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Membership Matters
By Dan Martella

In generations past, people valued membership. Membership in scouting programs, sports teams, health clubs, community service organizations, parent-teacher associations, and churches.
Not anymore! Especially church membership.
Why? Because many people work hard all week long and would rather sleep in Sabbath morning. Because they value time with family in the mountains or at the beach. Because they’d rather stay home and watch Joel Osteen or Doug Batchelor preach on TV. Because they’ve had bad experiences with the people at church. Because they don’t trust church leadership. Because they “love Jesus, but not the church.”
So what do you say to people who seldom, if ever, come to church? What is the value of belonging to a local church family? 
The New Testament offers important insights about membership matters. When it talks about the church, it embraces church life at two levels: the local church and the universal church. Now this is where things get interesting – in the New Testament the word church is used 119 times. One hundred nine times it is used to describe the local church. Ten times it is used to describe the universal church. Clearly, the New Testament emphasis is on the local church.
The pages of the New Testament are filled with the stories of local churches. In the book of Acts we can see local churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, Athens, and many other places. When Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, he says, To the church of God in Corinth.[1] When he writes to his friends in Galatia, he says To the churches in Galatia.[2] When he writes to the folks in Thessalonica, he says, To the church of the Thessalonians.[3]
The seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are all written to local churches.
All through the pages of the New Testament we can see local churches that are led by pastors, elders, deacons, and deaconesses. Local churches where God’s people met to worship. Local churches where offerings were received, baptisms and communion were celebrated, and people were taught the Word of God.
The New Testament also gives us evidence that people belonged to these local churches and that these churches maintained membership records. Luke tells us about Peter’s powerful preaching on the Day of Pentecost and how those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.[4] Then he goes on to tell us that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.[5] Evidently they counted and kept track of those who were baptized and joined the church.
Luke also tells us about the evangelistic meetings that were held out on the porch of the temple and that more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. [6] Again, they’re tracking church growth. They’re counting. They’re keeping membership records.
When speaking to the charismatic excesses in the Corinthian church at the Sabbath morning worship services, Paul says, so if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?[7] There is only one way they could know if the whole church was there – They counted. They kept a membership roster. They knew who the members were and whether they were in attendance on Sabbath morning or not.
Something else to think about – The churches that Timothy pastored kept a list of the widows in their congregation[8], and if they kept track of the widows, it stands to reason that they kept track of the rest of the members as well.
One more evidence that New Testament Christian churches kept membership rosters – When church members moved from one town to another, and from one church to another, they carried letters of recommendation from their old church to their new church. An example of this can be seen when Phoebe moved from Cenchrea to Rome – in her purse she carried a letter of introduction telling the Roman church family that she was a good woman, a hard worker, and that she would be a blessing to their congregation.[9]
So here’s what we have so far – The New Testament tells us about the local church and the universal church, and the emphasis is by far with the local church. Local churches were places Christians gathered for worship, fellowship, and evangelism. And New Testament Christians belonged to these churches. Membership mattered to them.
In our next issue of Best Practices, we will take a look at five reasons why church membership should matter to us today as well.
Dan Martella is managing editor of Best Practices for Adventist Ministry, and pastor of the Healdsburg and Cloverdale, CA Churches
[1] 1 Corinthians 1:2
[2] Galatians 1:2
[3] 1 Thessalonians 1:1
[4] Acts 2:41
[5] Acts 2:47
[6] Acts 5:14
[7] 1 Corinthians 14:23
[8] 1 Timothy 5:9
[9] Romans 16:1