How do you find authentic, deep, lasting fulfilment in life? Is it a dream or can it be a reality? The problem is after years of bombardment from the secular media and advertising we are confused, cautious, sceptical. The daily diet on the TV, on the bill boards, newspapers and magazines tell us unashamedly that freedom and fulfilment comes from indulgence, luxury, space, exclusivity. The subliminal messages tell us to indulge ourselves. Fulfil our desires. Pursue pleasure. Stay free. Protect my space. Minimize commitments. Given such messages, it’s easy to understand why many people are cautious about commitment – whether its commitment in marriage, commitment to a charity or community service, commitment to our Church. We fear commitment, obligation, being tied down, restricted. If I commit myself, will I end up enjoying it or regretting it? Will life really be more fulfilling? Or just more draining? Well contemporary medical research provides a conclusive answer. Dr Paul Pearsall, the psychologist, writes in his book The Pleasure Prescription (Hunter House, 1996) “Modern research shows one of the most pleasurable of all human acts is also one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself and for others.
Gentle, caring selflessness results in significant health benefits.” In the mid 1980’s Allan Luks, author of, The Healing Power of Doing Good, conducted a survey of 3,300 volunteers.
He discovered that many volunteers experience feelings of euphoria while volunteering. He called this the “helper’s high” and compares it to the runner’s high – when a person runs and exert, but instead of feeling more stressed, one feels more relaxed. The act of helping causes both a physiological and an emotional effect. Research has shown that regular acts of kindness or serving stimulate the release of endorphins, natural hormones that help improve mood and also help to improve the body’s immune system and lower blood pressure. Research has shown that volunteering on a regular basis improves self-esteem, increases your sense of well-being, and lowers stress. One study even found that retired men who volunteer one day a week live two-and-a-half times longer than retired men who don’t volunteer at all. So helping others is beneficial to our health. It produces feelings of calm and well-being that continue for hours after volunteering. Luks makes it clear that when we persuade someone to volunteer face to face; we are giving an enormous gift, much like membership in a health club. And there is no better place than the local church. It is ironic that the word membership is first and foremost a Christian word. The New Testament goes into great detail about the privileges of our membership of the Body of Christ and the local church.
Easter is traditionally the time when people were baptised and confirmed, remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus in our place. In my last parish, every Easter we invited everyone who considered themselves a Christian to renew their commitment to Christ and their membership of our local church. Although not a common practice it is actually very Anglican. In the 1950’s the two Archbishops issued a ‘Short Guide to the Duties of Church Membership’. We found it so helpful in summarising what it means to be Christ followers, I used to teach on it in the weeks preceding Easter each year. On Easter Sunday I would invite the church family to put their name to a simple declaration that, with God’s help, we would covenant for the year ahead to have a daily walk with Jesus, participate regularly in Sunday services, be part of one of our small Bible study groups, find a place of service for an hour a week minimum, and confidentially but diligently steward the resources God had given us. We did so because we believed this is how we can best grow as Christ followers together. How we can best express our desire to become more like Christ, and help one another to do the same. It was not legalistic but liberating. We were simply acknowledging that membership matters and that it is a joy and privilege to serve Jesus Christ in and through a local church. In his book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren tells us, “You are called to belong, not just believe… We are created for community, fashioned for fellowship and formed for a family, and none of us can fulfil God’s purposes by ourselves.
The Bible says we are put together, joined together, built together, members together, heirs together, fitted together, and held together and one day will be caught up together. “While your relationship to Christ is personal, God never intends it to be private. In God’s family you are connected to every other believer, and we will belong to each other for eternity... Following Christ involves belonging and not just believing. In Romans 12, our Epistle reading for this week, we discover what God has to teach us about the privileges of church membership.
1. A church family helps us grow up together
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your proper worship as rational beings. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)
First note that Paul describes us as brothers and sisters. We are a family. Secondly notice he urges us to sacrifice – to offer our bodies – that is our time, our energy, out talents, our lives as living sacrifices. Third, notice he defines Christian service as an act of worship. There is no contradiction – no contrast between worship and service. The one is defined by the other. Indeed you cannot do one without the other. John Ortberg observes another paradox. “When we use our spiritual gifts in a spirit of servanthood, something happens to us as well as through us…” Paul calls it metamorphosis. When we find a place of service, “Old patterns of pride and self-absorption get disrupted. We explore our strengths and come face to face with our weaknesses. Failure leads to fresh encounters with grace. Risks lead to fresh experiences of trust. Competitiveness gives way to fresh reliance on community. Serving is a transforming endeavour.” This is how we please God. A church family, first of all, helps us grow up, together.
2. A church family moves us out of self-centred isolation
“For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.” (Romans 12:3)
Listen to Rick Warren on the importance of the Church in scripture. “Membership in the family of God is neither inconsequential nor something to be causally ignored. The Church is God’s agenda for the world. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” (Matthew 16:18 NLT). The church is indestructible and will exist for eternity. It will outlive this universe, and so will your role in it.
The person who says, “I don’t need the church” is either arrogant or ignorant. The church is so significant that Jesus died for it… “Christ loved the church and gave his life for it.” (Ephesians 5:25).
The Bible calls the church “the bride of Christ” and the “body of Christ.” I can’t imagine anyone saying to Jesus, “I love you but I dislike your wife.” Or “I accept you, but I reject your body.”
But we do this when ever we think we can live in splendid isolation, or regard meeting together as a family on Sundays as optional. “The Bible says a Christian without a church home is like an organ without a body, a sheep without a flock, or a child without a family. It is an unnatural state. Today’s culture is one of independence, personal freedom and individualism.
This has created many spiritual orphans, what Rick Warren calls “bunny believers” who hop around from one church to another without any identity, accountability, or commitment.”
“The local church is the classroom for learning how to get along in God’s family. Only in regular contact with ordinary, imperfect believers, can we learn real fellowship” as well as discover our true selves. Real maturity shows up in relationships. We need more than the Bible in order to grow; we need other believers.”
Being part of a church family will, says the Apostle Paul, ensure that you do not think more highly of yourself. A church family helps us grow up together. A church family moves you out of self-centred isolation.
3. A church family identifies you as a genuine believer
“For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:4-5)
“We are members of His body – the church. The Bible insists that, “the church is a body, not a building, an organism not an organisation… For the organs of your body to fulfill their purpose, they must be connected to your body. The same is true for you as a part of Christ’s Body. You were created for a specific role, but you will miss … it … if you are not attached to a living, local church. You discover your role in life through your relationships with others… Disconnected and cut off from the lifeblood of a local body, your spiritual life will wither and eventually cease to exist.
This is why the first symptom of spiritual decline is usually inconsistent attendance at Sunday services. When we become careless about fellowship, everything else begins to slide too.” “Biblical fellowship is being as committed to each other as we are to Jesus Christ.” Most Christians can recite John 3:16. Not so many have memorised 1 John 3:16, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (1 John 3:16). You cannot grow to maturity in Jesus Christ alone. Your membership in a church identifies you as a Christ follower.
A church family helps us grow up together.
A church family moves you out of self-centred isolation.
A church family identifies you as a genuine believer.
4. A church family is our primary place of service.
“Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use itin our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.” (Romans 12:7-13)
“You will never grow to maturity just by attending worship services and being a passive spectator. Only participation in the full life of a local church builds spiritual muscle.” “The difference between being a church attender and a church member is service. Attenders are spectators on the sidelines; members get involved in the ministry. Attenders are consumers; members are contributors. Attenders want the benefits of a church without sharing the responsibility.”
Paul lists a variety of ministry roles – this is not an exhaustive list but it covers the essentials. Prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, mercy. How do we discover our gifts and talents? I used to believe we needed to use diagnostic tools – now I think we should just roll up our sleeves and serve. We discover our gifts by using them. We discern people’s gifts as we see them in action. Notice Paul has as much to say about how we should use our gifts as in defining them. “Let love bewithout hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” Notice ultimately Christian service is divine service. Over 50 times in the New Testament we are told to care for one another:
Pray for one another
Encourage one another
Admonish one another
Greet one another
Serve one another
Teach one another
Accept one another
Honor one another
Bear one another’s burdens
Forgive one another
Submit to one another, and
Be devoted to one another.
God created the church to meet your five deepest needs; a purpose to live for, people to live with, principles to live by, a profession to live out, and power to live on. There is no other place on earth where you can find all five of these benefits in one place. God’s purposes for His church are identical to His five purposes for you. Worship helps you focus on God, fellowship helps you face life’s problems, discipleship helps fortify your faith; ministry helps find your talents; evangelism helps fulfill your mission. There is nothing else on earth like the Church! Why is it important to be a member of a local church family? Because membership matters. Because it proves you are committed to your spiritual brothers and sisters in reality, not just in theory.
God wants you to love real people, not ideal people. You can spend a lifetime searching for the perfect church, but you will never find it. You are called to love imperfect sinners, just as God does. John Ortberg speculates…. “Someday there will be a banquet for you in heaven. You will be welcomed, celebrated, and acknowledged as an honoured guest. And if they find you serving in the kitchen, know that right next to you will be the Lord himself, smiling at you with hearty approval… towel in hand, joyfully drying the dishes you just washed.” [ii]
From Romans 12 we have seen that
A church family helps us grow up together
A church family moves you out of self-centred isolation.
A church family identifies you as a genuine believer.
A church family is our primary place of service.
A place to grow. A place to serve. A place to belong. That is what God intends your local church to be. And you are essential to the fulfillment of God’s purpose for your local church as you find your place of service and enjoy the privileges of church membership.
Material for this sermon drawn with thanks from John Ortberg, Gifts: the joy of serving God and Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life.
 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Zondervan)