Reclaiming Meaningful Church Membership: A Modest Proposal -- By: John S. Hammett

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 17:2 (Spring 2000)
Article: Reclaiming Meaningful Church Membership: A Modest Proposal
Author: John S. Hammett

Reclaiming Meaningful Church Membership:
A Modest Proposal

John S. Hammett

Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina 27587

Southern Baptists are easily the largest Protestant denomination in the world, with more than fifteen million members on church rolls. But pastors and church leaders know that figure is more than a little deceiving, for it is based on a concept of membership that has little meaning.

For example, on the most basic criterion of church membership, attendance at Sunday morning worship, the majority of Southern Baptist church members are lacking. According to data compiled by Life Way Christian Resources, in 1998 there were 40,870 Southern Baptist churches with 15,729,350 members. But average Sunday worship attendance was only 5,398,692, or only 34% of members. Nearly two thirds of Southern Baptist church members, a total of more than ten million persons, were absent on an average week. In other words, the average Southern Baptist church in 1998 had about 385 members. But of those 385, only 132 attended Sunday morning worship on an average week.

We may grant that in any given week a certain number of church members may be sick or out-of-town. Too, most Southern Baptist churches have some “nonresident members,” people who no longer live near the church but for one reason or another are still listed on the membership rolls. Yet, when all possible allowances are made, the fact remains that the majority of Southern Baptist church members are not in church on an average Sunday morning, and many rarely or never attend. Such a situation raises the obvious question: What does it mean to be a church member of a Southern Baptist church when two thirds of the members do not attend the major worship service of the week? Does church membership among Southern Baptists mean anything at all?

I would suggest that the lack of church attendance is simply the most easily measurable tip of a much larger iceberg. Statistical evidence on other areas of life is not always available, but most Southern Baptist pastors and church leaders could testify from personal knowledge that divorce, alcoholism, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and other maladies afflict their church members at rates little different from the population at large. In terms of their spending habits, their recreational activities, and the quality of their personal relationships, a great many Southern Baptist church members lead lives indistinguishable from that of their lost neighbors. In fact, Stephen M. Haines says the problem began a

century ago. He gives evidence that in the period from 1880–1920...

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