From my youngest days, I heard the definition of the church as a “body of baptized believers.” This is the way Baptists have always looked at the church and defined our membership. Simplistic but clear, this definition rips away many extraneous aspects and focuses on a regenerate membership in the church.

During those days, I also heard Billy Graham state that he believed 50 percent of church members were lost. I struggled to understand that statement. At first, I reconciled Graham’s statement by suggesting that was true in churches where the Gospel was not preached faithfully, but surely not Baptist churches. Today I am challenged to consider the truth of both the definition of the church and Dr. Graham’s assertion regarding the state of the churches’ membership among Baptists.

Let me be clear. I affirm with every fiber of my being that Baptists’ simple definition of church membership is an accurate statement of biblical truth. The church is not a club to join, but a fellowship of those who have chosen to receive the free gift of eternal life by repenting of sin and believing that Jesus Christ is their only hope of salvation.

Belief demands repentance. When I chose to place my faith solely in Jesus Christ, the only unique Son of God who has paid the penalty for my sin, forgiven me and called me into a personal relationship, I chose to repent and change the direction of my faith and life.

The New Testament also asserts clearly that believers are to be baptized believers. To believe in Jesus calls me to identify with Him through the act of baptism.

I confess my faith in the Gospel—the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus—through believers’ baptism. Baptism is one of the reasons Baptists hold to immersion as the only true baptism.

The original word translated “baptism” means to plunge under or immerse. The picture that baptism by immersion displays is the picture of the full effect of the Gospel in our lives.

So why the concern for church members? I am concerned because public profession and baptism as acts of piety do not save us; however, we are saved through heart change and spiritual regeneration, marked by spiritual re-creation.

Emotional change and even head change do not constitute conversion. Getting wet in the baptistery does not equal believer’s baptism.

No, conversion demands full-orbed rejection of sin and self, and a surrender of all we are to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. To be saved, a person must choose to deny self and become a fully-devoted follower of Christ.

Church membership based on anything else is an aberration and false witness. Unfortunately, too many people have had emotional experiences without repentance and/or intellectual belief without rejection of everything but Jesus. Church members should be those people who trust Christ alone by faith alone. Anything else is counterfeit and suffices as religion but not as authentic Christianity.

When considering the state of the church today, one must consider that Billy Graham’s statement of years ago just might be on target. On any given Sunday, it is likely that 40 percent or less of those on the rolls show up in church. Maybe Dr. Graham’s estimate is low.

Perhaps the challenge of Paul to the Corinthians is worthy in the modern church. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test” (II Cor. 13:5). In the end, a regenerate church membership is the only authentic church membership.