And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:42–47
Imagine for a moment what it would have been like to be a part of this first community of faith in Jerusalem. Imagine that these statements were made about the church to which you belonged.
- they’re all devoted to the teaching of the Scriptures
- and to being together
- and to eating together
- and to prayer
- they actually enjoy being together
- not one of them ever needs anything because they all take care of one another
- their whole lives have been changed
- they are happy people and examples of generosity
- even people who aren’t a part of their church respect and appreciate them
- new people are constantly joining them
Doesn’t that sound like a church to which you would like to belong?
Now, as beautiful of a picture as it is, I do not believe the Lord would have us attempt to go back in time to recreate this exact experience. In every generation, it falls upon the people of God to flesh out what it means to be a community of faith in their time and place. However, there is a spirit of devotion and unity that we discover in this first church and those are two things for which every generation of Jesus’ followers must passionately strive. “Membership” at Oase is not rooted, in the traditional way, in voting rights and organisational procedures. At Oase, membership is a practice, an open statement of devotion to a local expression of God’s global Church, a statement of the desire to experience the beauty of brothers and sisters dwelling together in unity. (Psalm 133) It is rooted not in our constitution and bylaws but in our mission to make this village into a “place of springs,” an oasis of life and renewal.
Before we go further in the discussion about church membership, we must first recognise that our culture has conditioned us to resist it. Everything about our secularised, individualist culture clings to the idea of “my rights” and rebels against the notion of devotion and unity. Like it or not, when we join the ecclesia, we bring our secular culture with us. But the Holy Spirit wants to create a new culture among us and through us, the culture of the Kingdom of God.
Western culture values independence and convenience above devotion. We act as if we value the “freedom of choice” but in reality we value “freedom from commitment”. We want the right to choose but we also want the right to change our choice whenever we like. That’s not freedom. That’s slavery to your feelings. Devotion is loving loyalty – it is faithfulness even when you have conflicting feelings or you have to make sacrifices. Its foundation is not in emotions, preferences or changing circumstances but in principled conviction. A pre-determined devotion to the people of God in general, and more specifically to the local gathering of God’s people, is one of the greatest testaments of love this world will ever see. (John 13:34-35)
If we truly want to experience the type of loving community that we read about in the book of Acts, we must rediscover the beauty of selfless devotion.
Our culture also values peaceableness above unity. When in potentially conflict-raising scenarios, our culture teaches us to seek the path of avoidance or of reduction. We choose to either avoid the conflict at the expense of dealing truthfully with conflict or we reduce the importance of one or both sides of the conflict in order to find some semblance of common ground. However, biblical unity is rooted in the love of Christ Jesus. It does not avoid those differences that cause conflict, neither does it reduce the validity or importance of one side or the other. Rather it looks beyond the conflict, to Christ, and says, “despite this conflict between us, I love you and am willing to do whatever is necessary to maintain an honest, loving relationship with you, for the sake of him who gave up everything to save me from my sin.”
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” Romans 12:4-5
When we speak of “membership” we do not speak of it in the same way one would when referring to a sports club. In a sports club, membership is rooted in an activity that its members share. In the church of Jesus Christ, membership is rooted in the love of Christ. Our membership is primarily relational since we are, as Paul wrote, “members of one another”.
In regards to membership, one of the worst things that can happen to a church community is that they forget the simple truths expressed above. When membership becomes rooted in anything else except the love of Christ and the proclamation of his Kingdom, what occurs is the development of a “rights culture” among its members. In that type of culture, individuals give priority to preferences instead of principles, consensus instead of the leading of the Spirit, rights instead of honor, maintenance instead of mission and self instead of others. We have seen too many church communities devolve into this type of membership culture. We must not let that happen among us.
In closing, church membership is not something that we do because “that’s what churches should do.” At Oase, it is a practice through which we connect with each other, anticipating the dynamic, unifying work of the Holy Spirit among us, making from our many parts a single body and, through us, showing to the world what the culture of the Kingdom of God looks like.