Discovering Membership Part 1: What Is Church?
Welcome to our Discovering Membership course!
The purpose of this course is to get our EBC community reflecting on whether membership may be appropriate for them. To do that, there are a few things that we need to understand about what church is supposed to be about in the first place. We’ll then get on to how we at EBC express that in our particular way of doing things, and finally talk about membership itself – what sets it apart from simply belonging to the church, what indications to look for (that membership might be for you), and the significance of membership in our church’s life.
As a recap on this, please take a few minutes to look at our introductory blog (see previous blogs).
In this first session, let’s get to grips with what “church” means anyway.
What We Mean By “Church”
I guess most people would say “Aha – church means the people, not the building, I know that!” and that is indeed a great starting point! Obviously we all use the word “church” to refer to the-building-in-which-the-church-gathers… and I think we always will (unless and until we come up with a snappy word that means “the building in which the church gathers”….)
So let’s assume that while we often say “church” when we mean the building, we all know that the church is a gathering of people. The next question is, which people? What distinguishes a church from any other gathering of people, or even like-minded people? Clearly a crowd at a football match is not a church (unless it’s an intra-church match, I suppose!).
What sets church apart is that it is not merely an assembly of people, but an assembly called out by God. Let’s not get side-tracked by delving into the definitions and historical significance of long Greek words or short German ones, but suffice to say that when Jesus spoke about building His church (Matthew 16: 18 – about which more next time!), He meant neither a building nor a random gathering of people, but a dedicated group of followers who would truly believe in Him, accept Him for who He said He was, and strive to follow Him.
The Early Church
In the accounts of Jesus’s life, which we call the gospels, written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and found in the New Testament part of the bible, we read how Jesus’s first followers were scattered following His crucifixion and only re-gathered when He appeared to them resurrected.
At that time, Jesus promised to send them the Holy Spirit, from the Father, when He returned to heaven.
When the Holy Spirit did indeed come, the disciples were radically changed and began preaching and teaching with great power and boldness. We can still read about this in “Acts” – the record written by (the gospel writer) Luke which appears after the gospels in the New Testament and which is an amazing record of the birth of the church and really significant for us here at EBC. It has become for us at a very important reference point against which to check our progress and challenge ourselves.
In chapter two of his account, Luke describes what this newly forming community of believers was like:
Acts Chapter 2 verses 42-47 (NIV):
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Obviously, this was no ordinary gathering! The description above serves as a model for the kind of church Jesus had in mind – and therefore the kind of church we should strive to become.
Members of the Body
The church has been described by the apostle Paul as the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27) and by Jesus’s close friend John as the “bride of Christ” (Revelation 19:7). Clearly then, Jesus and His church are inextricably entwined – you can’t have the church without Jesus!
Paul, who wrote a good chunk of what we call the New Testament (in the form of letters to newly-formed churches in the early years after Jesus’s death and resurrection), described how the church could be thought of in terms of the human body.
He refers to the people of the church as being like parts of a whole – just like arms and legs and eyes and so on. In some translations of the bible we read about “parts” of the body and in others we have the expression “members” of the body. Again let’s not get side-tracked; we can think about “parts” and church partnership or we can think about “members” and church membership – or a bunch of other different words. For now, let’s just stick with the notion that collectively the church is just like one body, with each person having their own valuable role to play. Here’s what Paul wrote:
1 Corinthians 12: 25 - 31 (The Message):
“The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t.”
“If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance. You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything.”
Powerful stuff – and a really challenging metaphor for us to consider. The church is Christ’s body, not just “any” body! Or, if you like, Christ’s body of people, not just any body of people. That’s church!
Later in the course, we’ll look at how Jesus’s church (and therefore EBC) is radically inclusive – there is no expectation that people come along fully fired-up for God and believing in Him before we accept them. Far from it. For now though, let’s just make a mental note of that – we’ll get to how it works out, I promise!
Next time, in part two, we’ll look at how EBC “does” church and how that is intended to faithfully represent the vision that Jesus set out for His disciples, the mission He gave them, and the values we strive to live up to along the way.
See you next time!