January 18, 2021

Open Mic: Is Church Optional?

Today’s Open Mic question is presented by Chaplain Mike.

I read a message by Rick Warren on Christian Post today about belonging to the church. It got me thinking about the nature of the relationship that exists between evangelicals and the church.

Let’s talk about it.

Warren’s thesis is: “When we’re called to follow Christ; we’re also called to belong to the Body of Christ.”

After affirming that the Church is Christ’s spiritual body on earth, God’s instrument in the world, he identifies one of the biggest hurdles pastors face today: it is hard to convince people who attend church to commit themselves to the church family and become members.

Warren blames this on “today’s culture of independent individualism.” As a result, we have many “spiritual orphans who move from one church to another without any identity, accountability or commitment.”

Pastor Warren then gives several biblical reasons why we should commit and become members of the local church:

  1. Belonging to a church family identifies us as genuine believers
  2. A church family moves us out of self-centered isolation
  3. A church family helps us develop spiritual muscle
  4. The Body of Christ needs every one of us

He concludes with this exhortation:

We must remind those who fill our buildings each Sunday that joining the membership of a local church is the natural next step once they become a child of God. You become a Christian by committing yourself to Christ, but you become a church member by committing yourself to a specific group of believers. The first decision brings salvation; the second brings fellowship.

Here are some questions this approach raises for me:

  • It seems, right from the start, that Warren is conceding the point that one can belong to Christ without being a member of the church. Membership in the church is a second “step” in the Christian life—important but ultimately a matter of choice on the part of the individual Christian. Is this disjunction between belonging to Christ and being a member of the church biblically and theologically sound?
  • To what extent is “independent individualism” not just a cultural problem, but also an outgrowth of the kind of gospel we preach and the kind of churches we create in evangelicalism?
  • Couldn’t one logically conclude from this approach that, in the final analysis, for evangelicals the church, though important, is ultimately optional?

The mic is open. As always, please keep the conversation civil and on point.


  1. Denise Fath wrote at 5:15 pm, “I do a lot of studying and praying on my own, but I know sometimes it’s just nice to worship with other people.”

    Yes, I agree, Denise. I don’t often get to go to weekend Mass, but I went today and while reciting the Creed and the Our Father with the people gathered, I decided to really listen to the people as they prayed and their words washed over me and through me. Their prayers and their faith help to sustain me and I hope that mine hope to sustain them. I hardly know any of the people (maybe 20 of them by name) but I like knowing they are there and I like knowing that they are in the world, living out their faith and hopefully bringing the love of God to the world.

    • JoanieD,

      So true – it never ceases to amaze me how I can feel such a strong connection worshiping with people I don’t even know! One of the many great mysteries of faith!

  2. It seems to me that a good question (and an ironic one, since we’re responding to what Rick Warren has said) is: “What is the purpose of the church?” For the sake of argument, I’m going to use the definition of “church” that equates it with a local congregation, rather than the Church Universal or whatever. I think one major purpose is to administer the sacraments. There are some parts of the faith that simply can’t be adequately practiced without a local congregation. But if there’s no appreciation of the sacraments (e.g. in much of evangelicalism), this point falls apart. Another is to provide a community in which spiritual formation can occur and spiritual disciplines can be practiced. Again, this is something that evangelicalism tends to ignore. Another purpose is to pass on the teachings of the Church (e.g. traditions, history, doctrines, etc.). Again, evangelicalism tends to be distrustful of this and thinks that all answers to everything can be found in Scripture alone (of course, this isn’t really true as the huge industry of evangelical publishing shows, but it’s the claim made).

    I guess what i’m saying is that due to the watered-down ecclesiology, theology, etc. of modern Evangelicalism, the local church becomes much less relevant. You really can’t effectively be a Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc. without the local church. But it’s no problem being a nondenominational evangelical without it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand the concept of being “in the Evangelical Wilderness” where you don’t have a home. But it’s hard to see that as being the ideal. It’s more of an occasional tragic necessity. I know that when I don’t have other Christians around to keep me grounded, I tend to get a bit off balance. And when I don’t have a place to practice the sacraments, etc., it’s a very dark time.

  3. I grew up in independent, fundamentalist Baptist churches, so my answer my be just a little flavored by what they tried to instill in me forever. I will endevor to stay close to scripture.

    Heb 10:25 comes first to mind; let us not give up meeting together (NIV), not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together (KJV), but exhorting each other all the more as the day approaches. It appears that some Christians had already given up coming together as a group, and the author of Heb exhorts believers to stick together. In all the writings of Paul, he certainly believes in a local assembly of Christians supporting a full time pastor. He spends a lot of time and energy training Timothy, and among other instructions is about how and when to exclude members; this only makes sense in light of keeping a membership roll.

    If a Christian attends a church on a very regular basis, gives to the church (or tithes), supports the local pastor and missions of the church, then is membership a requirement? I think scripture definately supports the idea; it would be easier from a Biblical standpoint to argue yes than to conclude its simply an option. You wouldn’t ordain a non-member as a deacon or select him as a trustee; obviously some people must be members. In the Baptist tradition I’m a part of, new believers follow their profession of faith with baptism, and it’s this act of baptism that makes them members of that congregation.

  4. Is the question “Is church optional,” or is the question joining the church and becoming a member? We could discuss and debate the second question at length. Church is not optional; Heb 10:25 is enough to stand on for this point. The first church congregation at Jerusalem in Acts, Paul taking up a collection for that church; sheep need a shepherd. Nearly all of Paul’s letters are written to churches (Collosians, Ephesians, Galatians, Corinthians). Seven churches are addressed in Revelation. A Christian should be a part of a local church; membership may be up for discussion, but I can’t see that attendence is. Where would the accountability be?

  5. It seems to me that at least some critical questions relevant in this debate should precede all others. “Why do we go to church at all?” Without answering myself, I’d like to simply offer some further points to think about. Where is the Gospel heard? Where does God receive Glory from His people. Why is the church likened to a body? Why do we have Sacraments? Why wouldn’t we want to be with those who are our brothers and sisters, our new family? I wonder if the whole purpose of “church” has become so lost by lectures, pointers, 7 step self improvement programs, legalism and outward piety contests that God simply doesn’t show up! Without Him I would quickly lose interest too. But I go because I’m a sinner who never tires of hearing of God’s extravagant Grace. As Peter expressed, “to who shall we go Lord? You have the words of eternal life”. I hear those words in Word and Sacrament!

  6. Here’s the thing for me: I read the type of language in Rev. Warren’s article and immediately have a whole host of “Warning! Warning! Marketing Language; Salesman Ahead!” red flags automatically go up in my head, completely independent of the actual subject of the article. When I try to get past the red flags and figure out what is actually being said, my mind keeps slipping off of big concept words and never finding any place solid to land.

    I see lots of marketing technique:
    – big concept words that tend to cause people to fill in lots of their own past experience and emotion, but are never really defined: community, membership, church, spiritual muscle, family, commitment, individualism
    – implication that you will be missing out on something if you don’t join in
    – implication that only stupid or backward people would question or want to dig further into the big concept words
    – implication that you are guilty of hurting others – even failing God – by not going along or by questioning
    – complete absence of any of the gritty, difficult reality behind these words that the Bible itself is not shy about discussing, and anyone who has put heart and soul into a church for any length of time knows intimately

    By comparison, I think of iMonk’s series from Nov. 2008 (click on Archives, then Nov. 2008) about Unresolved Tensions in Evangelicalism … especially the essay on Disillusionment with Christian Community. https://internetmonk.com/archive/the-unresolved-tensions-of-evangelicalism-part-3-christian-community

    I worked for many years for a company that developed large software products. “Vaporware,” was, unfortunately, just part of the funding game … the marketing people doing their job of spinning a tale full of the Big Beautiful Alluring (Vague) Idea while the developers writhed in agony on the back row, knowing it wasn’t that easy, and feeling their vacation evaporate into unachievable deadlines. Most of the time, a compromise between reality and Beautiful Idea worked out acceptably enough, in the end. But, sometimes, we just plain backed an irrecoverably wrong horse. And the reaction of the higher ups was, for a while, inevitably, to deny that we could have taken the wrong path, to emphasize ever harder the Big Beautiful (Vague) Idea, to blame customer lack of vision, to blame employee inadequacy. But sometimes there is nothing to be done but grieve over the loss of the Big Beautiful Idea and say “Whoops! This didn’t work out. Nothing to do but learn from our mistakes, backtrack, and start again where we think the ground is solid.”

    Somehow this article gives me the same vibes …. too much Big Beautiful (Vague) Idea being pushed, with complete lack of gritty reality details, even though there has been more than enough time and experience for the gritty reality to be known. Reminds me very much of the Willow Creek “Whoops! We aren’t ending up with the maturity we thought we would” admission from a year or two ago. Except that this article – and much similar rhetoric I hear on similar subjects at my own church – is still at the stage of pushing the Big Beautiful (Vague) Idea ever harder, and hasn’t gotten to the “Whoops! Maybe the path we took is the direct cause of the results we are getting” rethinking yet.

    Additionally, when thinking about the big concepts invoked in this article, I am completely burned out and unconvinced on the whole framework of being a product or a customer or a productive employee or a marketer. So that is where the analogy of “how to correct vaporware and keep your company alive” completely fails. And that is where the marketing language of the article loses me before it ever really begins.

  7. I hope this isn’t too off topic, but as someone who has worked extensively with Rev. Warren’s church as an NPO employee, I have to say this–with the number of exclusions that pastors like Warren place, it’s a wonder any of us are welcomed at any church. The rules and restrictions that Saddleback, and the thousands upon thousands of other churches who follow suit, hoping for similar mega church status and wealth, pretty much disqualify anyone I know or have ever known from being a member. The church’s focus on behaving in some “perfect” Christian manner as a requirement for membership strikes me as absurd and ultimately harmful.

  8. How can the Christian perform all those “one another” verbs outside of a congregation? How can one receive those verbs outside of a congregation? How can elders/bishops/pastors fulfill thier shepharding responsibilities without knowing the sheep in their folds?

  9. I’m still a little dumbfounded that this came from Warren because I completely resonate to your second suggestion that evangelicalism (of which Warren is a poster child) absolutely creates the “independent individualism” that makes it so hard for people to commit to church “membership.” Evangelical churches-especially the mega variety-have long lured away people from smaller churches by their ability to produce large scale entertainment with minimal participation required of the individual in either worship or the work of the congregation. People leave our smaller communities of faith where we are truly able, though imperfectly, to support each other as the Body of Christ, to attend (not join) large churches where they can walk in, worship well(ie. be observers to a well-orchestrated service), feel good about themselves and their church attendance and not have to actually connect interpersonally on a deeper level with any of the sinners who attend with them. People choose this because much is given them (at least they’re given what they want) and nothing much is required in return. I guess I’m glad Warren is addressing it (akin to the Willow Creek admission) but I don’t know what else he expected.

  10. As I was reading some of the comments the thought came to me that relates to the post on the “R” rated Bible. I think that probably many if not most of the characters in the OT would not have made it into the membership roles of many churches. They still messed up too much and didn’t always live according to the rules and regulations.

    I have been a member of a church (total of 4) my entire life. Speaking from the inside I am frustrated with the masks so many people feel they must wear to become members and stay members, or to even attend a church. Where is the realness, the vulnerability, the authenticity? If church is a group of people coming together, putting on pious faces and/or hiding their deep pain in order to be accepted, why would anyone want that? I have more spiritual connections with my friends I see several times a week at the local McDonald’s than I do most times on Sunday mornings. More accountability and authenicity and spiritual growth takes place there than at the local church where we go and sit for an hour all facing forward with very little interaction. Being part of the Body of Christ means doing life together. Can I say I have that kind of relationship with local church members. My husband and I have made some inroads into this community church where everyone seems to be related to everyone else, but it has taken effort on our parts and has not been something the local church has promoted. I know I sound, and probably am, jaded over my church experiences. I’ve experienced abuse and have felt the church had no answers and even closed its eyes when faced with my victimization. For me the important thing is that we find a community of believers, whether that happens within the church building or not, where we can grow together in our relationship with God and encourage each other in the faith. Why must it be limited to Sunday mornings within the walls of a building with a steeple on the top and stained glass windows?

    • “For me the important thing is that we find a community of believers, whether that happens within the church building or not, where we can grow together in our relationship with God and encourage each other in the faith.”
      Amy, all I can say is that if you keep seeking, you will eventually find. But be careful what you seek — or, like me, you might find yourself as an informal, untitled, unsalaried leader of a ragtag group of wounded and somewhat confused religious refugees without any of the props, supports, or resources of institutional church. I’m not trying to discourage you, but I must say that existing as a church body based on loving relationships (rather than organizational structure or established programs and traditions) can be a lot more difficult and messy than one might at first envision. You really have to open your life to these people, even the parts you don’t want anyone to see, and you have to involve yourself in the messed-up muck of their lives, as well. And it’s a constant fight, in which relational problems between friends or within a single marriage can threaten the continued existence of the entire church body. And if you imagine that people (even in a small, intimate group) will always self-motivate to grow in their relationships with God and each other, you are in for a big surprise. But if it holds together in Christ, it will eventually become a true church family — not just in word or theory, but in the grit and grime of day-to-day reality. And, for me, that has been worth all the headache and heartache.

  11. Perhaps it would be best to first define what “church” is. In the NT, the word “church” is always used to refer to the body of Christ, which is comprised of His followers. As followers of Jesus, we do not “do” church or “go to church”. We are His church. Religion and “The Matrix” have conspired together to make it that only by going to a sanctioned, organized structure that is managed by official clergy counts as the real thing. The passage of “not forsaking the assembly” is twisted to mean that we are only “safe” when our butts are in a pew and that we are “submitted”. That is far from the case.
    I am sure that fellowship and accountability exist in the Kingdom, but I know they look far different than what humankind has put forth in the ICOR (Institutional Church Organized Religion) framework.

    Not that true ekklesia cannot be found in such structures. I believe it can be. But I also believe it can be found in other forms as well.

    • Yeeaayyy…..someone else posted on this theme. I’ve been both busy and sometimes just too lazy to weigh in. One of Warren’s blind spots, I think, is that wherever he reads “church” in the NT, he substitutes “local church fellowship”. The question is, can the NT understanding of “church” be captured MERELY by that description, that package. I’m not arguing here for lone ranger christianity, but the fellowshipping, and gathering of HIS believers does not seem to be constrained by ONLY the local church.

      As to “building spiritual muscle”, is that happening at a more noticable level in mega-churches than , say, missions grioups, or groups that do urban ministry ?? If I were REALLY interested in spiritual muscle, would I want to make a bee line to Rick’s mega-church, and why ??

      Pastors that want to bang on this drum need to do , and present, a more complete theology of what they are talking about, and deal with some of the nuances of the discussion. Including the nuance of why there are so many Jesus lovers who say ^&%*^*%* the church…….. are these folks all selfish individualists ?? Doubtful.

      Anyway, Michael Creel, thanks for letting me tag along.

      Greg R

  12. The message of the NT is “Don’t go it alone”. Yes; fellowship is THE vital aspect of that. But it is in the context of the gift of community that Papa God brings us into. It is not something we can manufacture (let alone manage) on our own. This by no means that those who participate in such structures are wrong or not getting “the real deal”. Conversation like that only leads to further division. But so equally dos the verbiage cause division that Warren uses. It seems to favor the institution and the system.
    Those are poor substitutes for the relational living that Jesus desires to bring; First and foremost with Himself, and then with others within the gift of community that He leads us into.

  13. “To what extent is “independent individualism” not just a cultural problem, but also an outgrowth of the kind of gospel we preach and the kind of churches we create in evangelicalism?”
    I think that’s a very important question — and a matter over which many churches and church institutions would do well to engage in a little honest self-examination. When churches take the pose that they are the only or best move of the Spirit to be found in a 50-mile radius — or when they practice jealous possessiveness or strict exclusivity regarding their members — or when they take a competitive or even antagonistic stance toward other expressions of Christ’s body in their community — then one could easily say that such churches are actually modeling “independent individualism” on the corporate level.
    I could be wrong, but I am of the opinion that an atmosphere of trust and freedom and open communication (where Christ’s yoke is kept easy and His burden light) is a lot more likely to produce truly dedicated members than the policies of isolation, competition, coercion, manipulation, or heavy-handed micro-management of every little thing.

  14. Those four reasons Warren gives for becoming a member are strike me as rather fishy, but I Warren is right that it is hard for pastors to convince people who attend church to become member, but not for the reason he gives. At least it isn’t the proximate reason, and the root causes he cites are doubtful; I strongly suspect they relate to the theology.. Without defining membership and it’s variations throughout the flavors of Christianity today,here are two reasons people don’t “become members”

    People don’t become members because…

    1. …they think they won’t be called on to do significant, creative, results-based work.

    2. … they attend church to feel good, and responsibility doesn’t fit that model so well.

  15. Membership to a local body is not a requirement but attending is. I have two ways of looking at this situation: 1. If you plan on staying in an area for an extended period of time membership is a way to foster a healthy relationship with your community and the local leaderships rules and ideas.
    2. if you have a migrating lifestyle then membership is not a very efficient idea.

    Most Christian gatherings that I am familiar with only allow members to serve in leadership positions.

    I feel that membership is steadily becoming a dividing factor that will lead to another denomination if we continue to encourage unmediated debates about it. Personally it is a nonissue that resolves itself organically as one becomes stable in God and life in Christ. Membership can easily move from nonexistant to full compliance if left to the individual to decide if and when it will happen.

    One interesting thing I have seen is that a lot of Evangelical Christians attend services outside of their living communities. If this were not such a everpresent factor I wonder if this conversation would even happen.

  16. Donald Todd says

    I believe I have seen a number of variations on this theme. What I have seen is that there is a substantive difference in churches, in how they are joined, in what they require of people who would join them, and in what the particular church requires of them as members.

    Some churches assume you must be “asked” to join. Your regular presence in the pew and your donation not withstanding, the onus is on them to ask you. Do you agree with their positions? Do they want you in that congregation? Once they figure that out, they’ll let you know but until then you won’t have to make a decision.

    Some churches assume that people who come in and return with great regularity desire membership, and they also assume you will ask for that opportunity. That puts the onus on you.

    Having left evangelical Pentecostalism for Roman Catholicism I can speak for the latter. The Church, as represented by the local parish, will permit you to join under the assumption that you are a Catholic. You’ll fill out a form that indicates the parishes by city and state where you received the sacraments: baptism, confession, first communion, confirmation, and if you are married, where that happened.

    If you are not a Catholic but are interested, you’ll be invited to join a program with the intent of understanding what the Church holds and teaches. At the conclusion of that program you’ll have a choice: do you or do you not want to join the Church?

    The Church has a commandment that requires the Catholic to participate in the holy sacrifice on Sundays and holy days of obligation (about 56 hours a year) as a minimal requirement. It pulls the Catholic to remember by participation what the Lord did to purchase their salvation. Failure to partipate without a good reason (illness, a child’s illness) is a deadly sin. One is required to put God first.

    That contrasted with my life as a charismatic. We were there for praise and worship and teaching, but we were not there to participate in a rite of our redemption. If you missed, there was no particular onus on you. Participation was not mandatory. The love of God might as easily be expressed hiking a forest as participating in the Sunday service. I suspect that this was due to limited authority which might be the reason for a completely separate thread.

    My fiancee, who was baptised as a Lutheran and whose parents were active Presbyterian lay missionaries, was practicing at Crossroads Bible Church, a fundmentalist, anti-Catholic church. When we arrived at the point where we knew we wanted to marry, she agreed to help me raise our children as Catholics. During marriage prep, she discovered that what she thought she knew about Catholicism was rubbish and later, by her own volition, she was received into the Church.

    Her baptism by the Lutheran Church was valid (water and the trinitarian formula), however her confirmation was not recognized. She made a good confession, received holy communion, and was confirmed. She is Catholic.

    Why are we in a particular parish? The love of God for us. Our love in response. Those rites that bring us back to the Person Who is responsible for our salvation. The opportunity to display the love of neighbor.

    If mere sociability combined with a philanthropic thrust was the issue. the local Elks would suffice.

    One must discover why one is part of a particular congregation, or perhaps why one is not.

  17. I’ve often heard the general lament of church membership. And yet, although I’ve been very active and committend to my local churches over the years, very few of them would accept me for membership, due to my stances on baptism and the roles of women in the church. Both of which are considered non-salvific issues, and are within the realm of othodoxy. I do have a kind of “independent individualism”, not in that I’m trying to make a go of it on my own, but because I look closely at the issues, come to my own conclusions, and don’t just tow the party line. It’s a shame that because of that, I am denied an official voice in my local church community.

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