What’s up with church membership?

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Why church membership matters

by Ed Boschman

During the 1980s, while it was my privilege to be the lead pastor at Laurelglen Bible Church in Bakersfield, Calif., we usually held new member sessions three times a year. We met for a series of five one-hour sessions.

After an inaugural high-speed hour about the history of the Christian church, including a significant and prioritized focus on the birth of the Anabaptists and the Mennonites and then the Mennonite Brethren, we taught our core biblical beliefs. The sessions concluded with clarification about what it would mean to be a member of LBC—both what the church would expect of its members and what the members could expect of the church.

While the process was somewhat intense, it was also productive. We had people come to faith in Jesus. When we arrived at the end of that course of studies, we normally had most everyone saying, “If that is what it means to be Mennonite Brethren and a member at LBC, count me in.” In many cases that also meant filling the baptistery, which in itself was a deeply meaningful, celebratory and powerful witness.

Perhaps it is because I still have powerful and positive feelings about those times that a recent Christianity Today report caught my attention. The November 2012 issue reports the results of a Grey Matter Research project in which regular churchgoers were asked about membership in their church. Thirty-seven percent indicated, “I am a member of my church.” Ten percent said, “I attend but am not a member.” Fifty-two percent reported, “I don’t know if my church offers membership.” And 1 percent answered that they were “unsure.” This last statistic in itself is a little bizarre, but let’s not go there.

We know that some of the discussion that amplifies this subject is the matter of membership in the universal church. While there are both truth and merit to the universal reality, I’m willing to challenge anyone to point out where the Bible pulls those apart. It seems to me self-evident that the New Testament knows nothing about Christians who are not attached to a local church. For what it’s worth, the Scriptures also know nothing of believers who love Jesus but not the church.

In that early church reality, leaving the “Caesar is Lord” reality and choosing Jesus as Lord hooked one in to the church in a covenant relationship like none other. Speaking of which, our abbreviated MB Confession of Faith says, “We believe the church is the covenant community called by God through Jesus Christ to live a life of discipleship and witness as empowered by the Holy Spirit. The local church gathers regularly for worship, fellowship and accountability, and to discern, develop and exercise gifts for ministry.”

What is it about declaring commitment to that kind of community that makes it unimportant? What is it about our church life that makes membership unattractive? How and why did baptism get so separated from committing to the community of faith? How did membership in the invisible global church get separated from the local expression of the body of Christ?

I’m pretty sure you can figure out some of what I am thinking. Am I off the rails? Where am I going wrong here? Share your responses with me at ebed@usmb.org or post them online (www.usmb.org/conference-call).

CL Archives
This article is part of the CL Archives. Articles published between August 2017 and July 2008 were posted on a previous website and are archived here for your convenience. We have also posted occasional articles published prior to 2008 as part of the archive. To report a problem with the archived article, please contact the CL editor at editor@usmb.org.

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