Meaningful Membership at Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle

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 (though the actual attendance was much smaller). In just twelve weeks, they outgrew their space and began making plans to enlarge their building. But as soon as that was done, they found themselves immediately once again in need of more space, and so began making plans to build a new building, which would eventually be the Metropolitan Tabernacle. However, more than just a space issue, Spurgeon found himself caring for a congregation that was beyond his capacity to shepherd.

And 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.”[1]

For Spurgeon, this was not an idle commitment. In the first seven 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. For any pastor, even Spurgeon, the meaningful care of a growing church like this would be a crushing load. And yet, Spurgeon refused to compromise his ecclesiological convictions for pragmatic conveniences. Rather, throughout his ministry, he pursued meaningful, regenerate church membership. In doing so, his church became an engine for gospel-ministry all around the world.

Here are five ways Spurgeon did this:

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:

  1. 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 schedules a meeting with the pastor for an interview.
  2. 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.” This visitor will meet with the candidate and talk to their neighbors, co-workers, family members, former church, etc… to find out whether there is evidence of a life consistent with their profession of faith.
  3. 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, “mainly with a view to elicit expressions of his trust in the Lord Jesus, and the hope of salvation through his blood, and any such facts of his spiritual history as may convince the church of the genuineness of the case.”
  4. After the statement before the church, the candidate withdraws, and the visitor gives his report.
  5. The church then takes a vote to receive him into membership
  6. The person is publicly given the right-hand of fellowship after being baptized and participating in the next communion service of the church.[2]

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 these 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.[3]

In a church of thousands, one of the ways Spurgeon pursued this was by tracking those who regularly 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 be checked by the elders and if any member was “absent more than three months without any known cause, the elder in whose district he resides is requested to visit him, and send in a report.”[4] Often, in these visits, the elders would uncover pastoral needs, members who were drifting away from the faith, who had joined another church, who had moved away, and many other scenarios. In each of these cases, this enabled the church to work towards meaningful membership either 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 18, 1860, there is 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.”[5]

Of course, these long meetings could not be sustained in the long-term and so the congregation began to fit in shorter meetings whenever they had the opportunity, sometimes before and after a Bible study or prayer meeting of the church. On one occasion, between the March and April communion services of 1874, the church held twelve congregational meetings and welcomed 93 members at the following communion.

However, as is evident from Spurgeon’s margin note above, 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. As can be seen in Spurgeon’s autobiography or in Wonders of Grace, 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, or because a member invited them to church, or shared the gospel with them, or faithfully prayed for them for decades, and so on. 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, and so the following motion was passed:

Whereupon it was resolved that the Church having heard the statement made by its pastor respecting the office of the eldership desires to elect a certain number to serve the church in the office for one year. It being understood that these brethren are to attend to the spiritual affairs of the Church and not to the temporal matters which appertain to the deacons only.[6]

From that time on, each year the congregation would appoint elders to labor alongside Spurgeon in the spiritual care of the congregation. The February 1869 edition of The Sword & the Trowel 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.[7]

Spurgeon lamented that most of the Baptist churches of his day did not have the office of elder and encouraged them to follow the NT pattern in this way.

5) Cultivating a Working Church

An accurate membership roll was 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.

What odd notions people have of joining the church. Many a young man joins a rifle corps. There he is! When he joins the church, where is he? We have the distinguished honour of having the names of many young gentlemen on our books. But where are they? What are they doing? They think it enough that they have joined the church; and they don’t think that anything more is required. When they join a literary institute, or anything of that kind, they do so for the purpose of doing something, and obtaining an advantage from it; and I say to such young men, “Do you believe the Christian church to be a farce? If you do so, we could even dispense with your names; if you do not believe the Christian church is a farce, then show that you don’t by working so far as you can in the cause of Christ.”  But we hear some say, “I could do nothing, though I were to try it.” Well, I would reply, “I would not have liked to say that of you. There is not a nettle in the corner of the churchyard without its virtues; there is not a spider in the world but has its web to spin; and there is no man in the world but has something to do for the cause of Christ, which nobody else can do but himself. I don’t think it is possible for you to be powerless. Can’t you speak to someone? Can’t you do something in your own place as a member of the church?”[8]

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.[9]

And so out of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, over a hundred 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. But that was never the goal. The goal 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.

[1] Charles H. Spurgeon, “Meeting of our Own Church,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons Preached and Revised by C. H. Spurgeon (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1970-2006), Vol. 7, 260.

[2] Charles H. Spurgeon, C.H. Spurgeon’s Works in His Magazine The Sword and the Trowel, Volumes 1-8 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 2004), 2:149-151. Hereafter, S&T.

[3] Charles H. Spurgeon, The Greatest Fight in the World: The Final Manifesto (Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 2014), 92-93.

[4] S&T, Vol. 2, 150.

[5] Church Meeting Minutes 1854-1861 New Park Street. Metropolitan Tabernacle Archives. Entry on May 18, 1860.

[6] Church Meeting Minutes 1854-1861 New Park Street. Metropolitan Tabernacle Archives. Entry on Jan. 12, 1859.

[7] S&T, Vol. 2, 149.

[8] Charles H. Spurgeon, Speeches at Home and Abroad (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1974), 60.

[9] Spurgeon, The Greatest Fight in the World, 96.

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