One of the great challenges to church growth today is a lethargic membership. Sadly, members can fall prey to the temptation of politely excusing themselves from service. Inactive or less active members may offer justification for this lack of effort. For some, it may be that they have served for a lifetime and now wish to step aside for a younger generation to take the lead. Others may feel that the constraints upon their time are too great. Still others fall into the worst of traps, thinking of the preacher as a hired hand whose job is to do the work of the church and that “regular” members are volunteers who should merely operate on an as-needed basis.
Christianity is more than passive participation. Too many believe that presence in worship and paying attention during the week's sermons and Bible classes is enough to satisfy God's desires. The kind of faith we see in the Bible is one whose fruits are readily provided and whose effects are immediately observable to others. Jesus illustrates this point by using imagery of salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16) – both of which are easily detected when present, and sorely missed when absent.
The lack of active church participation has been identified with the Pareto principle or the “law of the vital few” – 20% percent of the membership does nearly all of the work, while the other 80% do very little (whether minimally involved or simply under-involved). There are various reasons for this trend, which may include: the effects of a consumerist or individualistic society, low expectations for the average member, poor planning from the leadership, or a general lack of understanding of Christian service and what it means to be a genuine follower of Christ. Changes in society placing a greater demand upon personal time may also be partly to blame, as believers may have to budget their time carefully in order to include extra events connected to work, school, and extracurricular activities. In the last few decades, a general shift in preaching has taken place, where the emphasis in sermons is in personal transformation or growth rather than an acknowledgement of moral responsibility. Any one of these provides an adequate explanation for the defacto dedication to mediocrity that seems to plague churches everywhere.
The New Testament never gives any hint that believers may be divided into those who attend worship faithfully and those who do not. Nor does it ever rank believers in a hierarchy based on effort or performance. We may rightfully assume that a biblical faith is also a working faith. Christians may not assume that the church (however vaguely defined it may be defined so as to avoid personal investment or responsibility) should take care of duties such as teaching, evangelism, and making personal contacts. The work of the church begins with the work of the individual.
The Church Should Be Personally Active
One area in which church members may grow lax is in personal work. This is often thought of as the responsibility of the minister: visiting the sick in their homes and in hospitals, attending funerals, meeting with those who have a specific need, conducting Bible studies, and the like. Whether for the growth of the church or the support of its members, every church member is needed to make an impact both in the household of faith as well as in the local community.
The New Testament portrays the early church as a body of active individuals, not a group of passive participants. In Acts 2 we find that the early church actively engaged in fellowship. They met in each other's homes (vv. 42, 46). Believers shared with one another (vv. 44-45). In a community like this, it is not difficult to see why the early church saw daily conversions (v. 47). These activities are the result of an active, personal faith. Elsewhere, the apostle Paul identifies the fruit of the Spirit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). If we look closely, many of these qualities can be exercised only within the bounds of personal relationships.
Echoing the command in the Mosaic law, Jesus states that we should love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 19:19; cf. Lev. 19:18). Rather than using the term “brother,” Jesus seems to expand the scope of Christian love to include neighbors, i.e., those who are currently outside the church in addition to faithful believers. The apostle Paul echoes the Lord when he states that we are to do good when the opportunity presents itself (Gal. 6:10). While there are occasions when special servants or those with specific roles are mentioned (Acts 6:1-6; Eph. 4:11-12), it seems clear that service is not limited to fellow Christians.
The personal aspect of the church should not be limited to those outside its walls. It is vitally important for church members to demonstrate care and concern for one another. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul tells the church to “Let love be genuine … Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:9-10). He also states that they should “Contribute to the needs of saints and seek to show hospitality” (v. 13). The writer of Hebrews spurs believers on to exhorting one another as well (Heb. 10:24-25).
The Church Should be Evangelistic
One of the more challenging areas for many church members may be the area of evangelism. When it comes to evangelistic work, it might be tempting for believers to defer to the minister or to those who have specific training or greater knowledge of the Bible. Evangelism, they might argue, falls under the job description of the evangelist. The message of the gospel must be clearly and precisely articulated, and who is better qualified than the minister?
While the desire for competent messengers is admirable, all believers share in the task of evangelism. Each member has a unique set of talents, abilities, and experiences that may be used profitably. Church members may find success in ways that a minister may not. They may be able to make connections through personal contact with others who may dismiss a minister at first sight. Others will have shared experiences.
We might see a parallel in the covenant renewal ceremony in Joshua 8:30-35. This ceremony takes place with the population of the Hebrew nation gathered together in front of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim. The text states that everyone gathered here, down to the last woman, child, and foreigner (v.35). Everyone participated in this event. We might view the church in a similar light. Everyone included in the community of faith participates in the life of the church down to the very last member regardless of age, status, experience, ability, or position.
The early church grew exponentially in the days following Pentecost in the book of Acts. It is difficult to see that the disciples should receive all the credit for evangelism. Rather, it seems that this was a total effort on the part of the church. Believers took care of needs on many levels, including the spiritual, physical, and financial. The total effort of the church led to amazing results, ones which would have surely been difficult to achieve by the apostles alone with no additional help.
A Call to Action
Local congregations will be weak and ineffective when their members are weak and ineffective. The opposite is also true: a congregation will grow when it has motivated members who actively pursue opportunities to put the gospel into practice. If the church is to be active and growing, then believers must be the same. The church is one body with many parts, but each part must do its share.