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Why Church Membership?

Why Church Membership? poster

A sermon delivered by Dr. William B. Riley of Minneapolis at the Moody Tabernacle, March 18, 1917.

I want to discuss this morning the subject of “The meaning and value of church membership,” and I ask your attention to the 16th verse of the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel:

“Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.”

There is no figure of which the divinely inspired writers seemed to be more fond than his figure of the shepherd and of the sheep. That grows out of the circumstances that the Orientals were a sheep-keeping people and drew therefore their illustrations from the life they lived and the visions that were constantly before them.

I suspect that the best-known portion of Scripture is the twenty-third psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd—I shall not want.” Almost every child, from the kindergarten department in Sunday School, knows this psalm by heart, loves it for its own sake, and delights in its great teaching, and if you have enjoyed it in times past, and there sometime falls into your hand a little tract entitled “The Song of the Syrian Guest,” and you read that, the psalm will be sweeter still.

In the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we have three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost piece of money, and the parable of the Prodigal Son. To me the sweetest of the three is the parable of the lost sheep, and if I had time in which to speak upon it, I think I could bring it to mean an equal amount to you.

Now the figure employed here is clear enough in the greater portion of it. We know who the Great Shepherd is—that is our Saviour. The Scriptures have made that clear. We know who the sheep are—they are the Lord’s people. Nobody disputes that. But what is the fold? I am not going to attempt to interpret this text this morning; I do not claim it is an interpretation of it—but I am going to apply it, and sometimes an application is equally valuable with an interpretation.

The Fold

What are the purposes of a sheepfold? We do not have so many of them in this country. They are found in England, Scotland, and other parts of the old world, where men live by sheep-keeping. Every little five-acre lot has a fold that is commonly built of stone—strong, sufficient for the needs of the flock, kept by the farmer.

What are the uses of it? Primarily for protection—and the young need protection more than the old. They can run into it in times of storm; they can take shelter there and be comfortable when it is cold without. When a prowling beast attempts the life of any of them, within the fold they have some degree of safety—a place of protection. The young lamb perishes easily in the cold, perishes easily before the storm, is easily destroyed by his enemies—and the fold is more needful for him than for the old sheep.

Isn’t that exactly true with reference to the church of Jesus Christ? I meet people from time to time who seem to have some doubt as to whether children ought to come into the church. I cannot imagine any debate about it at all. If there is ever a time in life when we need protection it is in our youth; the time of our greatest weakness, the time of our susceptibility, the time when sin is so easy, almost without the knowledge of it; the time when the enemies are so many and so insidious, and so dangerous. So the church, it seems to me, is the place for the young.

A little while ago I talked with a woman whose daughter had been converted in our meetings, and the mother said: “I think she is too young to enter the church.” I said, “She told me she was thirteen.” “Yes, she is,” the mother said, “but that is very young.” I said, “It is just old enough for her to face in the next three to five years more temptation than will come in any other period in her life, and do you mean to tell me you are going to let her go through this crucial time in her existence without any fellowship with God’s people that is close and intimate and strengthening, and without any conscious obligation to God?”

And she said, “Mr. Riley, I had not thought of it along that line.”

I said, “It is high time you did. The young are susceptible, the young are in danger, more than we appreciate.”


Years ago I went out fifty miles west of our city to spend the summer with the family, as was our wont. We were accustomed to drive six miles from the station to the farm house where we had boarded in other seasons. The man who met us drove the entire distance almost in silence. I wondered whether we were welcome, but why we should not be I did not know, since we were to pay our board. I finally said, “Mr. B––, are you ill?”

“No, not exactly, Mr. Riley,” he replied. “Not sick in body, but sick in mind and spirit.”

“What is the matter?” I asked him.

And he replied, “This morning I went into the fields to get the horses to drive in for you, and I found a dead lamb—and on examination I found his throat had been cut. I began and searched there in the fields, and found there ninety beautiful lambs rotting in the sun.”

“The dogs have been among them?” I asked.

“No, timber wolves instead. Numbers of them hung around here all winter, but I thought they had gone. I watched them carefully, and guarded the sheep, and I supposed when the spring came they would quit and go off and feed upon other things, but within ten days, and without my knowledge of it, they have pulled out every one of these beautiful lambs and cut their throats and sucked the blood, and left them to lie there.”

I tell you, it is a parable.

I said to him this: “How many of the old sheep did they kill?”

“Not one,” he said. “A wolf doesn’t take an old sheep when he can get a lamb.”

And it is often true of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, in human form and flesh, that he works his fiendish injury against the unsophisticated, against those who are ignorant because of inexperience, and does his darkest and most devilish deeds there.

So I say, the church is the natural place of safety for our young people.


And not only so, but they have made such a record there that it seems strange that anybody could debate the necessity of child church membership.

Charles Spurgeon said once, “I have baptized twenty-two hundred boys and girls in their tender years into the fellowship of the Tabernacle Church. Not one of them has ever disgraced the church in any way, or brought to us any chagrin or shame.”

Years ago when I was pastor in this city, John Chapman said to me, “I remember a time when we held a meeting, when forty-five or fifty boys and girls made a profession and united themselves with the church. The people began talking and were almost discontented—they said, ‘This is a baby meeting, isn’t it?’ One night two men and their wives came forward, and the people said at the close of the meeting, ‘Now we are getting somewhere—we are reaching the adults.’”

And Chapman said, “I have lived in the church since for many years, and those boys and girls have come to be the strong men and women of our fellowship. We look to them for membership. And I have had to put out my hand and vote to exclude all four of those grown people—they had been with the world so long, that when they attempted to break away to take their place with God, they fell, every one.”

I have often thought that the wisest man I have known in a ministry of thirty-three years was my dear Uncle Boston Smith, who from the day when he entered religious work to the hour when God translated him into His own presence, devoted his time, without a moment’s exception, to children.

Yet a man never reaches the point where he can dispense with Christian fellowship and church membership. “No man liveth unto himself.” We need fellowship, we need fraternity. We are not strong enough to stand without it. It has been a good many years since I made my profession; thirty-three years of that time I have been preaching the gospel; and I would not now dispense with the church and attempt to live alone. It has been the sweetest fellowship of the years. It has been the source of never-failing and sufficient strength. It has meant more to me, it seems to me, than almost all other circumstances and influences combined.

We are told that years ago a number of people went out from the vicinity of Boston—New Englanders they were—to make a trip in the Old World. They were mountain climbers, and come one day to the Matterhorn. Twenty of them in number, they were ready for the morning ascent. Coming at last to the steep proclivities of the mountain side, the old guide stepped up to them and said, “You must be tied together here,” and taking his rope he began to put it around the waist of each, in order that if one of them slipped, the strength of the others might sustain him until he had recovered himself and could go on.

There was a splendid young fellow among them, a graduate of Harvard, and only recently a member of the football team, and a great athlete. He stood aside until every man was tethered, and he said to the guide, “I do not need that—I am absolutely safe alone on this mountain side.”

The old guide said, “You may not need it, sir—I don’t know—but I do know my reputation is at stake. I have been taking men up this mountain side for many years, and have never lost a man, and I am not going to take a man with me on this mountain side that won’t tie in. So either tie in, or turn back.”

So the young fellow tied in. But when they came to the return trip, being the last man he grew less tractable, and untied himself. The old guide said, “I warn you, sir, if you do that you are in peril.”

Before they had gone a hundred yards down the mountain side, the young fellow put his foot on what seemed to be solid, and it crumbled to the touch—and fifty feet below they found his mangled and bleeding form.

Tie In

I have seen many a man attempt life without tying in—believing in his own sufficiency—and I have seen them broken again and again. There never comes a time in the Christian’s experience, in my judgment, when the church which Christ Himself intended and for which He shed His blood, is not essential to our best spiritual existence and spiritual growth.

Now the next thing I want you to think about is this. “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold.” What was the Master talking about? He was talking about Israel, His flock, and the Gentiles and He would bring and add to Israel, forgetting there was any difference between the Jew and the Gentile, but making them one flock, in one fold.

I think we ought to make a modern application here as well. When I was a lad on the farm my father kept sheep, and I have owned some myself since that time, so I have learned a few things about them.

First of all, I learned they are the most foolish beasts ever domesticated. They haven’t any sense—not a bit. I think that is the reason the Lord selected them as a sample of mankind—they have so little sense. And a lost sheep loses what sense he ever did have. The moment he is lost, confusion takes possession of him. He has no sense of direction whatever, and no ability to get back again. It takes two men and a boy and a dog to bring back a lost sheep, they are so lacking in sense. And it is strange, isn’t it, that a man, the wisest of all God’s creatures, when he gets into sin is typified by a lost sheep? His sense is gone from him, and it is difficult to get him back.

Now, who are some of them? My father used to say, “Now boys, we must keep the fence up around here, because you know those sheep are a funny bunch; one of them will jump out if he finds a low place in the fence, into the big road where there isn’t a solitary blade of grass to feed upon—just for the sheer pleasure of jumping out.”

When a cow jumps into another field, it is for the sake of getting another kind of fodder, and a horse will go over the fence to try the grass over there—but a sheep just jumps for the sake of jumping.

I was in Bloomington, Illinois, one afternoon, and held a meeting for men only. Twelve men came forward. Sin had put its stamp upon every one of them. I found that seven of those twelve men had been in the church once, and had jumped out and gone away. Oh, such poor picking as they had found—such wretched forage as they had discovered. Starved in intellect, dwarfed in spirit, disheveled in body, they looked the part of sheep that had been away from the flock.

My brother, if you were once of the fold, and you really belong there, you will never be content on the outside. That is one strange thing about a sheep. He is never happy apart from the flock. He will bleat his sorrow, his discouragement, his distress; that is about all he can do—but he does that. If he is a goat—oh, he doesn’t care. A goat is absolutely independent; he would just as soon live alone as to be with a dozen.

So you can tell whether you are a goat or a sheep. If you are a sheep you will never be content until you get into the fold.

Changing Pastures

My father used to say, “Now boys, I want those sheep changed today from that pasture to this one over here. Don’t you lose one in changing pastures.” There is always danger in that. Unless you keep the last one in with the rest, he will wander off and hide somewhere, and you will lose him, in changing pastures.

A man lives in Minneapolis, and he moves to Chicago, right in the region of The Moody Church, and he knows perfectly well his pastor would be glad to have him unite with it—but he does not do it. Lost—while changing pastures.

I went to see a woman here in Chicago one day, and said, “Sister, I hear you are a Baptist.”

“Yes,” she said.

She came from back East somewhere, and I said, “Now I will just take your name and address and write for your letter.”

“Wait a minute,” she said.

“What is the matter?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t know whether we are going to stay in Chicago.”

“How long have you been here, Sister?” I asked.

“Well, we have been here—we’ve been here about six years—but we are not sure we’re going to stay.”

Another time I called on a woman, introduced myself as a Baptist pastor, and came in. “I understand you are a Baptist?” I said to her.

“I used to be a Baptist,” she answered.

And a young man sitting over in the corner spoke up and said, “Why, mother, you never told me you were a Baptist. I’m twenty-six years old, and never knew that before.”

Oh, poor Baptists, poor Presbyterians, poor Moody Church people, poor Methodists, poor Congregationalists, and the rest! Lost while changing pastures! And the name is Legion. I don’t doubt that if all the people who have moved to Minneapolis and have never taken their letters from where they came from, should this week all take it into their heads to unite with my church there, that when I got back my whole board would come to meet me and say, “We have had a revival here that would beat anything Billy Sunday ever hoped to see, and we have doubled the membership while you have been away.”

Now hear me: Don’t tell my friend Mr. Woolley when he comes to you that you are a member of the First Baptist Church in Minneapolis and are so devoted to it and love it so you cannot separate from it.

Take Your Place

Finally, there is the man or woman who knows that Christ died for him, who has been under conviction, perhaps, at some time, but never taken the step of public confession. You belong to Christ and you know it. By right of purchase He owns you. Why don’t you take your place in His flock and in His fold? “Well,” you say, “if you knew my life and all about it, and all the sins I have committed, you would not ask me to join the church.” Jesus Christ says: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” That is the reason for your coming, man, rather than for your remaining away.

How many of you here this morning are members of churches of your own choice in the city of Chicago? How many of you have a membership somewhere else although you are living here? How many are there who have no membership, but love Christ?