The spirit of individualism is flourishing in the 21st century, bolstered even more by the seismic cultural shifts in our society. A confluence of sociological and technological factors drive this: the rapidly-changing job market draws young professionals far from home, where they chart an independent career forward. Tech giants like Facebook, Netflix and Amazon battle for our attention by customizing content and products ever more to individual tastes. Secular progressivists champion the inviolable right of the individual to define his or her own truth and morality, perhaps most notably seen in the LGBTQ movement.
Not all of today’s changes are lamentable. We are blessed with access to higher education, a greater selection of career opportunities, and two-day Amazon Prime deliveries. At the same time, our cultural mindset tempts us to apply the same consumer mentality to the church: how well does this church serve me? Do I like the preaching, the music, the people, and the events? While we are free to account for our preferences and choose what local body we commit to, it is dangerously easy to treat church like a fitness club—I go when it’s convenient, and I quit when I’m dissatisfied.
Thabiti M. Anyabwile’s, What is a Healthy Church Member? arrives at a timely moment for Christians. The title itself is predicated on the biblical notion of church membership, a visible commitment to a local body of believers. Anyabwile’s short book comes as part of the 9Marks series, and herein he delivers ten marks (a bonus is included!) of a healthy church member. He could easily rename this book, What is a Healthy Christian? as his ten characteristics encompass both qualities of an individual’s relationship to God along with his or her relationships to the church community. Each chapter dives into one of these marks, providing scriptural support, practical application, and further reflection questions. Anyabwile’s book will challenge Christians who are on the fringes of community or self-proclaimed “lone rangers” to consider the biblical grounding of church membership. It also pushes committed church members to evaluate where they can excel still more.
Foundations of Genuine Faith
Given the title, I almost expected Anyabwile to jump straight into the topic of membership and exhort believers to pursue a certain level of involvement in their churches. While that is integrated into his book, he begins with four marks that characterize a Christian’s personal walk with God and maturity in handling the Word: he defines a healthy church member as “an expositional listener,” “a biblical theologian,” “gospel saturated” and “genuinely converted.” I appreciate the holistic view Anyabwile brings to his definition. He points out that a healthy church member is not simply defined by his or her external commitment to a body of believers, but one who is first and foremost a genuine and growing Christian.
In his chapter entitled, “A Healthy Church Member is Genuinely Converted,” Anyabwile makes a seemingly obvious point, but he recounts how many people he knows who were once church members without truly understanding the gospel. Though this chapter comes fourth in the book, it should be seen as the foundation for all the others. Anyabwile does a good job of explaining what biblical conversion is and is not: “Conversion is the radical turn from an enslaved life of pursuing sin to a free life of pursuing and worshiping God. Conversion is a change of life, not merely a decision” (49).
He calls us to 1 John, where we find several tests to self-examine the genuineness of our faith in Christ: whether we walk in the light and repent of our sins (1 John 1:6-7), whether we love God the Father (1 John 2:15), whether we love other Christians (1 John 3:18-19), whether the Holy Spirit lives within us (1 John 3:24), and whether we persevere in the faith (1 John 5:4-5). While each of these questions demand we look inward, Anyabwile encourages us to not just introspect privately, but to self-examine in the context of the local church.
Asking these kinds of questions is best done in the fellowship of the local church, among committed and growing Christians who can help us see ourselves accurately. Some people are given to an ‘easy believism’ that resists careful curation of their own souls, while others are too easily tempted to doubt and despair. In a church culture, we can love each other both by pointing out evidence of God’s grace in each others’ lives and by asking tough questions about our profession and walk. By doing both, we help one another avoid the extremes of despair and complacency, and we can encourage one another to see ourselves in the light of God’s saving work in our souls (54).
This is one example of many where Anyabwile ties an individual Christian’s growth to the impact on and need for the church. As Christians, we need the body of believers to aide us in self-examination, deepening our understanding of God’s Word, growth in spiritual disciplines, and much more.
Commitment to Biblical Community
The latter half of Anyabwile’s book focuses on important relational characteristics of a healthy church member: A healthy church member is “a biblical evangelist,” “a committed member,” one who “seeks discipline,” “a growing disciple,” “a humble follower,” and “a prayer warrior.” In his chapter on “A Healthy Church Member is a Committed Member,” he addresses the challenge that many find membership an unnecessary or restrictive concept.
As with so many things, you can’t turn in the Bible to ‘the Book of Church Membership’ or to a chapter conveniently labeled by Bible publishers ‘On Becoming a Member.’ The biblical data isn’t as obvious as that, yet the idea of membership is nearly everywhere in Scripture. Have you ever considered how many practices and commands given to the New Testament church lose all their meaning if membership is not practiced, visibly identifiable, and important? (65)
Anyabwile illustrates how the call for leaders to shepherd their flock and Christians to submit to their leaders (Heb 13:17) would lose meaning without an identifiable membership, along with the practice of church discipline (Matt 18:15-17). But the purpose of membership is not simply to have your name on a list, but a commitment to exercise Christian love in the local church. Anyabwile provides visible signs of what committed membership looks like, which include regular attendance, edifying others, preparing for the ordinances of baptism and communion, supporting ministry, and more. He aptly ties each of these applications to Scripture, and makes clear that these are not legalistic duties, but ways to fulfill Jesus’ commandment to love one another (John 13:34-35) and to “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24).
In the chapters that follow, Anyabwile continues in the format of defining the mark of a healthy church member, its importance, its inward impact on his or her life, and its external manifestation. Anyabwile often identifies pitfalls or wrong thinking on a particular subject and each section, though succinct, is well-supported with Scripture. He addresses the topics of growth in godliness, concern for personal and church discipline, and submission to leadership.
What is a Healthy Church Member? is readable, practical, and relatively brief. It is not intended to be a deep theological treatise, but an exhortation for any Christian to evaluate his or her walk with the Lord and commitment to the church. While it can be read quickly, Anyabwile’s work could also serve as a helpful discussion guide to small groups with his reflection questions. He provides a number of book recommendations for further study, references to other works, and a plethora of Scripture references. Wherever you are in your relationship with the church, this is a helpful guide for Christians to shape their priorities according to God’s Word.