In 1854, when Charles Spurgeon began pastoring at the New Park Street Chapel, he had a handful of deacons assisting him and a membership of 313. In just twelve weeks, they outgrew their space and began making plans to enlarge their building. As soon as that was done, they found themselves immediately in need of more space, and so began making plans to build a new building, which would eventually be the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
Spurgeon found himself caring for a congregation that was beyond his capacity to shepherd.
This mattered to Spurgeon because of his ecclesiological commitments. He was not an itinerant preacher. His church was not merely a preaching station. Rather, as a committed Baptist, Spurgeon’s ministry was rooted in his congregation of baptized believers. For all of his evangelistic preaching, Spurgeon refused to separate his call to the gospel with a call to be committed and accountable to a local church. In his careful practice of membership and discipline, Spurgeon once stated that “He would rather give up his pastorate than admit any man to the Church who was not obedient to his Lord’s command; and such a course would certainly promote the downfall of any Church that practiced it.”
For Spurgeon, this was not an idle commitment. In the first 6 1/2 years of his ministry at the New Park Street Chapel, the church took in 1,442 new members. That’s 1,442 membership interviews by a deacon, 1,442 meetings with Spurgeon, 1,442 membership visitations, 1,442 testimonies before the congregation, and 1,442 approvals by the congregation (not to mention over a thousand baptisms, as most of these were new converts). And once they were settled in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, these numbers would only increase.
Throughout his ministry, Charles Spurgeon pursued meaningful, regenerate church membership. In doing so, his church became an engine for gospel-ministry all around the world.
How did he do this? Here are five ways:
1) A Careful Membership Process
In the February 1869 edition of the Sword and the Trowel, Spurgeon provides this six-step description of their membership process:
- An enquirer meets with one of the elders on a Wednesday evening and shares with them their testimony.
- When satisfied, the elder records their stories in the Testimony Books of the church and scheduled to meet with the pastor for an interview.
- If the pastor is satisfied, at a congregational meeting, he will nominate an elder or church member as a visitor, “to enquire as to the moral character and repute of the candidate."
- If the visitor is satisfied, he will invite the candidate to attend with him at the next convenient congregational meeting to come before the church, answer any questions that may be put from the church.
- After the statement before the church, the candidate withdraws, and the visitor gives his report. The church then takes a vote to receive him into membership.
- The person is publicly given the right-hand of fellowship after being baptized and participating in the next communion service of the church.
With so many applying for membership, Spurgeon refined and made this process more efficient over the years, but never in a way that compromised the thorough and careful consideration of every person coming into membership.
2) Working for Meaningful Membership
In bringing people into membership, Spurgeon was concerned not simply to have people on the church rolls, but making sure that these people were continuing in their profession of faith. In his last sermon to the Pastors’ College, Spurgeon urged his students,
Let us not keep names on our books when they are only names. Certain of the good old people like to keep them there, and cannot bear to have them removed; but when you do not know where individuals are, nor what they are, how can you count them? They are gone to America, or Australia, or to heaven, but as far as your roll is concerned they are with you still. Is this a right thing? It may not be possible to be absolutely accurate, but let us aim at it… Keep your church real and effective, or make no report. A merely nominal church is a lie. Let it be what it professes to be.
Spurgeon was persistent at regualarly tracking those who came to the Lord’s Table. Upon joining the church, members were given a communion card, divided by perforation into twelve numbered parts, one of which was to be delivered every month at the communion. These tickets would checked by the elders and if any member was “absent more than three months. This enabled the church to work towards meaningful membership by providing better care and discipleship, or by removing those members from the membership.
3) Congregational Meetings as Discipleship
Because each candidate needed to appear before the congregation and be approved by the congregation, congregational meetings became an essential part of the life of the church. With the exception of the annual meeting in January, congregational meetings at the Tabernacle were almost entirely devoted to membership matters. And these meetings could last a long time. In the church minute books, on May 18th 1860, we see recorded a congregational meeting in which 42 candidates appeared before the church, each giving testimony to their conversion. This meeting began at 2PM, and according to Spurgeon’s notes in the margin, “This most blessed meeting lasted till a late hour at night. Bless the Lord.”
However, these congregational meetings were not merely about church business. No, these meetings were meant to be edifying. They were an important part of the discipleship of the church, complementing the Word ministry of the church. In the telling of their conversions, the congregation heard not only stories of people who were converted under Spurgeon’s preaching, but also of those who were saved through other ministries of the church; because a member invited them to church, shared the gospel with them, or faithfully prayed for them for decades. In those meetings, the congregation gained a vision for the power of God to save and of their role in bringing the gospel to the lost.
4) Calling Elders
When Spurgeon first began at the New Park Street Chapel, the church only recognized the offices of pastor and deacons. However, as the church grew, the work of caring for the spiritual and temporal needs of the congregation became too much for the deacons to handle alone. And so, in 1859 at a January congregational meeting, Spurgeon made a biblical case for the office of elder, dedicated to the spiritual care of the church.
These elders would go on to labour alongside Spurgeon. The February 1869 edition of the S&T describes the work of their elders like this:
The seeing of enquirers, the visiting of candidates for church membership, the seeking out of absentees, the caring for the sick and troubled, the conducting of prayer-meetings, catechumen and Bible-classes for the young men – these and other needed offices our brethren the Elders discharge for the church. One Elder is maintained by the church for the especial purpose of visiting our sick poor, and looking after the church-roll, that this may be done regularly and efficiently.
Spurgeon lamented that most of the Baptist churches of his day did not have the office of elder implemented and encouraged them to follow the NT pattern in this way.
5) Cultivating a Working Church
An accurate membership roll is not a goal in and of itself. Rather, Spurgeon understood that a congregation full of people who genuinely loved Jesus and believed the gospel was an army that could shake the world. And so he constantly called his people to do something for God’s kingdom.
Oh to get a working church! The German churches, when our dear friend Mr. Oncken was alive always carried out the rule of asking every member, “What are you going to do for Christ?” and they put the answer down in a book. The one thing that was required of every member was that he should continue doing something for the Savior. If he ceased to do anything, it was a matter for church discipline, for he was an idle professor, and could not be allowed to remain in the church like a drone in a hive of working bees. He must do or go.
Out of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, over a hundred of churches were planted, hundreds of pastors and missionaries were trained and sent out, dozens upon dozens of charitable organizations were begun, publications and tracts and pamphlets were distributed throughout the world, and the impact of this church continues to be felt today.
Not every church will be a Metropolitan Tabernacle and not every pastor will be a Spurgeon. This is never the goal. The goal is for every church and every pastor is to be faithful; faithful in doctrinal purity, faithful in guarding the membership, faithful in active gospel ministry. In this, Spurgeon and the Metropolitan Tabernacle remains a model for pastors and churches today.
This post originally appeared in an unedited format at historicaltheology.org.
Geoff Chang is associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon and working on his PhD on Charles Spurgeon at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter.