I wonder if most pastors don't get a little crazy when the topic of church membership comes up. On the one hand we are told that it matters greatly. Consider the solemn words addressed to those who join and the equally solemn words addressed by those who join. Far from suggesting that these words do not matter, these words call us to read them slowly and deliberately and to speak them with equal gravity. Membership is a solemn covenant and a contract that presumes that something will flow from the address to and promises from those who join. Indeed, death is promised as a preference to forgetting or taking lightly the call from the Lord to be gathered with His own around His Word and Table.
On the other hand, church membership does not seem to matter all that much. It does not seem to matter to those who, despite the solemn address and their somber promises, are routinely absent from the Lord's House, the Lord's Word, and the Lord's Table. They have, as Hebrews' preacher put it, gotten in the habit of neglect of the assembly that comes at the beckoning of the Spirit on the Lord's Day (His resurrection day, the eighth day). It does not seem to matter much to churches since we all routinely keep people on the rolls, as it is said, long after they have grown stale and strangers to us. All congregations have people on the official membership list who no longer even live in a local zip code and some of them, it is sad to say, have no active address on file. Their whereabouts are unknown and not just on Sunday mornings.
That said, we often distance this membership in an organization from the membership that does count -- the one wherein our names are written in the Book of Life in the ink of Christ's blood. And that is the strange thing of it all. Instead of seeing a connection between the two rolls, the earthly community of faith and the heavenly assembly, we routinely distance one from the other. The people absent from the Lord's house insist that they have not lost faith and church is not required and you can be a Christian, a good and faithful Christian, without having to get all hot and bothered about church. They insist that their names are written in the Book of Life and that is all that matters.
On the other hand, it has been the grave temptation of the keeper of the church rolls on earth to confuse a piece of paper in the church office with the company of the elect. Sure, you do not have that confusion today nearly as much as it was made in the past but still it is easy to presume that the number of the elect is the same as the names written on the rolls, with the possible exception of a few names here and there.
Church membership matters not because the church says so but because our confession of faith matters. Sadly, we live in an age in which people routinely belong to churches because of things other than what that church publicly professes. I cannot tell you how many times people have come and asked to commune at our Lutheran altar and have given good, salutary, and blessed Lutheran confession of what is present there on the altar, how we are to receive it, and what it accomplishes in us. But they belong to a church that does not even come close to confessing the same thing. They live within the anomaly of a church that teaches one thing while they believe another. But it does not matter since church membership and what you believe are frequently and routinely differentiated from each other. Why? Why do we presume that the individual confession matters more than the public confession of the assembly? Why do we trivialize church membership in this way? Should not we strive with all our power to be connected to an earthly community of faith that is the most faithful to the Scriptures and whose practice is a faithful reflection of that belief? Is this not precisely why church membership matters? It should be.
Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of emphasizing the invisible church whose borders and boundaries are not the same as earthly jurisdictions that we have come to the terrible place of diminishing the value, importance, and blessing of our earthly belonging to a community gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord. In the face of a divided Christendom, in the complex confusing array of acronyms and denominational realities, we want to believe in a grand unity and that is understandable. Our desire is met by the Lord who not only establishes this unity but gives it His promise and blessing. One as the He and the Father are one. Yes. But that does not diminish the value of or lessen the urgency for our unity with those with whom we make common confession and witness before the world, to whom we make ourselves accountable, and together we hear the voice of the living Word and, as the baptized people of God, come to the place He has prepared at His Table where the past is made present and the future is anticipated.
True, the real members of a church are those who gather, hear, confess, and eat but that does not mean there is no list, no roll, no record of our belonging. Indeed, the challenge is that every Sunday the majority of Christians tend to be absent from their family home together with the Lord in His Word and at His Table. The task before us is not only to reach out to those not yet of the Kingdom but to be the conscience of those who have forgotten what it means to belong. That is both the problem of church membership and why it matters.