an all-of-life description with emphases on patience and preparedness, and a special attention to preaching. I understand preaching to be a kind of teaching accompanied by a call to repentance, faith, and reformation.

Why?

Pastors are to be ministers of the word of God because Christ is present, Christ is the judge now and forevermore, and Christ is coming with the fullness of His kingdom. It is Christ’s words that judge; His words are the blessing of life and the curse of death (Jn. 5:28-29). Christ is present in His words, and all His judgments are based on His words (Jn. 14:23-24).

In the end, the words of Christ alone will last (1 Pet. 1:22-25), and this compels the minister of God’s word to speak with boldness and confidence (2 Tim. 2:15) as a shepherd of God’s sheep who is destined to meet his glorious King face to face (2 Cor. 4:1-6).

May God raise up many godly men to pastor with such a perspective and conviction.

Who has authority in a Local Church?

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands.

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands. Just think about parental authority over children.

At the moment, to my knowledge, only exceptionally aloof social academics are arguing for children to be removed from all parental authority. Anyone who has ever tried to enjoy dinner at a restaurant with my family is glad to see me and/or my wife exercising authority over our unruly toddler, who would love nothing more than to wreak havoc in the world.

When parents express godly and righteous authority over their children, they demonstrate the character and nature of God (albeit imperfectly).  This is exactly what is to be done in the context of a local church as well.

If pastors/elders and fellow church members are passive and aloof towards sin in the congregation, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders and fellow church members are loving disciplinarians, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders waver or become vague in their description of the actual content and implications of the gospel, then the members will think precision is unachievable and/or unimportant.

There are three ways I would like to emphasize the mutual responsibility of pastors/elders and church members in the exercise of authority in the context of a local church. After these, I would like to articulate a distinct responsibility for those who lead as pastors/elders among a local church.

Delegated Pastoral Authority

First, pastoral authority is a delegated authority, derived from God’s word and the pastor/elder’s fidelity to preaching and teaching Scripture (2 Tim. 4:1-2). The authority any pastor or group of pastors wields does not emanate from the origin of the person or the office. Rather, the authority springs from and is inextricably tethered to God’s word.

It is as though the pastors or elders can give no authoritative command that is not accompanied by a biblical citation. Of course, many pastoral decisions will have to be based on biblical principle and wise prudence, but these should come as recommendations and not commands.

Vital Congregational Authority

Second, the local congregation is responsible to hold pastors/elders accountable in their teaching (2 Tim. 4:3-4). While congregations may be tempted to acquire preachers and leaders who will lead according to the desires of the congregation, the membership of the church is best served by those leaders who lead to please God and not men. Therefore, the congregation has an authoritative responsibility to acquire and encourage godly, faithful, biblically-courageous leadership.

This responsibility towards maintaining suitable leadership stems from the congregational authority to bring members in and put members out of the local church family. Baptism is the communal and public initiation of any person who becomes a disciple of Christ (Matt. 28:19), and this is the ceremony by which a local congregation affirms and covenants to mutual discipleship with an individual believer.

As time goes by, the congregation bears the responsibility of holding one another accountable to Christ’s commands, and even taking disciplinary action against those who refuse to submit to Christ (Matt. 18:15-20). This is not, however, an authority given to any individual member or any group among the membership. Rather, this authority of bringing members in and putting members out of the local church family is to be exercised “when [they] are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4-5).

Authoritative Leadership

Third, pastors/elders are to shepherd a local church family by providing oversight and leading by example (1 Pet. 5:1-5). Pastoring among a church family is no dictatorship, and neither is it a pure democracy, where leaders simply implement popular opinion.

Pastors/elders are to oversee, which connotes management, administration, and leadership. Pastors/elders are also to exemplify spiritual maturity, which indicates accessibility, familiarity, and personal care. By affectionate oversight and patient modeling, pastors/elders are to authoritatively lead among a local church.

Enjoying Good Authority

Fourth and finally, church members are called to obey their pastors/elders, and these leaders are warned that they will give an account to Christ for how their shepherd those under their care (Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28). This idea, especially as it is conveyed in Hebrews 13:17, is quite potent for pastors/elders and church members alike. It clearly distinguishes the authoritative responsibility of pastors/elders, and it powerfully encourages church members to enjoy the benefits of godly leadership. Indeed, godly leadership should be enjoyed and appreciated among the church family.

Summarizing Local Church Authority

In summary, I might say that pastors/elders and their respective congregations are mutually responsible to wield delegated authority.

The congregation’s authority seems to primarily focus on the inclusion and exclusion of members (encompassing the inclusion and exclusion of pastors/elders). Interwoven in this congregational authority is the authority to judge not only the “who” of the church family but also the “what” of the confession that binds the church family together. In this way, the local church guards the purity of the content of what is taught and what is believed among the members, fulfilling the New Testament characteristic of being the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Furthermore, this general “in and out” authority of the congregation is tightly linked to the authority of the pastors/elders, who are responsible to teach and train the congregation according to all of Christ’s commands. The pastoral teaching and training are to be done patiently and in an all-of-life fashion (1 Tim. 4:6-16), but always pointing the hearer back to God’s word as the fountainhead of truth and basis of all good authority.

May God grant that many local churches would experience and embrace this biblical concept of good and right authority.

What is a “good” pastor?

If you have been part of a local church or among the leadership of a local church, then you have probably thought or said something about the quality of a pastor or pastors.

I love my pastor because he showed great care for me when my daughter was in the hospital last year.”

That pastor is not so great because he doesn’t seem to connect well with guests and first-time visitors each Sunday.”

That pastor is awesome because he doesn’t seem like a typical pastor.”

Whatever you might think about your pastor, or pastors generally, I’d like to invite you to consider the reality that pastors do indeed have a tremendous impact on the local church. In fact, one way to know if a church family is healthy and if they will grow healthier over time is to learn about the pastor or pastors who lead them.

Biblically qualified pastors or elders or “undershepherds” is one mark or feature of a healthy church, and Christians are wise to think more about this subject. Learn more about building healthy churches by visiting 9marks.org.

What are the biblical qualifications of an undershepherd (i.e. pastor or elder)? When you think of a well-qualified pastor, what comes to mind? Do the qualifications you are thinking about have any Scriptural support or are they based on your life experience or your preferences? How would you know if a man was qualified to serve as a pastor? How would you know if a man should be removed pastoring your local church?

Thankfully, the Bible gives a thorough list of pastoral qualifications and the Bible provides examples of good pastors.

  • A pastor or elder should have a clean reputation (1 Tim. 3:2, 7; Titus 1:6-7).
  • If He is married, he should be a faithful husband and his wife should be godly and faithful as well (1 Tim. 3:2, 4; Titus 1:6).
  • He should manage his household well (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Titus 1:6).
  • He should be self-controlled and financially temperate (1 Tim. 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-8).
  • He should be hospitable and mature in his Christian walk (1 Tim. 3:2, 6; Titus 1:8).
  • He should be doctrinally sound and able to teach sound doctrine to others (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9).

If you see men among your church family who meet these qualifications, then you should praise God for them. For such men are a gift from Christ to His people (Eph. 4:11-12), and they are a blessing to your soul (Heb. 13:17). If, however, you are sitting under the shepherding care of a man who fails to meet one or more of these qualifications, then you should have grave concerns.

We are warned in Scripture about false teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 4:1) and false gospels (Gal. 1:6-9). Furthermore, God blames congregations for listening to those who lead them astray (Gal. 1:6-9).

It is vitally important that every member of a local church understand these qualifications. If some church members measure the quality of pastoral leadership by some other standard, then an unqualified man may seem more valuable than he truly is, or a highly qualified man may seem less than desirable.

May God raise up more qualified pastors/elders and may He cause many churches to be healthier through the efforts of such men. May God also help church members to value and appreciate good pastors/elders by measuring them by biblical standards.

What is Church Membership?

It is biblical and valuable!

What is church membership?

The topic of church membership has garnered great interest among Evangelical circles in recent years. Surely, all would agree that a discussion of the meaning and value of church membership can be rewarding in the context of any local church. And yet, it does seem that some local churches are hesitant to think critically about their own practice of church membership. This article is, in large part, a plea for local churches to think about the concept of church membership and the right practice of church membership in their specific context.

Biblical investigation, historical study, and personal introspection are all great efforts when addressing church membership and related topics. When church history agrees with Scripture, we may gain insight from the application of biblical truth in a context that is not our own.  When church history diverges from or unnecessarily exceeds the teaching of the Bible, we are better equipped to learn how we may avoid these mistakes ourselves by learning from others. Of course, the question is not ultimately, “How did people do church membership in the past?” The question is, “How should we do church membership right now?”

Church membership has lost its value.

To say that the value of church membership has diminished among the majority of Evangelical churches today is not to say that church membership is not valuable.  My statement is about the perception of many Evangelical church members, not the actual value of church membership.

It seems clear to me that many Evangelical church members (especially in the Southern Baptist Convention) perceive church membership as having little or no value whatever in their daily lives. The statistic of members to regular attendees is sufficient to illustrate the perceived lack of value among Southern Baptists. There are about 15 million members among SBC churches, but only about 33% of these can be found gathering with fellow members on any given Sunday.

If one does not think enough of church membership to worship regularly with fellow members, then one does not value church membership.

The reason I have begun by articulating the problem (namely a devaluation of church membership) is that I believe this current situation is one of our own making (speaking of Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals). I, therefore, believe that the solution is achievable by those same ones who have created the problem. We must resolve to carefully and diligently practice biblical church membership.

We have largely made church membership a consumer-driven category, much like any other social or service-oriented organization. Church leaders look for new and innovative ways to cater to the taste-preferences of their target audience, and then create organizational structures by which they seek to achieve maximum saturation of their niche market.

Many church leaders hope to draw in an ever-larger crowd by targetting and winning an audience, much like corporate marketing specialists.

All of this feeds into the self-centered idea that the customer is king and the whole organization exists at the behest of the customer. At the end of the day, church members think of the church as an institution which exists to serve the felt-needs of its members. Church members think this way because the church leaders taught them to do so by their own words and actions.

The result of this kind of practice is an appalling lack of accountability, authority, and discipling. In fact, such things are considered abhorrent to the marketing and consumer-driven structure. Accountability, authority, and discipline would undermine the foundational values of any customer-centered organizational model.

Church membership is thoroughly biblical and highly valuable.

In contrast to this modern invention of church growth techniques, the Bible actually presents a simple and God-centered structure and purpose for church membership. It seems clear to me that the purpose of church membership is articulated throughout the New Testament in the form of commitments and responsibilities.

Here are some of the commitments I find in the New Testament.

  • The individual Christian must commit to other Christians (Col. 3:12-17).
  • The individual Christian must submit to the oversight of church leadership (Heb. 13:17).
  • Pastors/elders commit themselves to the task of lovingly shepherding (leading, teaching, loving) a particular local assembly of Christians (1 Pet. 5:1-5).
  • Christians must join together for mutual support and accountability (Gal. 6:1-2).
  • Under the care and instruction of godly leaders (i.e. pastors/elders), a congregation must strive to grow in spiritual maturity and in its ability to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-16).

The biblical understanding of church membership makes clear the distinction between the people of God and the rest of the world. Those who enjoy new life in Christ are trained and corrected so that they may flourish in their new life. Those who resist the disciplines of Christian living are rebuked and held accountable for opposing the very practices that produce greater life in all who follow Christ.

In the practice of biblical church membership, Christians are distinguished from the world, and Christians grow alongside one another in grace and love.

The results of practicing biblical church membership are increasing spiritual health, progress in personal holiness, and growth in effective Christian witness to the world. The gospel of Christ, which asserts that blessed transformation is at the heart of God’s gracious plan for sinners, is made visible among congregations like these.

May God revitalize, reform, and renew Evangelical churches to reflect the purity and love which Christ said would mark His disciples in the world (Jn. 13:35).

The Local Church is God’s plan for Evangelism!

I admit that this subject has affected me much in recent years. In thinking through evangelism and the local church, I come to a subject that has not only provoked me to grow but also to move away from a previously held position.

My introduction to vocational ministry was evangelism through a parachurch ministry. All throughout my 20s, I believed that I was the tip of the evangelistic spear and that the local church was the cumbersome-but-necessary shaft which played the menial role of tossing me into the target. In my pointed conversations and through my honed preaching, I believed parachurch evangelism to be the best way to engage the world with the gospel of Christ. Today, I am ashamed of my posture and perspective during those days. Oh, how foolish and wrong I was to assume such a low view of the local church.

Today, I understand the local church to be the apple of God’s eye and the lifeblood of God’s evangelistic activity in the world. The local church is the people by whom the gospel is upheld (1 Tim. 3:15), the people among whom the gospel is made visible (Col. 3:11), and the people through whom Christ is present in the world (Matt. 18:20).

When the local church is healthy and vibrant, it is a testimony of God’s grace, a picture of Christ’s transformative work, and a mechanism by which sinners may encounter the real power of God’s Spirit.

The evangelistic role of the church is crucial in the world because any evangelistic efforts detached from the local church will only provide an incomplete gospel at best. Furthermore, it seems to me that many Christians have resorted to just such an incomplete gospel.

American Evangelicalism is abundant with hoards of privatized Christians who think, speak, and act much like the world. These Evangelicals are secure in their eternal destination because they prayed a prayer at some point in their lives, or simply because they have a “personal relationship with Jesus” based on some subjective feeling. But this is not biblical evangelism or historically grounded Christianity.

If Christians are calling sinners into something (namely God’s family, along with all accompanying blessings) and not merely out of something (such as God’s judgment), then only those Christians who point to a healthy local church have any way of making such an appeal. If lone-ranger Christians merely talk of God’s love without demonstrating any affectionate love for fellow Christians, then they have failed to meet the Bible’s simple test of genuine spiritual life (1 Jn. 3:14). Thus, lone-ranger Christians bear false testimony of God, of Christ, and of the Spirit-filled Church.

Christians must embrace the messy-yet-beautiful relationships that can only be experienced in the covenantal, loving, sin-fighting, encouraging, spirit-maturing, humbling, and sanctifying atmosphere of biblical local church membership. And Christians must invite sinners to join them in this nourishing garden by entering through the narrow gate of Christ’s person and work.

May God revitalize churches around the world to give testimony to the gracious and glorious character of God, the joyfully obedient sonship of Christ, and the supernaturally transformative work of God’s Holy Spirit.