Crisis of Church Membership?

Bernie Diaz, April 7, 2021

The secular and liberally minded mainstream media had a field day as expected in publishing and broadcasting the results of the latest Gallup poll indicating that the proportion of Americans who consider themselves members of a church, synagogue or mosque dropped below 50 percent.

The headlines of this story prompted some assuredly to say, “Yes, finally, the stuffy, patriarchal hold of the nation’s three greatest religions has lost its moral grip on America. People of faith are now the minority!”

Indeed, the Christian skeptic can now point out this would be the first time that membership in houses of worship has reportedly dipped to less than a majority of the U.S. population, since Gallup first asked the question in 1937, when church membership was 73 percent.

What does this mean to the American church and may it be said that organized religion is on life support in this country? Not so fast, oh, ‘angry atheist.’ At least three considerations should be brought to bear on this latest survey that implies the collapse of faith in general or the church in particular:

1.  A poll questioning church membership does not equate with the reality of faith.

Just because a person is not affiliated with a place of worship does not necessarily mean they have rejected their faith or possess no faith at all in God or another deity of their choice.

What the above can mean, is a growing number of Americans of some degree of faith may be more disinclined or hesitant to commit to the membership of a local church. Additionally, the “Virtual meetings” and membership of the local church that we have been accustomed to over the last year of COVID, has proven to be far too convenient.

Certainly, the pandemic posed some legitimate reasons for temporarily abstaining from the assembling of God’s people, but it also likely carried a negative impact on Gallup’s findings of diminished affiliation with religious commitment.

Truth be told, Christian missiologists have long noted a drop-off in both church attendance and membership over the last few decades in this country anyway, which can be attributed to a myriad of other reasons, including: church leadership’s apathy towards membership – calling for congregants to commit to a fellowship with a body of believers and a multitude of church visitors unwilling to make such a commitment, reflected in other areas of their life.  

In other words, many Christians are still attending church as in worship services and midweek meetings, but may not consider membership to be important enough.

Many of the self-proclaimed “nones” who feel spiritual and deny any religious affiliation, often do so as the result of prior, personal hurts suffered in their experience with faith institutions, compounding their lack of commitment.

2. The more mature a believer- the more likely a member.

Another major distinction that arose from the Gallup poll was between age groups: Church membership was strongest among those born before 1946, with 66% claiming membership, compared to 58% of baby boomers, 50% of Gen X and 36% of millennials.

One can surmise that not only those people of faith that are older  understand the value of consistent church attendance and membership to be a long-term part of their lives, but are more likely to exhibit greater maturity in their faith and obedience to it, which biblically commands a commitment to fellowship (Heb. 10:24-25).

Moreover, the mature disciple or follower of Christ understands that affiliation at a minimum and active membership at a maximum, brings mutual edification and relationships from a common community of faith.

The New Testament repeatedly emphasizes that the church is edified or built up, equipped for service (Eph. 4:11-16), unified (Jo. 17) and is an expression of love when it “comes together” (Acts 2:42-47; 1 Cor. 11:20, 33-34; 14:26).

3. Christianity as a faith is counter-cultural and always a true minority.

By virtue of the sacrifice necessary to follow Jesus Christ in repentance and faith, followed by a commitment for one to be baptized (Matt. 28:19-20) and enter into a local church body, Christians – true, biblically grounded, born-again, regenerate believers will always number a minority.

You say, “Really?” America’s birth and historic cultural influence notwithstanding, Jesus responded to the inquiry of a curious questioner this way, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able (Lu. 13:23-24).

There may not be a number attached to the word, “many” there but I can tell the difference between many and few. Jesus added to those words in the parallel account from the Sermon on the Mount, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt. 7:13-14).”

The gospel of God’s grace towards sinners is scandalous in the eyes of the world, because it can only be received by faith, rather than one’s own works or merit (Eph. 2:8-9). That reality results in a radically new life from a radically, God-given new-birth, which will render most incapable of redemption, much less, meaningful church membership.

Why is this so? God’s sovereignty aside for the moment, most of the lost that we know are not willing to pay the cost of real discipleship to follow Christ (Lu. 14:25-33). As I like to say, most of the world, can find the gospel, ‘easy to understand’ but too ‘hard to believe,’ as in trust in, which is precisely what faith is.

The world, the flesh and the devil is too great a lure of fleshly satisfaction for the majority of mankind (1 Jo. 2:15-17), than to repent and enjoy the greater soul satisfaction of peace and joy with God (Psa. 16:11).

Do these these truths discourage my gospel preaching or disciple making? Not in the least, as I understand that God is sovereign in the building of his church and expansion of his kingdom for how own good will and pleasure and I don’t intend on arguing with him over his plan and purposes.

Though the church may be smaller than the world, it remains the greatest, most beautiful and powerful organism on this planet- because it’s creator is:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matt. 16:18)

Love the Bride

As tempted as I may be among others to criticize the Church of Jesus Christ on occasion, I hesitate to, and try to make the proper distinctions between the institution (‘Christendom’) of church and the bride of Christ herself, whom he loves so much, that he gave his life to secure (Eph. 5:25-27).

As another blogger posted, “Imagine turning up at a wedding, heading towards the groom and telling him he was a great mate, a general all around good guy and your favorite friend. Then after a short pause you tell him, ‘but your bride is a hideous troll isn’t she? Can’t stand her mate.’  A few minutes later you find yourself ejected out of the wedding, not sure what has gone wrong. You don’t understand why your mate responded the way he did. After all, you had told him how much you liked him.”

When it comes to Christ and his bride, you cannot claim to love Christ while hating his bride. If you do, be careful that you won’t be omitted from joining them at ‘the marriage supper of the lamb’ (Rev. 19:6-10).

I’m not at all shaken or stirred by the Gallup poll’s recent findings on religious affiliations. I know, love and follow the one who built the church and married it as a bride and I have my invitation to that great and coming feast.

I don’t have the time nor desire to just date the church like some single men date young women, in order to take advantage of them when they seek, “friends with benefits.” I wouldn’t do that to another image bearer of God or the local church. I pray you wouldn’t either. If you don’t know the bride of Christ, get to know the groom first and I guarantee if you really do and spend any time with him, you’ll want to go the rest of the way.

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