“U. S. Church Membership Down Sharply in Past Two Decades” announced a recent Gallup headline. While membership in a church (plus synagogues and mosque) among U. S. adults hovered around 70 percent between 1938 and 1998, it proceeded to drop down to 52 percent between 1998 and 2018. Everyone from the Washington Post to the Huffington Post noticed.
Millennials (born 1980 to 2000) especially have been uninterested in joining a church. Only 42 percent belong to a church (plus synagogues and mosques), compared to 68 percent of Traditionalists (born before 1946), 57 percent of Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964), and 54 percent of Generation Xers (born 1965 to 1979). If millennials are the future, the future does not look bright for church membership.
Some church leaders, in response, want to do away with membership altogether. Ask less of attendees. Lower the bar of entry. This is not a generation of joiners, they’ll say, but doers. Let’s ask them to do.
No, others reply, America is more Vanity Fair than ever, its enticements and antagonisms bolder than ever. The dropping stats represent the dross of nominal Christians burning away. In 1938, real social advantages accrued to church members. By 1998, those public advantages had dissipated, but at least there were not yet disadvantages. Not so in 2018 and today, when the social cost of institutionally aligning oneself with Christianity grows with every passing month. We should therefore expect the well of Christians-in-name-only to dry up. Our solution should not be to lower the standards, but the opposite: to clarify what church membership is, including asking people to count the cost.
I belong to this latter camp. The lesson of the Gallup poll is that, more than ever, we need to understand this whole church membership thing. If something is going to cost us, I want to know it’s solid. That it’s Holy Spirit-inspired. I don’t assume that everyone in those surveys means what the Bible means when they check “yes” to the church membership box. If the culture is saying, “The time for one foot in, one foot out is over,” we should test the biblical basis of everything before we ask people to put both feet in. We all want to know we’re standing on something real.
Having said that, church membership might look a little different between Baltimore, Biloxi, and Bangkok. Real Bible stuff is bigger than our county, bigger than our country. Which means, we need to know how to talk about the biblical “elements,” which should be the same everywhere; and how to talk about the “forms” of those elements, which can be adjusted from place to place. Your elements are like furniture, while your forms are like the style of furniture. An oven is necessary for a kitchen, but one location might call for gas oven, another electric, and still another a wood-burning stove.
Like our previous 9Marks Journal on this topic, this Journal attends to both elements and forms. Several us think about membership from the Bible. Several more consider why it is crucial around the world and not just in the United States. And still more recommend different forms—what we call “best practices.” Also worth highlighting is the fact that church membership often has been abused. After all, membership involves the use of authority, and fallen sinners will abuse the good gift of authority. Authority biblically practiced, however, gives life.
Our goal is to give you something solid, something Christians can trust because it’s from the Bible. Whether the culture loves us or hates us, we all want to know how God means to mark off his saints, put them on display, sanctify them, and put them to work.
— Jonathan Leeman