Is Church Membership Overrated?

By Graham Glover –

Seriously, what’s so important about the membership one holds in a particular church body these days?

Does one’s denominational affiliation really mean what so many of us theologians wish it did?

Don’t misinterpret what I’m asking. The theological differences between church bodies are immensely important. I’m a lifelong member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for a reason. As one who daily works alongside clergy from other denominations, I fully appreciate why Christendom is not united. Church bodies don’t just disagree on cursory and stylistic things. They disagree on substance. Their divisions are strong. And I don’t anticipate things changing anytime soon. It might even get worse. Our disagreements will likely become deeper.

But are these disagreements and divisions really that important to the average layman?

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Again, don’t misinterpret what I’m asking. Some of our laymen are fully versed on the teachings of our respective church bodies. Some of them have left denominations over theological disagreements. We Lutherans should appreciate the need to separate over doctrinal differences…

I’m just not sure that most Christians care a whole lot about these things anymore. I don’t have quantitative data to back up my hypothesis, but I’m guessing such data is out there and my experience tells me I’m right.

Consider the following: How can someone living in Colorado during the summer, attending a non-denominational mega-church that fully embraces contemporary worship, which talks little about doctrine, then move to Arizona for the winter and attend a small, but vibrant LCMS parish that worships with the Liturgy and is deeply committed to discussing theology? Or what about the Soldier that grew up Roman Catholic, attends Mass on Christmas, Easter, etc. and even seeks out the Catholic chaplain for confession when things are tough at his Unit, but jumps at the chance to go to the Protestant field service and commune with a Presbyterian chaplain, and is also about to marry an agnostic? Then there are Christians who couldn’t tell you much about what their denomination teaches, only that they have always attended those type of churches or that they were drawn to that particular congregation because the people seemed nice. Try asking Christians what really separates them from other Christians and I doubt you’ll get much. “Church X is more traditional” (whatever that means). “Church Y has communion every week” (but don’t presume they know what their church confesses about communion). “Church Z has an awesome band that plays some cool songs” (even if they can’t remember the lyrics…it’s the instrumentation they love). “Church XYZ reached out to me when I was going through a rough time (a wonderful gesture, but why weren’t you going there beforehand). Or, what I get all too often from my Soldiers, “I don’t know why I go there. I just do” (no comment necessary…)

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These examples are all too common. I think they are or are becoming the norm. And yet they still don’t fully explain why so many Christians these days go to or become members of a particular congregation/denomination. I’m increasingly convinced that individuals join a particular congregation and/or denomination, not because of their stance on theological issues, but because of the cursory and stylistic things I suggested aren’t really that important. They go and join for the most unchurchly of reasons.

Maybe I’m wrong. I wish I was wrong. But I don’t think I am.

I think church membership is very important. But I’m an LCMS clergyman that is fully immersed in the talk and practice of theology every day of my life. Which makes me the minority – both in vocation and in thinking about the significance of church membership.

What say you?

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30 thoughts on “Is Church Membership Overrated?

  1. Is your concern with what people believe? or membership rolls? or how the Church approaches the seekers and church shoppers? I’m not clear.

    Discipleship requires no formal attachment to a congregation. We have reached a point in our history where there is no hypocritical stigma attached to a lack of church attendance. That’s a good thing. Going to church didn’t make for a better people or a better world in the past – a fallen world is a fallen world. We can now see things without delusion or pretense. Those coming in are serious about the Church and are being called by Christ.

    Any who come in the door are offered Word and sacrament (do they wish to be baptized? have they been? would they like to move toward joining us at the altar?) How far things go past baptism can vary. We can nurture them with the Word and God may not move them past it or they may resist. No matter, they are Christian and can be assured of salvation. if they attend classes and learn and accept and join us at the altar, great. But “membership” only gets you two more things: a vote and a numbered envelope and all we get is another head counted toward our district assessment. In other words, beyond discipleship, it is only business.

    We have visitors from other churches and unchurched visitors all the time. These are often people we know and with whom we relationships. I am confident that we are doing what we should do and that God is doing His work in them and through us. If they end up liking the Presbyterians, or Methodists, or Episcopalians, or Baptists, or some non-denom more, so be it. We will be here if and when they are ready and God has already saved them.

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    1. HLewis, not so much a concern, just an observation. (As an aside, and perhaps a topic worthy of another article, it drives me crazy how much we concern ourselves with membership rolls and the like. It is equally frustrating how we take this data to justify things the church does or ought to do with respect to its practice.)

      Excellent point about baptism being THE mark of membership. I should have included something about that in the article itself.

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      1. We no longer do “membership” classes, it’s “discipleship” and we place nothing on anyone except and invitation to keep coming back.

        For us, this keeps the mission and our role crystal clear. You should be frustrated. Too many “orthodox” and hyper-confessional closed communion types value the rolls far too much. A confirmation certificate is no proof of any real faith.

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    2. Great stuff, I’m not a member of any church but the invisible one but keep close to the LCMS because of the doctrine. It’s Christ’s Church (Bride/Body) & I believe He would prefer discipleship over membership. ‘All that wander are not lost’ JRR Tolkien

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  2. I think part of the ease of moving from denom to denom is the prevalent lack of a confession of faith for people in discipleship (which I wouldn’t spend a lot of time differentiating from membership) with a congregation. So many don’t have a public confession or any discipleship, which requires a thought for discipline to a confession of some kind. Such a thing infers submission to a discipline. Without one, who cares where one goes for worship or social life? People, even Christians (maybe especially Christians), don’t like to discuss discipline. It sounds too much like punishment – an unpleasant thought, indeed. But walking in Christ is voluntary discipleship, which is under discipline (because it is good, right, and proper before God), which requires some kind of faith confession to reside in the mind and heart of the disciple. How else would they believe they can be forgiven, or not.

    This most definitely is not a denial of the Gospel, or even an under-emphasis of it. It just means that Christians actually believe something, for themselves, living in the Gospel. If they don’t, there is neither Law nor Gospel for them, with no magnet to Christ’s banner of salvation. That’s not a true happy place, even without a thought to punishment.

    I would also note that this stuff has nothing to do with numbers. A “hyper-confessional closed communion type” is specifically NOT concerned with how many are on the rolls. If that was their concern, they would not prefer to please God rather than men. Neither would they follow the institution of Christ by listening to what he told Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 about what people should believe when they come to Communion, for their own best interests. The alternative is dire indeed, and must be attended to by any Christian.

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    1. Don, good points, but I would push you on the importance of membership rolls to all sorts of church hierarchies. Numbers mean a lot these days, more than they should. And the best way to measure this is the rolls.

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      1. I know you’re right, Graham, but the numbers are just an illusion for human success. As relevant as they seem, God’s apparently got different standards.

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    2. Hyper-confessionals are not concerned with how many are on the rolls but that people are on the rolls. In other words, the bookkeeping of who was confirmed and who wants to sign on the dotted line and be a member is taken as a proof of faith. This is an error. It is simply held that these people are faithful because they are on the roll but no honest pastor can be any more certain of their hearts than of a stranger’s coming in the door. It certainly does not mean that someone who only wants to attend and has studied and confessed but does not want the responsibility of worldly, business end of the church is less faithful.

      Talk about the sacrament enough with people and you will find many misunderstandings, even among confirmed Lutherans, concerning the sacramental union. You’d find that, on a percentage basis, almost no one is even looking at anything beyond Portals of Prayer – no Book of Concord in the house, little reading of Luther, even less of Walther or any such. But I can find a lot of Max Lucado and a smattering of C.S. Lewis in the ones that do read. I actually had one parishioner who wanted me to do “Let the Lion Roar” for a church movie night and I’ve endured people getting the warm fuzzies from “God Is Not Dead” and I’ve turned these into confessional conversations.

      I know life-long Lutherans who admitted to having no ongoing catechesis, no devotional or prayer life, nothing of discipleship out side of going to church. That’s fine, it’s as far as they’ve gotten and they’re the ones missing out on God’s gifts. That’s where we need to constantly encourage and that’s done by conversation and relationship, not heavy pressure.

      But I also know people in other churches and among the visitors, here, who are more immersed in the Word and have vibrant life of prayer, love, and service – people who better live their vocations than many I’ve grown up with. I see no correlation, in practice, between discipleship and any specific confession owned by a specific denomination and I see no congregational membership reflecting strict adherence to any such confession. Rather, I see imperfect Christians and, by allowing them to express differences and not placing an immediate confessional burden on them, we can establish a conversation which speaks the truth of our confession in love and move them toward a closer relationship in the Church to the end that, some day, we may approach the Lord’s Supper, together.

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      1. Would you say then, HL, that no standard is better? It’s not a perfect way of knowing who is paying attention, but, confession is evidence of something. It’s probably just a snapshot in time, like the moment of baptism as a moment in the promise of God, whether received or rejected.

        I would hope that confession is of some value, hopefully followed up with good pestering. No confession is certainly less assuring in the short term.

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      2. Don, I would not remain a Lutheran if I was not committed to the confessions. There is no confession closer to the truth. But their purpose is to nurture after baptism and, let’s face it, people resist God and resist His gifts and, therefore, resist confessing faith as fully as we might like. So, I firmly believe that faith is expressed in wanting to hear, wanting to believe, wanting to commit, in prayer, in community, in service. “I believe; help my unbelief!” It is in their returning to His Word, seeking nurture, sometimes going church-to-church, asking questions, that they show faith. We should ask no more of them.

        Since it is not our words but God’s Word coming through our talks with them (and we speak the Word as interpreted in the confessions) and God working through His Word when they visit and gather with us, it is the Holy Spirit working on their faith and I cannot expect a confessional response from them beyond what God’s power can achieve in their lives. Some people take longer and some never get past the basics. But saving faith is established in the person before they receive doctrine and before evidence of faith appears and none of us can discern that faith. sometimes, they don’t even see the faith in themselves or in their lives, it is, often, no more evident to them then to us when we fall back to walking by human sight.

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      3. HL, I wasn’t actually talking about THE Confessions. I was talking about a confession of faith that, in the LCMS, allows one into membership. I agree that such a thing is not a full reflection of Christian faith, but it is a submission to the discipline of faith, evidence of held faith, which seeks the other things you are talking about. And the lack of such a thing in a congregation, gives no cause to engage in anything.

        I agree completely that developing discipleship in a person is a life-long process, which may come at varying speeds, but does come from a personal engagement with Word and Sacrament ministry and also with other acts of repentance and submission to what is learned. More than anything, what happens to a person’s walk in discipleship is rooted in what the Holy Spirit does with what is heard and what is received in Sacraments, even the engagement in seeking out what feeds that faith and walk. I think we’re probably somewhere near the same page on this. Did I miss anything else?

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      4. I guess I place less value in an articulated formal confession. It has a tinge of decision theology about it. If it is made apparent that what is being received is the True Body and Blood of Christ and that perception of the presence is by faith, alone, then it should be sufficient that assent to that faith is stepping up to receive. If, instead, we insert the necessity of going through a motion which may or may not indicate a true faith or understanding but, often as not, is pleasing parents and grandparents, is a more worthy confession, we deceive ourselves. A person coming to sacrament, engaging in a life of discipleship, seeking and taking in God’s Word, praying is actively confessing faith. we know they are Christians because they love. Such a person is a member of the Body of Christ even if that person chooses not to be a roll member in ________ Evangelical Lutheran Church.

        God intends His gifts for His whole church, not merely enrolled parishioners. That is our law, not His. If we make our law a requirement for receiving God’s gifts, we deprive members of Christ and are no proper church. This does not mean that we do not teach or examine or even that we don’t hold back but we do so because we want the believer to enjoy the benefits of that which is received (the purpose of our Lutheran Confessions), not because we want to satisfy our own judgment of the believer’s worthiness to participate and we cannot hang that judgment on anything other than that the person has faith.

        When it comes to new members in our little congregation, those with means tend to join, get envelopes, vote, want to carry things to another, practical, level. Those who are still drawing from the food pantry, don’t. The point is, membership does not confer anything outside of our bureaucratic sensibilities and does not confirm anything concerning faith. When we act as a body of disciples instead of members we place a greater emphasis on faith and a living confession and the collection plate never goes empty for lack of formal membership. In fact, it is aging bodies of the orthodox and confirmed, holding to ideas of membership and qualification, that are closing their doors.

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      5. If I go to a church that does not have a true proclamation, I do not stand up and commune with them. I do not witness to their false teaching. But, If I am in a church with a true teaching and I stand up to commune, that is assent to the truth. When we have visitors, we find out who they are, before worship. We talk about what it means to participate in the sacrament. If they continue to be interested and keep coming back, we let the pastor deal with it and trust his assessment. we don’t stand on ceremony or public declaration. I’m fine with that. But the sacrament is catholic, that is, all Christians are intended to receive it. The distinctions we draw concerning a rite or confession are our laws, not God’s.

        When something is being offered by God, we should seek every opportunity to offer it, not to withhold it and many postures toward “closed/ close” communion justify themselves by reasons to withhold. In other words, we look to be persuaded by the recipient to offer it. I believe that is backwards.

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  3. HLewis, I think churches on all sides of the LCMS spectrum put too much stock in what church membership or a confirmation certificate means. But, your point is well taken and I think speaks to the issue of how important membership really is.

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    1. My outreach and service has put me into greater contact with more and more Christians over the years and I truly enjoy having and discussing the differences in wonderfully pleasant ways. But, at bottom, it is about God and His demands are not the same as ours. With Him, we need to simply be and remain in the Church. By embracing a true confession, all of His gifts are available. But I do not believe that the lack of sacrament condemns a Baptist to hell. they have neither the truth of baptism nor the presence in communion. Am I to say that they are hell bound for not discerning the Body when they gather at their altars? or do they only sin if they get bread from ours? does that discernment come from within themselves (as their decision theology would have it)? No, it is a gift of faith and faith comes through hearing (not long study) and it is a gift. Just when is that gift received by someone who wishes to approach the altar? When they have satisfied our laws, our requirements? I think you get the point. There are aspects of our sacramental theology which assume more likemindedness that there is and insist that God work in a timeframe not of our own choosing. We have grown a long way from he who believes and is baptized will be saved and then nurturing that faith. Because we have grown so far, we should keep looking at our confessions and question them, boldly.

      I am thankful for the truth of our confession and want to share it. It is important and wonderful but the Church, the Body of Christ, is larger than our confession and I love the Church, the whole Church. I sense a similar love in what you write. It makes it easier to deal with confessional differences when you are not hanging salvation on a perfect confession. It softens opposition when you’re speaking kindly – salt and light.

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  4. Graham, I’m not so sure we’ve ever had the level of commitment across the board. Look at Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Look at St. Augustine’s Confessions. Read Luther’s Preface to the Small and, better yet, the Large Catechism. The assumption is that there was a glorious time of doctrinal commitment in denominations. I’m not so sure it was that strict. We can change the wording from catechizing to discipleship to missionalizationizing for alI care but the desired outcome is the same, we want people to know what they believe and why they believe it.

    The struggle is old and the struggle is real.

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    1. Jaime, you’re absolutely right. I’m not trying to suggest that there was (or should be) some utopia of agreement that the Church should reach. That will happen only when our Lord returns.

      Again, mine was a simple observation that church membership probably doesn’t mean to most what the churchmen want it to mean.

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  5. Pastor Glover,as a layman,I am an LCMS member at a very confessional church. I was raised Methodist and went through the whole spectrum of reformed and evangelical types before I reached the conclusion that Evangelical Lutheranism is as close to the Truth that I can find. This has caused a split in my family. I would like to encourage you to continue to teach your church the true doctrines. Our Lord has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. Be encouraged,Pastor.

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    1. Robert, I’m encouraged about my Synod and her teachings. And I know that the Church is and will always remain. Thanks for your comments!

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  6. My two sense:

    (1) You can say membership doesn’t matter. But congregations folding matters. If there ain’t one near you, most people are not going to travel very far for a congregation.

    (2) Most people I know join a church for community which revolves around Christ. Christ the head, with His body. I know very few people who would say, “I’m shopping for the most doctrinally pure church in town.” I imagine there’s someone out there thinking that way, but I don’t know who that is.

    I’m not suggesting that doctrine doesn’t matter, but that it’s not enough on its own to sustain a church over the long haul. I would also add, that in reading Paul’s letters, he didn’t think so either.

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    1. Jean, I think we agree. Membership matters to the extent that without people coming and supporting a particular ministry, it might be difficult to “keep the lights on”. I would say, as I think your second point highlights, that the focus is on Christ and becoming part of that body, rather than a member of a particular congregation.

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  7. It is unfortunate that many do not see doctrine as important. As someone above pointed out, the intros to the Small and Large Catechisms make it clear that this isn’t an altogether new situation.

    Since recently converting to Lutheranism, I’ve told a handful of people that I’m a Lutheran, and the general response is, “oh, are Lutherans Christian?” Most big box church Evangelicals have no idea who Luther even was… “Wait, are you talking about the guy who wrote that Letter from Burmingham Jail?”

    In the Reformed Baptist type of circle I used to run in, people pay a lot of homage to Luther (https://www.shepherdsconference.org/), but very few have read anything that he wrote, or are even vaguely familiar with what makes Lutheran theology distinct. They see themselves as the heirs of Luther, with the small exception that they don’t baptize babies (wow, that’s missing the point!). The recovery of “Calvinism” in American Evangelicalism has spurred some renewed interest in doctrinal rigor, but too bad it’s Calvinistic… Interestingly, though, most Evangelicals disagree with Calvin on so many points that Calvin would clearly have condemned their teachings.

    Doctrine always makes a huge difference in very practical matters of Christian living, assurance of faith, Evangelism, etc. It’s a really sad situation in American Evangelicalism, but maybe there’s hope for change. There seem to be a growing number of the New Calvinists jumping ship, and I’ve encountered a few online and in person who jumped ship for the same reasons I did. The confusion of Law and Gospel in the New Calvinism and the constant need to fruit check and prove your salvation is a great way to drive people towards Lutheranism. Now we just need to do a better job of getting the clear message of free grace into these people’s hands and ears.

    Maybe the LCMS needs to host their own mega-conference where the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation can truly be celebrated. They could even invite a few of the more solid, Law/Gospel type of Reformed guys like Mike Horton to join.

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    1. Every Christian outside the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches will claim to be heirs of the Reformation and will celebrate on October 31, 2017. Our district has been hosting lectures and concerts at Princeton University. I am going to see an encore performance this Sunday of a Liberian Lutheran choir from the neighboring Atlantic District. Over the next year and a half, there will be concerts and gatherings and talks. It’s all great inreach, encouraging those in the faith.

      To do justice to Luther and the message of Reformation, we need to be Christian – be loving, be ready to answer for our confession, pray, serve, and receive God’s gifts in divine service. Conferences don’t do that. Outreach, an active faith in loving service, creates opportunities to reach the lost, remain in mission. When we have opportunities to live and talk of our faith, the value of our confessions becomes more apparent. Free grace is a simple notion that angers and confuses a people who believe that value means getting what you pay for. When you serve those most in need, you find many who have long realized they have nothing in their pockets or in themselves with which to purchase salvation. Christ does not come easily to those who are confident and fortunate but He comes easily to those who have experienced death, disease, want, abuse, and are aware of their unworthiness. The world makes outcasts, we take them in.

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      1. Good stuff, HLewis,

        I have noticed that Lutheran outreach looks quite different than outreach in the church I was at before. I’m at an AALC church now (we’re like the lesser known cousins of the LCMS), and they have a lot of community outreach and involvement. It’s been neat to see. I think Lutherans take the commandment “love your neighbor” more seriously and seek to apply it more practically. Many in the Reformed Baptist camp sought to explain away “love your neighbor” so that it only meant sharing the gospel with them, but meeting the needs of people only applied to members of one’s local church. It was really unfortunate to see, and one of the reasons I was so frustrated (though the confusion of Law and Gospel was my primary gripe).

        Aside from community outreach, however, I think conferences also have a place. We need a means for theologians in the church to communicate doctrine to the laity, along with community outreach. Conferences can be a concentrated time of theological instruction, but they can also be a means of communicating theological distinctives to those outside of our tradition, with the hope of bringing them in. The New Calvinists (typically Reformed Baptists), have brought a lot of people in from broader Evangelicalism through conferences and slick multi-media. They’ve successfully promoted their theology along with a lot of books from their theological perspective. If I can point to one weakness that I’ve observed in the Lutheran tradition, its that they aren’t great at writing devotional/popular level books. Sadly, many Lutheran lay people spend a lot of time reading really bad evangelical authors. Hosting conferences and writing more popular level books would help instruct those in the faith, as well as draw in others from the broader Evangelical camp.

        I think we’ve got a lot to offer, but I think we need to do a better job at telling people about it. The New Calvinists are being written about in Time Magazine, for Pete’s sake, because they’re so good at media. Lutherans are sort of doing their own thing off to the side, faithfully in many cases, but they’re not getting much attention.

        Maybe I’m off base here… the celebrity pastor phenomenon certainly has its own pitfalls that should be avoided, but maybe more could be done by way of media outreach to get the message to people. That’s one of the reasons I think 1517 is a great project. Its a step in the right direction, for sure.

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    2. Ken, doctrine is and always will be important. False doctrine, as you rightly note, has some very negative consequences on the faithful. I hope my words didn’t suggest I think otherwise.

      Do you think though that your garden-variety, average church-goer places a premium on doctrine?

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      1. I think there is a growing interest in doctrinal rigor. I think the New Calvinism has brought that about, for better or worse. The New Calvinism is sort the response to garden-variety Evangelicalism. It would be better if Confessional Lutheranism was the response, or maybe even some Old Skool Calvinism with a proper distinction between Law and Gospel, but there does seem to be a renewed interest in doctrinal precision in American Evangelicalism.

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  8. Hi Graham,

    I’ll try and comment on your original observation:

    “Seriously, what’s so important about the membership one holds in a particular church body these days?

    As a layman who’s run the hole gamut from nominal liberal Lutheran to Evangelical to unchurched, back to practicing liberal Lutheran and finally by the grace of God, home to the LCMS for the last 17 years; I’ve seen what you have. Having finally found the truth of The Confessions of The Evangelical Lutheran Church it pains me that so many people in the pew would nod their heads if they heard you ask the first question. My career has given me the opportunity to travel extensively and regularly throughout the US and over the last 17 years I have found myself out of town and worshiping at the closest LCMS church dozens of times.and my observations support the apparent prevalence of this perspective.

    My family and I have relocated back and forth across the country and held membership in 4 different LCMS congregations during that time. 2 of those congregations were not our local parish. In the Midwest and again on the West Coast we found ourselves having to literally drive past not one but two LCMS churches on Sunday morning, just so that we could worship at a Church that was committed to The inerrancy of Scripture and The Confessions. the Churches that we drove by/drive by allow and condone heterodox understandings of simple truths regarding natural marriage, the role of women in the church and the sanctity of life. I’m not talking about errant opinions of folks in the pew but topics of Sunday Morning adult “Bible Class”and declarations by members of Church leadership, expressed publicly during congregational meetings. There is a clear lack of Catechesis in these congregations and a a tacit or even active acceptance by many Clergy to allow the scratching of many itchy ears.

    So in answer to your first question the apparent answer is; “it’s a lot less important than it once was” but it should be more important that ever

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