Voting is one of the great traditions of a democratic, congregationally led Baptist church. If there’s a pastor to be called, a budget to be adopted, a holiday meal to plan, a carpet color to choose, if there’s any decision from the most momentous to the most mundane, members of a congregationally led Baptist church expect to vote on it.
Some Baptist churches have turned over many decisions to committees, councils or staff. In these churches, rank and file members vote only on the most significant issues affecting the entire church, while everything else is decided by the leadership. Though such streamlining makes a church more efficient, members can feel shut out of the decision-making process.
The DNA of a democratic body is coded to give every member a voice and a vote. Churches—and nations—wriggle around the DNA by qualifying who constitutes a voting member. When churches no longer include the whole body in all or most decisions, leaders should expect to encounter a grieving membership, which can take the shape of conflict and even revolt.
In my own experience leading a church, sometimes it looked like the DNA was decaying. Fewer people stayed for business meetings. Fewer people chose to participate in voting. Decisions still needed to be made, and we didn’t want anyone to be shut out. But it’s hard to avoid the appearance of an oligarchy when just a handful of people show up to vote.
Your vote may be one of a handful
Voter turnout in odd-numbered years is dismally low. According to The Texas Tribune, 12 percent
of registered voters turned out Nov. 5. That means Texans eligible to vote allowed just 12 percent of the voting population to change the state’s constitution. And that’s up from the last constitutional election in 2017.
According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Texas’ voter turnout for the 2014 midterm election was 28.9 percent. It was better in 2018, which was seen widely as a referendum on Donald Trump. In the 2018 midterm election, 46.3 percent of the eligible Texas population voted. Despite the increased turnout in 2018, the numbers in both elections indicate the majority of the voting population is perfectly fine with a minority of voters making the decisions.
Turn out in gubernatorial, presidential and other elections with statewide and national consequence tends to be higher. The U.S. Census Bureau reports voter turnout for the 2016 presidential election was 61.4 percent, a rate that has held more or less steady since at least 1980.
Reasons for not voting in the 2016 election include lack of interest and a belief that one’s vote doesn’t matter. To express these thoughts and feelings, disaffected people didn’t turn out to vote.
Some forgot or were too busy to get to the polls. Others wanted to vote but lacked a means to get to their polling site, were ill or out of town, or had registration problems.
The number one reason eligible voters didn’t vote: They didn’t like the candidates or campaign issues. A full quarter of the American population eligible to vote simply didn’t because of dislike for the options.
In my own experience leading a church, I know some members stayed home on business meeting days because they didn’t like the options. They voted by not voting. As a result, a smaller group decided without the benefit of their voice.
How we vote at church is probably how we vote elsewhere
Inasmuch as churches are made of the same people who make up our communities, cities, states and nation, the way we approach decision-making in the church very likely will mirror the way we approach secular elections.
I’ve seen the DNA of some democratic, congregationally led churches decay as church members become less and less engaged in the decision-making process of the church until one day, the members are all but shut out. I’ve heard some of those church members wonder out loud what happened.
I haven’t made every election. I’ve missed some—both in and outside of the church—and chastised myself for it. Even so, when I see the results of local, state and national elections, I am amazed—and chilled—that outcomes affecting all of us in small and large ways are being decided by so few people.
Some Christians believe their faith is under threat and their voice is being squelched, but one of the ways Christians still have significant influence in our society and still have a significant means for exhibiting their faith is by voting.
But I wonder if these Christians perceive a secular threat because they already have disengaged from their churches.
Your vote really does matter
Whether a particular church’s governing structure is congregational or hierarchical, democratic or authoritarian—the church is made of individual members. So is our country. Just as Jesus Christ sees fit to allow his body to rise and fall on the participation of its members, so will our country rise and fall on the participation of its citizens.
In Texas, the 10 constitutional amendments on the ballot weren’t as inspiring as presidential candidates, even if one of the amendments did relate to a personal income tax. Maybe you didn’t make it out to the polls on Nov. 5, but there is a national election one year away you may be very interested in. Exercise your voting muscles by engaging in the business of your church this year.
Strengthen our secular citizenship by being a fully engaged member of your church.
Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are those solely of the author.