Does Church Membership Matter Anymore?
by Alvin Masarira | 10 December 2019 |
A number of organizations, societies or clubs require people to hold some form of membership for them to influence and be actively involved in how the organization is run. Organizations such as political movements, churches, interest groups or professional bodies often require formal membership for eligibility to actively influence their direction. Each organization defines the requirements for membership—i.e., eligibility, the process of acquiring membership, keeping it, removal from membership, etc. Membership of these organizations often comes with certain responsibilities, as well as rights and privileges. Such membership may allow for discounts when purchasing a variety of goods and services, such as discounts when purchasing books. Membership with some organizations provides free access to some events (e.g., theaters, concerts). Holding membership with an organization is usually voluntary, since it is the individual’s decision after considering the possible benefits of such a move.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has quite a deliberate and elaborate process by which individuals can hold membership. It should, however, be noted that participation in the church worship services is open to all, including non-members, and hence, not everyone present at any church service is necessarily a member. As with many religious organizations, becoming a member of the Adventist Church requires that one subscribe to the fundamental beliefs of the church and support its organizational system, structure and programs. There are a number of responsibilities and duties, as well as rights and privileges, that come with such membership.
The General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research reports the current world church membership at around 20.7 million. There have been many debates about the accuracy of these figures but that is of no importance for this article. Membership in the church is held at the local church, and this is acquired through adult baptism (or, at least, at the age of accountability) by immersion or through profession of faith for those who join from another Christian denomination which practices a similar form of baptism. According to church policy, it is the local church that confers church membership, and it is in the local church where individuals are primarily expected to be actively involved. It is therefore in the local church where individuals should see the value of membership and where non-members (who come in contact with the local church) should see the attraction of church membership and desire to acquire it.
An increasing number of Adventists seem no longer to value this membership. It is not that they no longer believe in God or no longer attend services. They just no longer place much value on the formal membership. This phenomenon reflects itself in a number of ways, such as no longer transferring (as per organizational policy) their membership when they relocate to a new place and start worshiping at a different congregation. There are many (especially in urban areas and big cities) who are happy to attend services at a congregation, sometimes for years, without making any effort to insure they become members of this local church. There are even some who don’t seem to be worried about the threat of losing their membership through a church disciplinary process. What is common about all these groups of people is the belief that one doesn’t need to be a member to experience church life and services.
This raises a critical question around the entire concept of church membership in the Adventist Church—or any other church or organization, for that matter. How can organizations make membership something to be valued, desired and cherished? What are the privileges of membership? Of course, the benefits of being a church member cannot always be tangibly measured. The church is a spiritual body and there are spiritual benefits—blessings—which come with it. Some of the fundamental teachings of the church have to do with giving and serving rather than getting or being served. The increasing number of people who don’t seem to see the value of membership, however, demands that we ask the question, “What’s the value of church membership?”
Membership in the Adventist Church gives individuals the right to be involved in the decision-making process of the church. This is done through participating in the local church business meetings and also being eligible to be appointed to a local church office. Being a member of a local church also makes one eligible to serve at other levels of the world wide church—e.g., serving as a delegate at local conference or union or even General Conference sessions or serving on some committees of the world church.
What’s In It for Me?
We, however, live in an era where more and more people are asking questions such as “What is in it for me? What do I get out of it?” The church as an organization is not immune from such questions, and given that membership is not a requirement for attending worship services, partaking of the holy communion, enjoying the fellowship (and potlucks and church teas and camp meeting gatherings), there is a growing number of individuals who don’t see much value in holding formal membership at a local Adventist church. This makes life difficult for church administration. When only 30%, for example, of those regularly worshiping at a local church hold membership there, it means these are the only ones who have to carry out church duties that require election to office. This also poses a challenge to a worldwide church that has an obsession with statistics (including membership numerical growth).
It is often said that one’s salvation is not determined by whether one is a church member or not, that having one’s name in the Book of Life is not determined by whether one’s name is in the church clerk’s membership book. Therefore it seems to me imperative that the church should come up with some form of a “value proposition” for its members and potential members, just as it important to define the value of returning a faithful tithe and giving a generous offering.
A value proposition could include things such as the benefits of serving and active involvement in the mission of the church, which is necessary for any person to grow spiritually. Membership also makes one accountable to the organization and to other members. This is crucial because accountability is vital as a spiritual protection mechanism. Since membership comes with service, it enables one to develop a spirit of sacrifice and giving of one’s talents which are all critical for spiritual growth.
In order to counter the growing impression among some church members that there is not much value in formal church membership, a concerted effort could be made at all levels of the church to educate (and re-educate) members about its importance. The importance cannot be measured by earthly standards such as wealth or status, but by what the commitment that comes with conscious and active church membership does for one’s spiritual growth.
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Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.