Church Membership

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1953 Article

From the beginning of its history, admission into the membership of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement (church) has been (1) a matter of the action of the local congregation or its ministers, and (2) the voluntary action of the candidate. In all cases the minimum requirement has been a personal confession of faith followed by water baptism for those never previously baptized, and at times for those baptized by a different mode of baptism, or even for those baptized by any one else except a minister of the group itself. In earlier times infant baptism was never recognized, but in the 19th and 20th centuries gradually some groups or congregations dropped the requirement of rebaptism for those transferring from denominations who practiced infant baptism, requiring only confession of faith and a certificate of previous membership or letter of transfer.

Many groups, depending on circumstances, by the 1950s had added to these minimum requirements others such as probation for a period of months up to two years; a period of instruction by the bishop-elder or a minister, usually on Sundays before or after the regular morning service, lasting from several weeks to a year, either on the basis of a formal catechism or the personal outlines of the minister; a personal free testimony or account of a conversion experience and assurance given either privately before the minister or the church board or a committee of the congregation, or before the entire congregation, usually followed by a vote of acceptance by the congregation; explicit acceptance of a particular official confession of faith; a vow of obedience to the church and loyalty to its discipline and practices. In many groups, especially the more conservative, the final ceremonial act in admission to membership is the giving of the right hand of fellowship by the elder or bishop and the kiss of brotherhood (for women candidates given by the wife of the bishop). In such groups also only the elder or bishop can receive members into the church.

The age of first admission into the church became traditional and fixed at 15-18 (or even later) in later Anabaptist-Mennonite history everywhere in Europe. In some areas it even became the custom to delay it until just before marriage, and marriage was not permitted until admission into the church had been completed. Usually once a year the elder or minister in charge announced that a class of instruction of candidates for church membership was being formed and invited anyone desiring to join to turn in his name. This instruction was then carried on regularly in connection with the Sunday morning service over a period of months (or even a year) with the reception into membership taking place about Easter. While those traditions were naturally brought along to America by the various immigrant groups and perpetuated here, new influences in the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, particularly coming from the revivalistic movement, brought about a substantial lowering of the age of admission into the church, so that in the early 1950s the average age in such a group as the Mennonite Church (MC) was below 15 and in many cases 12 or even 10. By contrast the trend among the Dutch Mennonites has been to delay church membership, often beyond 20. Also, although in most groups where an attested conversion experience is a prerequisite for church membership, the admission through baptism follows closely upon the conversion experience, in the Mennonite Brethren group a period of probation is commonly required and the gap between conversion and baptism may be as much as three to five years. However, in the Mennonite Church (MC), where it was a rather common practice in the 1950s to have an annual week of "revival" or evangelistic meetings, the annual candidates for church membership are almost exclusively the "converts" produced by the meetings, and these are customarily baptized and received into church membership a few weeks later, with a rather short period of instruction.

The practice in regard to the nature and content of the instruction and the actual responses of the candidate to the questions of the elder or bishop at the time of baptism have varied throughout history and still vary. The use of a catechism came into vogue, probably by imitation of the common Protestant practice of catechetical instruction before confirmation, in the second half of the 17th century in Holland (first printed catechism 1640), in the first half of the 18th century in Germany (first printed German catechism 1664), and in Switzerland much later. The Mennonite Brethren group in Russia initially (founded 1860) rejected the catechism and indeed all pre-baptismal instruction as dangerous formalism, but in recent decades has instituted regular instruction and probation.

Those transferring from other denominations or Mennonite branches are sometimes accepted on the basis of a public confession of faith, together with a vow of obedience and loyalty, followed by a vote of the church board or congregation, but sometimes solely on the basis of a simple certificate of good standing or letter of recommendation. Such transfers and acceptances are sometimes merely reported by the minister; often, however, they are accepted only on the basis of a personal appearance of the candidate in the congregation at a regular service. Members transferring from other congregations of the same Mennonite group or conference are often treated exactly like those transferring from other denominations, requiring a public appearance, confession of faith, vow of obedience, and vote by the congregation. Excommunicated members or members who have fallen into gross sin are in the more conservative groups readmitted into membership on almost identical terms with those who have never been baptized (except that rebaptism is not required), the candidate being received from his knees in the presence of the congregation at a regular service, on the basis of a public confession of sin, confession of faith, and renewed covenant of obedience and loyalty to Christ and the church.

Some groups and congregations make written records of admission into membership in an official church book, some only in the private record of the bishop, pastor, or deacon, and some not at all.

Some groups will not baptize anyone unless he is at the same time admitted into the membership of the local congregation. Others will baptize without such admission and permit the candidate to join the church of his choice.

The variations in details of requirements and procedures for admission are so numerous and divergent in the various countries, branches, and even congregations as to make it impossible to report them in an encyclopedia article without excessive use of space. -- HSB

1990 Article

As Harold Bender's article from 1953 above indicates, the concept of church membership among Mennonite-related groups implies a formal, technical act of reception which assumes the more informal, interpersonal engagements related to the candidate's participation in the activities of the congregation. The traditional signs of church membership are the offering of the hand of Christian fellowship (sometimes accompanied by the "holy kiss") and the listing of the new name on the roster as maintained in an official handwritten membership book or the printed congregational yearbook, or both. Congregations are requested to make annual statistical reports of membership changes to officials of regional and general conference bodies. These statistics are then tabulated in conference yearbooks and used for such purposes as gauging church growth and decline and specifying denominational per-member fund raising apportionments. The most comprehensive annual all-Mennonite membership statistical reports are published in denominational yearbooks.

There are normally three ways by which persons are admitted to membership: by baptism on the basis of affirmation of faith; transfer by letter of recommendation from another congregation; and by reaffirmation of faith without rebaptism or letter of transfer, or both. For instance, in the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) from 1985 to 1986, a total of 2,164 persons were received as members, 974 (45 percent) by baptism, 1,078 (50 percent) by transfer, and 112 (5 percent) by reaffirmation. Of those baptized, 73 percent were youth from member families and 27 percent were persons from other backgrounds. Of those received by letter, 48 percent were recycled from other GCM congregations, 24 percent transferred from other non-GCM Mennonite churches, and 29 percent transferred from non-Mennonite denominations. The gross gain of 2,164 was offset by a loss through death, transfer, and deletion of 2,502 for a net loss of 338 members (ca. 1 percent of the total membership). This more-or-less static profile has been the gain/loss situation among most Mennonite groups for the past number of decades. In the Mennonite Church (MC) for the same year, 2,428 (42 percent of all received) were received by baptism (70 percent from MC households), 2,076 (36 percent) were received by letter of transfer (59 percent) from other MC congregations), and 1,223 (21 percent) were received by confession or reaffirmation of faith. In the same year this gain of 5,727 new members was offset by a loss of 4,835, which yielded a 1 percent net gain in total membership.

Because of a growing proportion of members who are nonresident or otherwise inactive (from 16 percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 1980, GCM) and of nonmembers who are active participants, some congregations have attempted to redefine and reclassify their memberships. It is a sensitive issue when the category of "inactive member" is added; and churches have sought redemptive ways to reactivate resident members who have quit coming to worship services for various reasons or to drop their names by revision of the roll. Moreover, with an interest in church planting and ecumenicity, the nonresident inactive members have been encouraged by some "home congregations" to transfer to a church of their choice where they can be active or to help form a new congregation.

Another new category is that of the associate member, which has both inclusive and exclusive implications in certain congregations. People who have moved to cities where new Mennonite fellowships are emerging and who may not be ready to sever their memberships in their "home church" may be invited to join the new fellowship as associate members with the same rights and privileges as regular members. But in some groups, e.g., certain Brethren in Christ congregations (Wittlinger, Piety and Obedience [1978], 487), the associate member category was created for people who could not meet full membership requirements, such as candidates who are divorced and remarried.

Some emerging urban Mennonite fellowships with a "covenant basis" for membership are practicing an annual covenant renewal service in which everyone's membership is voluntarily either renewed or terminated, hopefully without the negative connotations of arbitrary roll revision and member deletions. Membership defined as a commitment for a specific term subject to annual renewal is thus one method of keeping the roster viable and up-to-date.

As functional as the technical definition of church membership is for record keeping and statistical analysis, it is not the best indication either of a person's faithfulness or involvement in the ongoing Christian mission. For that reason groups like the Church of God and the Plymouth Brethren have tried to de-emphasize official membership and place the emphasis on active participation as the key mark of belonging to a congregation. However, among Mennonites the need to specify more objectively who belongs and who does not will likely keep the more formal procedures for membership accounting intact for the foreseeable future.

The most comprehensive attitudinal studies of the church members of four Mennonite denominations plus the Brethren in Christ Church were published in 1975 (Kauffman/Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later) and 1991 (Kauffman/Driedger, The Mennonite Mosaic). On seven indexes of religious commitment (Anabaptism, communalism, conversion, sanctification, devotionalism, orthodoxy, and Fundamentalism), the five groups scored very high when compared to other Protestant denominations for whom comparable data was available (Kauffman/ Harder, p. 308). Moreover, the commitment to Anabaptism was the second best overall predictor of some 19 moral-ethical and discipleship indexes, second only to Fundamentalism, and Anabaptism was "positive" in its direction of influence on 14 of the later indexes, while Fundamentalism was "negative" in its direction of influence on 12 of the discipleship indexes (Kauffman/ Harder, 324). While Fundamentalism has left the churches with many detrimental effects, commitment to the Anabaptist vision by church members as a whole appears to be significant and wholesome.

Moreover, on a probe of intensity of feeling about their membership in the denomination, only 3 percent of 3,538 respondents replied that they had definite thoughts of joining another denomination or discontinuing membership in any. On the other end of the scale, 75 percent replied either that "I will certainly always want to remain a member of my denomination and I could never feel right being a member of another denomination" (25 percent) or that "Although I prefer my own denomination, there are some other denominations that I would not hesitate to join if occasion arose" (50 percent). Overall, one-fourth of the members of these five groups have a rather weak denominational self-identity, but that denominational self-identity is certainly strong and positive, if not exclusively so, for the other three fourths of the members.

See also Baptism; Church Discipline; Ecclesiology; Church Attendance; Sociological Studies


Campolo, Anthony. A Denomination [American Baptist Convention] Looks at Itself. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1971.

Harder, Leland. Fact Book of Congregational Membership, 1980-81. Newton, Kan. :General Conference Mennonite CHurch, 1981.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of FIve Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1975.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leo Driedger, eds. The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Pres, 1991.

Mennonite Yearbook (1986-87): 179-88.

Stommen, Merton P. and others. A Study of Generations: Report of Study of 5,000 Lutherans. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972.

Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: the Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978.

Yoder, Michael. "Findings From the 1982 Mennonite [MC] Census." Mennonite Quarterly Review 59 (1985): 307-49.

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Leland D. Harder
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Leland D. Harder. "Church Membership." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Jul 2024.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Leland D. Harder. (1989). Church Membership. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 13-14; v. 5, pp. 153-154. All rights reserved.

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