In the early decades of Anabaptist history, baptism and active participation in the worship and mission of the church rather than formal technical reception into a church membership were the marks of adherence. As early as 1526, a document on congregational order that apparently circulated with the Schleitheim articles of faith specified that "the brothers and sisters should meet at least three or four times a week to exercise themselves in the teaching of Christ and his apostles and heartily to exhort one another to remain faithful to the Lord as they have pledged" (Classics of the Radical Reformation 1: 44). As time passed this early emphasis upon the frequency of the congregational meeting was preserved, although like the meaning of membership, the meetings for worship became more formalized. Still, the edifices were simply called meetinghouses, with men sitting on one side of a central aisle and women on the other, a pattern practiced in most of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ groups well into the 20th century (it was also common in most churches in traditional, pre-modern Europe and North America.)
The question, "How often have you attended church worship services (on Sunday morning, evening, and/or other days) during the past two years?" is still a pertinent gauge of Mennonite religious commitment. Ninety-two percent of all respondents in a study of five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ groups (1989) replied "almost weekly" or more often. The response was highest for the Mennonite Brethren and Evangelical Mennonite Church (96%) and lowest for the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM; 88 percent), but all five groups were significantly higher than for most Protestant denominations and certainly higher than for the United States as a whole. According to an annual Gallup poll, weekly church attendance in America began a slow decline from 47 percent in 1957 to 40 percent in 1980, followed by a slight increase to 42 percent in 1985. The Mennonite statistics were little changed from an earlier study in 1973.
Sunday school attendance of baptized members of the five groups (71 percent "at least most Sundays"), while not quite as high as attendance at worship, was also significantly higher than for other Protestant groups, e.g., the American Baptist Convention, which showed a low 28 percent regular attendance. The Mennonite numbers did reflect a drop from the 1973 study (80 percent). The percentage of participation ranged from a low of 54 percent (General Conference Mennonite Church) to a high of 85 percent (Evangelical Mennonite Church).
In 1973 when these measures of attendance were combined with several related indexes into an associational scale, it was found that this scale ranked 5th out of 15 predictors of the religious commitment of members as measured by 19 moral-ethical and work-of-the-church indexes. Associationalism, moreover, had a "positive" effect on 12 out of the 19 discipleship variables with respect to direction of influence, although the direction of influence was negative on such indexes as anti-Catholicism anti-Semitism, ecumenism, shared ministry, role of women, social concerns, and welfare attitudes Kauffman/Harder Anabaptists four centuries later , 324). Evidently church attendance tends to reinforce certain ethnocentric characteristics, while it promotes other more positive commitments.
Although formal reception into church membership continues to be the primary criterion of belonging to a congregation, there are some tendencies to ward a de-emphasis on membership among Mennonites. Members who attend worship irregularly or seldom number from 3 percent (MB) to 14 percent (GCM). Membership therefore is not always thought to be the more reliable index of Christian commitment, especially when there are active participants who are not members for whatever reason. In some congregations, leadership roles are no longer restricted to members so long as the candidates are otherwise active participants. Although Mennonite groups are not likely to adopt the practice of the Church of God and Plymouth Brethren, for whom attendance rather than membership is the prior criterion of belonging, they constantly seek to renew the Anabaptist admonition to meet regularly "to exhort one another to remain faithful to the Lord as they have pledged."
Gallup Opinion Poll, Princeton, N.J., "Religion in America" in The Gallup Report (periodic).
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: ch. 4, 20.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leo Driedger. The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991.
Mennonite Yearbook (1986-87): 180-88.
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MLA style: Harder, Leland D. "Church Attendance." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 25 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C483ME.html.
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