Why do you go to church?
All right, this may be a silly question. There are plenty of obvious answers: to worship God, to strengthen your faith, to fellowship with other believers—all good motives. If you’re honest with yourself, maybe there are other reasons too: because the rest of your family does it, because it’s where all your friends are, or just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” At the most basic level, we go to church simply to keep doing what Christians have done since the time of Jesus.
However, I’d like to make the claim that not only is this a silly question, it’s actually a bad one. We don’t merely go to church; we are the church. Worshiping God together isn’t an activity so much as a statement of our identity. You may be familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism’s definition of the church in Lord’s Day 21 as “a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.” But don’t miss the next sentence, which drops the significance of this body squarely on our shoulders: “And of this community I am and always will be a living member” (Q&A 54).1
So, in practical terms, what does it mean to be a member of the church—especially a young member of the church, and specifically a young member of the United Reformed Churches in North America? Although no amount of study can fully exhaust the subject of membership, perhaps exploring the name of our federation can provide the basic outline of an answer.
UNITED: Built Up as a Spiritual House First, we identify ourselves as “united.” A line from the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” comes to mind—“Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.”2 The perpetual community of God’s people is united across every continent and throughout every age. As Reformed theologian M. J. Bosma puts it, Jesus “not only brings [believers] to himself, and through himself to God, he also brings them together, to form together under him one body, one people.”3 In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul dives even deeper by explaining that this “one body” actually is the body of Christ, of which each of us is a member.
Membership in a body is fundamentally different from, say, membership in a club. As a member of a club, your participation is voluntary; as a member of a body, your participation is essential. The Boy Scouts will continue to exist whether or not you join them, but an organ can’t separate itself from the body to which it belongs; that would be unnatural and harmful, perhaps even deadly.4 So it is with the church. In Paul’s words, “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18). Membership in the context of the church universal entails pursuing and fulfilling the role God has set for you among his people.
Incidentally, could the beautiful unity of Christ’s church explain the joy we feel at Reformed Youth Services conventions? Sure, the fun, fellowship, and spiritual nourishment have a lot to do with it. But what is it specifically about the RYS experience that we find so inspiring? These conventions allow us to delight in the convergence, even for just a moment, of many different corners of the kingdom of God. As we meet brothers and sisters from across the continent, we rejoice in our unity as Christians and catch a faint glimpse of the real scope of the church universal. Understanding this fundamental unity is essential to a balanced view of the church and our own place within it.
REFORMED: United in the Truth
In our churches we identify ourselves not only as “united” but also as “Reformed.” Doesn’t such a denominational label fly right in the face of all we’ve just said about the one church universal? If complete unity is the ultimate goal, why do so many different sects exist, all with different beliefs?
Here’s a basic answer: being united is meaningless unless we are united in the truth. Allying ourselves with groups that do not preach or practice the authentic Christian life will only harm us—just as building a house half on rock and half on quicksand can only end in disaster. Christ’s followers must combat false teachings by contending “for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), establishing pulpits from which the Word of God is faithfully preached. Once again M. J. Bosma provides a helpful explanation: “As long as any denomination still recognizes the fundamental truths of God’s word we must look upon it as a part of the Christian Church, but when fundamental truths are denied . . . we can not look upon such circles as part of the Church.”5 This is why the URCNA begins its church order by declaring, “We as a federation of churches declare complete subjection and obedience to the Word of God delivered to us in the inspired, infallible and inerrant book of Holy Scripture.”
Identifying ourselves as Reformed is not a symbol of division, then, but of unity with the true church of all times and places. At the same time, we readily acknowledge that there are other faithful churches far beyond the bounds of our own federation, and as fellow members of the church universal it is our duty to help, encourage, and fellowship with them. Orthodox Presbyterian minister Alan Strange has compared this supporting relationship between denominations to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall under Nehemiah: “That task of re-building, from among a sinful humanity, wrecked and ruined, is the great task of the church: to gather and perfect, by the Spirit’s empowerment, a new humanity in Jesus Christ, made alive together with Him from that old humanity and death in Adam. Just like the different clans and families in Nehemiah 3, we are each working on our own section of the wall, the URCNA here, the OPC there, and so forth.”6
Going further with Rev. Strange’s analogy, it is wise for us to learn as much as we can about the particular section of the wall on which we are working: how it was built, where its strengths and weaknesses lie, and how to make it even stronger. Pastor and missionary Henry Beets, who published a notable history of the Reformed faith in America, wrote that “future generations . . . are entitled to know why this denomination is their home and why succeeding generations should consider it a precious heritage, worthy of being continued, built up and extended, as a salting salt and a leavening leaven.”7 As a member of the URCNA, do you know why this group of churches is your home? Do you consider its heritage precious? Are you ready and willing to serve in strengthening its salt, spreading its leaven, and intensifying its light amidst a tasteless, lifeless, lightless world? This is what membership entails.8
CHURCHES: Doing the Work of the Lord Everywhere
Since the adjectives “united” and “Reformed” serve to express unity, the third component of the URCNA’s name seems oddly individualistic: “churches.” Likewise, we consistently use the word “federation” to replace the more common term “denomination.” As miniscule as they may seem, these nuances are actually loaded with significance.
For one thing, this language defines us by common beliefs rather than a common background. Although we should always treasure our heritage, it is all too easy to confuse our affiliation with our identity. If the “United Reformed Church” ever becomes an object of loyalty independent of our shared faith, our focus is woefully skewed. The plural word “churches,” like the term “federations,” emphasizes that we are united because of the beliefs we share—never the other way around.
Just as importantly, however, the plural form “churches” brings into focus the centrality of membership and service in a local congregation. It is not enough to hover aimlessly within the vague boundaries of a denomination nor to leave the management of the church to some centralized bureaucracy. The church consists of churches, and it is here that our membership rests. As members of a local congregation we are obligated to love and serve it, joyfully and humbly, using the talents and abilities with which God has endowed us.
Loving the church is the first part of this obligation. The author of Psalm 84 exclaims, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!” (v. 1), and the apostle John writes that “we know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers” (1 John 3:14). Our love for the church, in turn, motivates what the Belgic Confession describes as “serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given [us]” (art. 28).
Make no mistake: serving the church does not necessarily mean becoming a missionary, pastor, or theologian. Rather, it takes shape in faithful worship, prayer, and participation in the sacraments, permeating a life that strives to glorify God and edify our neighbors. If you have made a public profession of faith, you have already promised “to strengthen your love and commitment to Christ by sharing faithfully in the life of the church” and to “join with the people of God in doing the work of the Lord everywhere.” These are the fruits of membership taken seriously!
Truly the United Reformed Churches in North America have much to be grateful for: our unity in Christ, our Reformed testimony, and the integrity of our individual congregations. I pray that even this brief sketch of our federation’s name will inspire you to treasure membership in your home church and serve faithfully there. Ultimately, however, the church’s survival depends not on our love and devotion, but God’s. Psalm 132:14–16 contains some of the Lord’s most wonderful promises to us, his holy nation:
“This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it. I will abundantly bless her provisions; I will satisfy her poor with bread. Her priests I will clothe with salvation, and her saints will shout for joy.” May you ever more deeply experience that joy as a living member of this glorious community.
Notes: All references to hymns, liturgical forms, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Belgic Confession are from the Psalter Hymnal, Doctrinal Standards, and Liturgy of the Christian Reformed Church, hereafter PsH (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 2010).
1. See also Lord’s Day 12, question and answer 32. 2. S. J. Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation,” in PsH, no. 398. 3. Menno J. Bosma, Exposition of Reformed Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Smitter, 1927), 232. 4. I am greatly indebted to C. S. Lewis for this insight. See “Membership,” in The Weight of Glory (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 119–31. 5. Bosma, Reformed Doctrine, 236. 6. Alan D. Strange, “Fraternal Address to URCNA Synod,” Acts of Synod Nyack 2012, 565–68. 7. Henry Beets, The Christian Reformed Church: Its Roots, History, Schools, and Mission Work (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1946), introduction. 8. To answer these questions in more depth, I highly recommend URCNA pastor Daniel Hyde’s Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2010). 9. Public Profession of Faith, Form 2, in PsH, 134.
Michael Kearney a member of the West Sayville URC on Long Island, New York, studies communication and music at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. He welcomes your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org