Gallup recently released a poll that found that Millennials and Gen Z are less likely to be members of a church. This unsurprising news brought fourth some reaction out of Big Eva. The Gospel Coalition penned two articles on the subject of American church membership declining, a statistic driven by the young who are not replacing the dying generation of church members. However, The Gospel Coalition fails to address the main causes of this phenomenon.
In the second article penned by Thomas Kidd, an academically credentialed historian, the phenomenon is explained as the church no longer riding the social capital built into the fabric of the nation. This sounds as though lofty analysis but the build up is to a conclusion made in the last paragraph.
If nominal, utilitarian, civil-religious “Christianity” is mostly what’s fading away with the cratering of American church “membership,” then I say good riddance.
Basically, he’s trying to say that fake Christians aren’t church members, and that we should embrace this phenomenon. This misses the larger findings of the Gallop poll, that young people who are religious are not members of a church. The rise of religious “nones” is a well-known phenomenon. While fewer fake Christians is makes the mission field more obvious, we should not venture to say that false converts and false teachers are not still rampant in the church.
This analysis is average if we are talking about the rise of religious “nones” whereas the bigger issue seems to be younger adults having a less formal commitment to a church.
In contrast, Joe Carter, the worst pro-life activist in evangelicalism, actually identifies the key findings quite well. In his article, Why Is Church Membership in America on the Decline? he goes beyond the point about religious nones:
Most of the rest of the drop can be attributed to a decline in formal church membership among Americans who do have a religious preference. The decline in church membership, as Gallup notes, appears largely tied to population change. Those in older generations who were likely to be church members are being replaced in the U.S. adult population by younger people less likely to join institutions.
After pointing this out, Joe Carter goes on for several paragraphs defining the church instead of addressing church membership. After this digression Joe Carter states:
Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship, and submission to living this discipleship in the care of the church. In other words, church membership is all about a church taking specific responsibility for you, and you for the church.
Church membership is therefore necessary because it helps us obey essential commands found in Scripture. For example, the Bible says we should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21). The Bible also says to have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account (Heb. 13:17).
This is an exceedingly useful explanation for why church membership is essential. However, Joe Carter ends with an appeal to the issue of why Christians need to become formal church members. The issue that I take is that the solution is addressed and not the problem. It would seem that Millennials and Gen Z have a disconnect with the necessity of church membership. Why is that? I posit two causes:
The Rise of Megachurches
Megachurches no longer exist solely in major metropolitan areas. They exits almost everywhere. Even places like Wyoming have megachurches or franchises of megachurches. It’s reasonable to speculate that the larger a church, the less probable an attendee is also a formal member. It’s important to understand that megachurch is used to describe a motif rather than the actual size of a church. These are churches focused on growth and are a mile wide and an inch deep. Churches everywhere are adopting the seeker-sensitive approach to growth.
Church size can function as a deterrent to membership. Membership carries with it a sense of ownership, and Joe Carter’s explanation of the necessity of church membership aligns with my point. If a church grows too large to be personal, there is at best a diminished sense of ownership conveyed by being a formal member. Thus younger people are less likely to see its value despite being regular attendees.
Moreover, megachurches are highly impersonal environments. One can blend in easily. You can go in and worship without really being noticed. In an organizational structure where the church elders are very distant from the laity, the elders are not in position to affirm and oversee a Christian’s discipleship. In other words, they cannot really take specific responsibility for you.
Now churches have created Sunday school and small groups as programs to further discipleship. However, in a megachurch setting where the leadership and laity are distant, small groups are largely tasked with carrying out essential functions of the local church or church officers (elders and deacons.)
Thus a Christian can be a member of a small group and not the church without ever feeling the need to become a formal member. Small groups are generally not designed to function as a local church but too often they are a substitute for local church functions outside of worship.
This is not a healthy phenomenon I describe. And it’s not a problem a pastor at McLean Bible Church is likely to point out either.
Young adults already feel like they are members
If you grow up in the church, starting from children’s ministry and graduate youth ministry, you may already feel like you are a member. That sense of mutual ownership is already present but does not have any formal certification. A lot of churches have young adult and college ministries, thus prolonging the time period in which young Christians may largely be isolated to their own age group. Church membership may not be on the mind of those serving in various ministries within the church they grew up in.
A lot of church membership courses are two to eight week undertakings, which is not a lot of time in the grand scheme of things, but is not a factor that should be ignored. Furthermore, young adults may feel like they are going to move soon, making formal church membership moot if they move away for college or career opportunities.
The point of identifying root causes is not to justify people’s actions but to explain them. Church membership is a useful step in obedience to New Testament commands. However, if formal church membership is nothing more than a certification as opposed to an actual step in taking greater responsibility in a Christian’s faith journey, then the appeal to church membership is no actual solution to the challenges the church is facing.
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