During my seminary days, I was introduced to a research study which ended with a conclusion that has stuck with me through the years: the churches that laid expectations on its members and required certain things from those seeking church membership were faster growing churches. Furthermore, they had little problem with people “coming through the front door and leaving out the back door.” The people stayed, and the people got involved.

I have since found other studies by sociologists that came to the same conclusion. People are attracted to and more likely to join a group that lays demands or expectations on its members. In other words, it’s going to “cost” something to join—and people are willing to pay.

That idea may unsettle you a bit, as it initially did me. Salvation is free. You come to Christ by faith, not works. You don’t have to do anything but place your faith and trust in Christ. It would seem that requiring a person to do anything to join Christ’s church goes against the gospel of grace freely extended to us. But these churches are not adding actions one must complete in order to come to Christ, but they are calling for commitments that draw a person into the life and ministry of the church.

I applaud that. I know many churches, including my own, that require potential members to attend a class or a series of classes where they learn about the church’s vision, history, beliefs, practices, and opportunities for discipleship and ministry. These potential members are expected to get involved in a discipleship group, whether it’s a Sunday morning Bible study, Wednesday night discipleship course, or other group. There is a sense of accountability. You are expected to grow in your faith and get involved in ministry.

It’s common in so many churches for people to simply say they want to join the church and—bam!—they’re in. We shake their hands, giving them “the right hand of fellowship,” and never see them again. In one church I served, two young adults came forward at the end of the service to join the church. We welcomed them to the church family—and never saw them again. We discovered later that the only reason they came to church that day was because their parents were in town. They wanted to look good to their parents, so they went through the motions of joining a church.

I was active at another church that was on television—live television. An older couple—a brother and sister—visited, sat front and center, and promptly walked the aisle at the end of the service to join the church. And we welcomed them. A couple of weeks later, the police also welcomed them into a jail cell. Turns out they weren’t brother and sister, and their appearance at church was in hopes of giving themselves an alibi—a televised alibi—when questioned about the suspicious death of someone in their house. It didn’t work.

It seems people would be more drawn to a church that doesn’t “make demands,” but that’s not true. This is not just some American phenomenon; it’s also seen in the early centuries of the church. Sociologist Rodney Stark noted this in his book The Rise of Christianity. When demands and expectations were made on the believers, such as the expectation to give and support the poor, abstain from sexual immorality, and so forth, they embraced the call to live different from the world. This “barrier to group entry” lessened the likelihood of free-loaders, people wanting to be a part of the church without a life change or investment in the life of the church. This meant that the churches experienced a higher level of commitment and participation (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, pp. 176-178).

Even the high cost of persecution did not lessen commitment. On the contrary, the threat of harm or hardship only strengthened the resolve of so many believers. It was a high cost, but it was seen as a “good bargain” because of all they gained in Christ.

By contrast, look at what happened in the 4th century as Christianity was legalized and became the official religion. Christianity became the de facto religion, so people became a part of the church, but they didn’t do anything. The church grew weak when no demands or expectations were given.

As followers of Christ, let’s “make demands” of one another. I’m not for any form of legalism, but we should watch out for one another. Let’s be accountable for one another. We are the body of Christ; we’re in this together. As others come to faith in Christ, let’s welcome them and simultaneously lead them to see the commitment and investment involved in following Christ. In so doing, we can strengthen the body of Christ.

Salvation is a free gift, but Jesus called us to count the cost of following Him (Luke 14:25-33). Let’s encourage one another to embrace that cost.

“And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25).

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