When I was younger I attended churches (in Scotland) where the membership was far, far greater than the attendance. These were churches where perhaps the fires of zeal once burned but now no longer. The people who were members had simply lost interest, lost their fire. Perhaps they never had any evangelical zeal in the first place. But whatever they had was gone. They turned up now and again, maybe to communion once a quarter, maybe to Christmas. But most of the time they were absent. What was left in the church was a core of people who considered themselves “committed”.
I have also attended churches where the membership was far smaller than the attendance. Sadly, in these churches the attendance could not have been considered large in my experience. But in amongst those attending was a committed membership. The rest were “just looking”. They would attend Sunday worship week by week, but would always to a degree detached from the membership. There was work of ministry to be done and yet only the core could be counted on. The 80/20 rule applied – 80% of the work done by 20% of the people. This was tough for the core, presenting temptations for them to think of “us and them”.
I am struck by Paul’s praise of the Philippians. He overflows with thankfulness for them. It is the opposite extreme of the way he approaches those “foolish Galatians” No thanks for them. Just a verbal boot. Why the thanks for the Philippians? “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Php. 1:4b,5, NIV) The specific thing Paul may have had in mind is that they were willing to support him financially. But this was partnership, koinonia, fellowship in the gospel.
koinonia is often associated with Christian get-togethers. I once had a Christian complain to me, “Why don’t we just call that ‘fellowship meal’ a ‘get-together’?” In a sense she was right. Christians eating a meal together need not be ‘fellowship’. But Paul shows us in this passage that an essential element of koinonia is shared work, commitment, focus. The focus is on Christ and the spread of his fame, the good news that the Saviour-King has come and suffered the cross that sinful people might be saved. When you have a body of people with this same focus you have real koinonia. You have real partners in the gospel.
Membership and attendance are often considered key metrics for church life and health. Have you met a church planter who does not keep some kind of record? Or whose natural answer to the question, “How is your church doing?” is to think about the numbers? Week-to-week increase brings joy. Like a fuse blowing, decrease brings gloom.
Now, numbers can be helpful. But attendance, or a membership roll (necessary for a church, in my view) may not be the best indicators of the ‘partnership’ that Paul describes. Churches need partners. Church plants need partners.
So let me apply this. I have been in the situation where I have been looking for a new church. Maybe you are too. What is it that determines where I go? What am I looking for? This is a valid question to answer. I might ask the right kind of questions about the quality of the preaching, teaching, worship etc., seeking to measure them against biblical standards. But I may go further and look at what a church can give me. What will this church do for me? Will my needs be met? (The rationale I might concoct for these questions is that if the answer is “yes”, then I will grow, and that’s good, isn’t it?) However, this is really to ask the wrong question. A better question to ask is, How can I partner with this church? How can I share in the koinonia of the gospel with those people?
And I have a sneaking suspicion – if I give myself to koinonia of the gospel my needs will be resolved along the way. (Remember the Philippians in 4:19.)
God is no man’s debtor.