In a recent docu-series entitled Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, Adam Curtis says, “In the age of the individual, what you felt, what you wanted, and what you dreamed of were going to become the driving force across the world.” Being a Christian in this “age of the individual” can be challenging. Our culture prioritizes self-expression, self-assertion, and the realization of our internal dreams and desires. Often, this vision for living conflicts with the call of our cross-bearing Savior.
Yet Christ has offered us a resource to combat the temptation to exalt our self-fulfillment above all: church membership. According to Jonathan Leeman, church membership is “a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.” God has designed our reconciliation to Him in such a way that it grafts us into a community with others. Our faith journey is a communal project.
By committing to a local expression of God’s Church, we confront the idols of individualism. By faithfully committing to a local church, we are bound and rooted in a received community. While this commitment can be challenging, the practice of church membership counter-culturally forms us as disciples of Christ.
Here are three ways that church membership challenges the individualism of our culture.
- Church membership means we can’t choose our community.
By exalting self-fulfillment as a supreme good, individualism communicates that our relationships are contractual, contingent upon their ability to meet our needs. As a result, our social groups are typically chosen, made up of people we intentionally select to associate with.
To paraphrase Harper Lee, you can choose your friends, but you sho’ can’t choose your church family. Church membership binds us to a community that is received rather than chosen. While we can determine the church we join, membership places us in proximity to people we wouldn’t necessarily spend our time with freely. Thus, church membership offers a countercultural experience.
By committing to a local expression of God’s Church, we confront the idols of individualism.
Chosen relationships are prone to land us with friends who share our experiences, opinions, and affinities. Like the lunch tables in high school, our table fellowship is exclusive to our clique. In contrast, church membership leads us to share the Lord’s Supper with varying age groups, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and political convictions. If we experience conflict or disagreement with a fellow church member, we are encouraged to pursue reconciliation and bear with one another in love (Col. 3:13). Covenant relationships like these brush up against the conditional view of relationships offered by our individualistic culture.
As people made in the image of a Trinitarian God, covenant community and committed relationships are good for our soul. We are social beings who flourish only while living alongside others through the ups-and-downs of life (Eccl. 4:19-12). The commitments we have to our church family deepen our discipleship by forcing us to de-center our preferences and priorities in community with others.
- Church membership means we are rooted rather than detached.
American culture fosters transience. We are encouraged to chase lucrative salaries, comfortable conditions, or adventurous experiences to new locations without being rooted in a community. Each new place exists to give us what we want. As such, we often lack connection to our neighbors or physical community.
Church membership is a resistance against the flighty tendencies our culture encourages. “For people who have been discipled by our society,” notes David Swanson, “to imagine themselves removed from creation, able to move here and there with little thought about the consequences, the decision to prioritize rootedness and presence will not come easily.” Church membership encourages us to build our lives around relationships in our church and take an interest in the community surrounding our congregational meeting place. While this can challenge our deep desires for autonomy and flexibility, it also grants us a rich experience of the body of Christ and forms us towards faithfulness.
A recent study (pre-COVID) reports that more than 3 out of 5 American adults are lonely. In an age of loneliness, church membership opens the door to loving relationships that can combat alienation and offer us a lifeline as we navigate the rocky seasons of life.
In an age of consumerism, rootedness calls us to reject viewing our church and community exclusively by what we can receive from it. We are encouraged to ask questions about how we can contribute to and bless our church family and neighbors (1 John 3:17).
- Church membership means we can’t curate the opinions around us.
Technology feeds our individualism. We curate the information, opinions, and ideas that we encounter daily, conveniently selecting our news sources, social media follows, podcasts and commentators. When we disapprove of what we see or hear, we can block or unfollow. And if we miss a spot, our feed picks up the slack by giving us more of what we liked yesterday.
Self-selecting our information consumption is no new phenomenon. Scripture warns against the temptation to exclusively pursue voices that “tickle our ears” (2 Timothy 4:3). Without covenant commitment to a church, we are free to curate a chorus of voices that reaffirm what we already believe. Healthy church membership, then, is a resistance against this deceptive habit, a reminder that we share a common faith and practice with those in our church body.
But beyond core doctrines, committing to a community means we will often encounter opinions and ideas with which we disagree. Proximity to diverse opinions will often challenge us to reconsider deeply held assumptions. Moreover, we are encouraged to open our lives up to the input of our brothers and sisters (Hebrews 3:13). As such, church membership is a bulwark against the social media silos and internet algorithms that simply reaffirm what we already know and believe. It is countercultural for dissenting voices to coexist. It is even more so for those dissenting voices to love one another as family. Within the church, we are called to precisely that.
Last year, amidst the political tensions our nation experienced, it was jarring and often difficult to share a church with various social and political perspectives. I witnessed outbursts, awkward silences, and tense follow-up conversations as we discussed sensitive issues with one another. Yet, I treasured this experience, as it reflected the unity we have in Christ. While our culture is eager to cut off and defriend one another over tense disagreements, our unity in Christ is strong enough to bear the freight of our dissent.
Practicing church membership
Christ presents us a thrilling alternative to the exclusively conditional, chosen, and curated bonds offered by our society. Challenging our deeply held desires for autonomy and self-exaltation, church membership forms us into more faithful Jesus-followers. Moreover, when we commit to a local church body, we are granted a church family to bear our burdens in an isolated and unstable world. In this “age of the individual,” faithful church membership is one of the most countercultural offers the church has, and an invaluable resource to every Christian.