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Ambassadors of the Kingdom Come

June 2, 2012

Have you ever consciously enjoyed the benefits of citizenship? If you’re like me, maybe you get a thrill out of wearing “I voted today!” stickers on election day. Or another example: I’m a huge fan of the Wheaton Public Library (can I just take a second to rave about how their free Microsoft Office workshops helped land me a job?), and it’s one of the benefits of living in Wheaton that I have access to the library as a free resource (best public library in the western suburbs, imho). Or perhaps you’re poignantly aware of not being a citizen somewhere, either here in the States or overseas. There’s a tangible difference for those who aren’t legal members of a society. They are, in some sense, outsiders without access to the full rights and benefits of citizenship.

Now, when you think of church membership, how do you think about it? What image first pops into your brain? For some, the word “member” has club-like connotations. In fact, sometimes joining a church seems almost disturbingly like joining a country club. Or maybe you think of membership like you think of being a prime customer at your favorite retailer (that would be us, right?). Church is kind of like a service provider where the customer (you) is king. If you’re a member, you’re a part of a higher echelon of special investors who have the “right” to have their needs met and prioritized. That’s why we tithe, right?

If this is where you’re at in how you’re thinking about your relationship with the local church, I have another Crossway recommendation for you: Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman (Crossway, 2012).

Some folks will recognize the 9Marks imprint on the cover of this book. 9Marks is a ministry directed towards leaders in the church to help them re-evaluate what efficacy looks like in church ministry. Instead of using big numbers or emotional highs as a gauge of success, the people at 9Marks have come up with nine marks of a healthy church; a biblically based rubric for evaluating the faithfulness and health of church bodies (one of the marks is membership). It’s an extremely helpful framework to work with, and my only problem with it is that since it’s geared toward leaders, most lay people don’t know it exists.

Because this is a 9Marks book, it’s been sort of set apart for leaders, but let me press this book on you if you’re a lay person, and especially if you’re a lay person struggling to understand the value of church membership. The back of the book is ironic to me because it seems like most of the pastors quoted in the blurbs are kind of saying, “Well, duh,” about what Leeman is trying to say. But the thing is, there’s a huge gap between what pastors think about membership and what members (and definitely regular attenders) think about membership. This is exactly the kind of thing the laity needs to help them understand what it even means that they are the church.

Leeman has a super-helpful analogy. When you’re a student studying abroad for a semester and your Visa runs out, you have to go to the US embassy in whatever country you’re in to get it renewed. The embassy has the authority to recognize and affirm your citizenship, even though it doesn’t have the authority to generate it. In this way, the church is very much like an embassy. It is the “authority on earth that Jesus instituted to officially affirm and give shape to my Christian life and yours” (p. 24). One of the church’s roles is to recognize and affirm who is a citizen of God’s future Kingdom here in the present. It is the embassy of the Kingdom Come, the safe-haven for the citizens of that nation to come together and worship their king here in this world.

Though we don’t do it perfectly, the church has a special authority to be the means through which the world knows who represents Jesus (see the subtitle of the book). It is, indeed, an “institution” (some of you are breaking out in hives at the very mention of the word); the embassy of King Jesus that he has commissioned to identify and support the citizens of his kingdom, and to spread the good news of his Gospel: that He is, actually, the King of the world. When you think of it in these terms, the church looks a lot less like a benign but totally irrelevant club for older people and a lot more like a counter-cultural movement devoted to a coming King. It also looks a lot less like an optional “add on” that we can take or leave in our Christian practice and a lot, lot more necessary for representing Jesus to the world.

Leeman goes on to describe how the lives of the members of a church define love to the world. I haven’t time to discuss how Christians who are not members of a church are impoverishing themselves of the loving care, support, and discipline of a local church body. It’s not a long shot to say that these folks are malnourished. It seems that Holy Spirit chooses to work in a particular way through the church with a power that he doesn’t use when a Christian goes out on his or her own like some kind of a vigilante. Jesus wants us to be together.

Listen: there is a lot of ridiculous nonsense that happens in local churches (after 27 years of attending various churches every Sunday I feel like I’ve definitely experienced a measure of it). There’s also incredible, profound potential for the Holy Spirit to move through what is weak and feeble to accomplish God’s purposes and will. When it comes to how we think about church, many of us need to intentionally submit our experience to Scripture. Sure, you’ve had crazy experiences or have even been straight-out betrayed by members of your church. This is one of those times where what the Bible says has to trump your experience. You may discover that you need to leave the church body you’ve been a part of because it’s propounding a false or an incomplete gospel. Some people even need therapy to overcome wounds they’ve experienced from people in church. But, if you’re a Christian, you aren’t permitted to dismiss the importance of it because you’ve had something unpleasant happen to you. It’s a central aspect of following Jesus, and the Bible will not shut up about it.

Leeman’s book got me fired up about being a member of my church.

The book is something like 130 pages-short enough to read in a day but transformative enough to make you completely reevaluate what the church is all about. For me, a regular lay person and member of a local church, the content was incredibly helpful for casting a vision of what it is we’re doing as the church. The gates of Hell will not prevail against us.

Mention this blog post at Johnsen & Taylor and get 20% off the book mentioned! (Offer ends 6/31/2012).

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