The Christian church didn’t adopt the idea of membership until the Reformation. For Adventists, it’s embedded in the “free church” part of our heritage, as illustrated in the New England town hall meeting where the emphasis is on self-governing institutions instead of institutions run by the powerful few.

Yet membership generally is in decline in contemporary society. The book Bowling Alone documented that bowling leagues and all traditional civic groups in America have been hard-hit. Starting with the Baby Boom generation, individualism has changed the social structures of churches, organizations, and the workplace. Note the growth in the number of couples living together outside of marriage: relationships with social structure of any kind are not what people prefer.

Because we Adventists see “kingly power” as something that God prohibits, we must regard membership as essential to maintaining a self-governing organization. Ours is not to be merely a consumer religion—a store where we go to obtain “religious groceries” and supplies of inspiration and spirituality. It is a community of disciples charged with a mission to impact the world in which they live, an expeditionary force with assigned goals in an alien world. Its capacity to sustain and govern itself is absolutely essential. Membership is foundational to that capacity. So how do we understand church membership in a non-joining world?

Begin with an audit of your church membership. Here’s how it’s done:

Go through the membership list name by name and code each individual in one of the following categories:

1. People who attend church at least once a month most of the year.

2. People who do not attend because of disability or age or because they are away at school or in military service, etc.

3. People who have moved out of the area but have not yet transferred their membership.

4. The leftovers, who live in the area but attend less than once a month or perhaps not at all.

Over the last couple of decades, my graduate students and I have done this with more than 1,000 local churches. Usually about 25-35 percent of the names fall into the fourth category and can be called “inactive.” I have not seen any evidence that this percentage is increasing, although many people express that opinion.

You’ll also find that about 5-10 percent of the regular attenders have not joined the local church. Some of these are spouses of Adventists, and they have never been baptized. Some people are preparing for baptism. And there are usually a number of baptized members of the denomination who attend regularly, give tithes and offerings, and even hold church office but have not transferred their membership.

People express various reasons for not transferring their membership. Some seek to provide support for a small church in a rural area that they are afraid will be closed if the membership dwindles too far. Others find no spiritual value in the “bureaucracy” of membership transfers. Younger adults may see “membership” as an outdated practice. That’s why many of the more contemporary Evangelical churches ignore membership as a category and keep records simply of participation—people who attend, people who join activity groups, people who register for programs, etc. Their records are usually more up-to-date and useful than those of the average Adventist congregation.

This article first appeared in Best Practices, January 12, 2012