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Common Law Church

When it comes to church commitment, a piece of paper can make all the difference.

You’ve been answering questions for nearly an hour. In front of you sit five men wearing suits. They are friendly — excited even — but intent. You’ve signed the papers and presented your case, laying your history and reputation on the line. If this round goes well, in a few weeks’ time you will stand before a crowd of 500. After the specifics of your character and qualifications are proclaimed, the crowd will vote on your suitability for the position. Majority rules.

Think you’re at a job interview? An audition for “The Apprentice”? Seeking nomination to candidacy before the caucus? Not even close. You’re on your way to becoming a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.

Members Only

While the term “membership” may call to mind grandparents who weathered 50-plus years in the same pew, a majority of the members at Capitol Hill Baptist Church located in Washington, D.C., are under 35.

When senior pastor Mark Dever preached his first sermon at CHBC in October 1994, the church had 130 members — most of them in their 70s and 80s. Today, the church is thriving with nearly 550 members of all ages and 800 in attendance on Sunday mornings.

How did Dever accomplish the envious task of attracting Capitol Hill’s young and influential? Not through slick programming or a coffee shop atmosphere. “By God’s grace,” Dever says, “through the singing of old hymns and the preaching of hour-long expositional sermons, young people started coming. Strangely enough.” And don’t forget membership.

Visit CHBC’s website, and you will see a “How to Join” button. Membership is clearly a priority. Reading through the requirements for membership — the confession of conversion, the signing of a doctrinal statement and covenant, an interview with the pastor and elders, a voting in at the members’ meeting — one might bristle at the seeming exclusivity. The process seems formal and calculated. Judgmental even.

But spend a few minutes talking with 53-year-old Dever, and his passion for the value of such a process becomes clear. “There are a lot of churches you can go to where your Christianity is still a very private affair,” Dever says. “I don’t think church is supposed to be like that.”

Dever, author of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and executive director of 9Marks Ministries, believes church membership is a biblical mandate. Without the establishment of a covenant, he points out, how can a church enact the command to break fellowship with an unrepentant sinner?

“We have to realize it’s possible for us to deceive ourselves,” Dever says. As an example, he cites the circumstances recorded in 1 Corinthians 5, where a man who was in the church was sleeping with his father’s wife.

“That guy clearly thought he was a Christian,” Dever says. “How is he supposed to know he’s not unless the church is part of it?” This provides support for church membership, because, according to the 9Marks Ministries website, “Formal exclusion presupposes formal inclusion.”

A church’s responsibility to its members doesn’t end with accountability and discipline, Dever points out. It must also provide an environment that encourages, celebrates, instructs and loves.

Till Death Do Us Part?

During college, I joined a large Bible church in Portland, Ore. I needed ministry credit, and teaching Sunday school at this church required that I become a member. I filled out an application, and after a 10-minute meeting with one of the elders, my member status was official.

I taught fourth-grade Sunday school at the church for two years. Because the church had thousands of members, the only person who really knew me was the Sunday school superintendent, who met with me monthly. At the end of my service, I graduated from college and moved away. I called the church and explained that I would no longer be a member due to geographic location.

Though I’ve lived in Colorado for six years, my parents continue to receive mail from this church. After repeated attempts to dis-member myself, I finally gave up. As a result, I viewed membership as an exercise, involving the signing of a doctrinal statement and indelible induction into a database.

Naturally, when I moved to Colorado, I opted out of membership at my new church. Still, I attended every Sunday, gave 10 percent of my income, served on the leadership team, led a small group and started a drama ministry. Because I was actively involved in the church, I saw no reason to become a member.

Common Law Church

There’s a prevalent sentiment that a marriage certificate is “just a piece of paper” and far less important than the love and commitment between two people. A similar feeling has invaded our thinking regarding the church. If I’m already participating fully in the church I’m attending, I may wonder at the value of signing a piece of paper to make it “official.” My relationship with my church effectively becomes like a common law marriage; I’m living the commitment minus the binding contract.

Dever explains that certain benefits, as well as expectations, accompany formal membership that can come by no other means. At CHBC, the member signs a covenant that he will attend Sunday morning service (he is also asked, but not required, to attend prayer meeting on Sunday night), give 10 percent of his income to the church, attend members’ meetings to vote on church business, be present for communion, and pray daily for other members. “We ask them to pray through a page of the membership directory a day,” Dever says.

In return, the church body commits to providing the member with accountability, financial help, prayer support, biblical teaching and training in evangelism. An additional benefit for the member is being known and nurtured by the pastors, elders and fellow members. Maybe it is this “belonging” that attracts young adults, the least loyal of all church attendees, to membership.

A Place to Call Home

Ellison Research recently discovered some troubling statistics regarding church loyalty. Out of all churchgoers, 13 percent have been attending their current congregation for less than a year with an additional 16 percent attending for less than two. One-third of all churchgoers expressed that they were not certain they would continue to attend the same church in the near future. Not surprisingly, those under 30 were most likely to abandon their current churches.

Working within the biblical metaphor of the church as a body, imagine the damage done as the body is disassembled each year and put back together with different members. A body performs best when its parts hold solidly together, perfecting the performance of each muscle and joint. Athletes rely on muscle memory and endurance gained through years of strategic workouts. If church attendees are arms and legs, perhaps membership is the ligaments.

Because young adults are more likely than older generations to have attended multiple congregations in their lives — and less likely to pursue membership — it is possible that they have never experienced a properly functioning body.

“One of the things I’m concerned about with the younger generations is that there’s a lack — more than a lack — a deep reluctance to commit themselves to groups,” Dever says. “I’m scared if we don’t [commit to the church], then all our Christianity could be just a sham or a fake.”

Without a binding contract that ensures accountability and service, Dever says, church can become, for young people, merely a place to hang out with friends.

“When you join a local church, you can be loving people who are 90 and loving people who are kids. Loving all kinds of people — that’s more what it looks like to love Jesus, I think.”

The success of the membership model at CHBC is unlikely given statistics — particularly in the transient community of Capitol Hill. But perhaps it proves that the demographic least loyal to church is most seeking something worth committing to. Dever is convinced the covenant relationship found in membership is the key.

“Find a good church,” he says, “and you’re going to have the time of your life.”

Copyright 2007 Suzanne Hadley. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Suzanne Gosselin
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin

Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from Multnomah University with a degree in journalism and biblical theology. She lives in California with her husband, Kevin, and her four young children: Josiah, Sadie, Amelia and Jackson. When she’s not hanging out with her kids, Suzanne loves a good cup of coffee, conversation with friends, musical theater and a trip to the beautiful California coast.

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