The Meaning of Church Membership
Posted May 25, 2010on:
What does it mean to be a member? Why does it even matter?
The question came from a woman who had returned to our church after an absence of more than 25 years. She had been baptized, confirmed and married at our church, and several of her children were baptized and even confirmed with us. No one in the church remembered her from those years, except the one neighbor who had invited her back. She had approached me to talk about how to get more involved in the church, and we were sitting on her back porch having that conversation. I had—carefully, gently, so as not to hurt or anger her by telling her she was no longer “on the rolls” as a member—invited her to renew her membership in the church along with several others who were joining for the first time.
Her question did not surprise me, but its directness confronted me with my own questions on the subject. We live in a world where loosely-organized and constantly changing social networks are fast becoming our norm for community. Institutional distrust is at an all-time high, and people will avoid church ties just because the church is an institution. Membership organizations of all kinds are losing ground as younger generations may be interested in participating, but not joining or holding office. Most people visiting our churches either have a spiritual journey that crosses multiple ecumenical (and even interfaith) lines, or no history of Christian faith at all. This context has a dramatic impact on the meaning of membership.
People come to our churches seeking faith, community, a chance to serve and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. In my church and many others, our first step in answering their quest is to offer them membership. The returnee who asked me the question sought all of those things, and as I sat with her on her back porch I tried to make membership the answer to her query. After all, my pastoral training has taught me to grow the church and get people to become members. Membership is about belonging to the community, I said, because we take care of one another. Reaffirming your membership vows means reaffirming your commitment to follow Christ and grow in your faith. It is promising to serve Christ by attending and supporting the church and helping us together serve the community. Joining our congregation links you up with the wider United Church of Christ and the church universal, God’s presence in the world.
In reality, though, I knew that she could find all those things through simple participation in my church, with or without ever becoming a member. I can say with some confidence that our church is a place where her spiritual quest can find support and fellow sojourners. We are a vital congregation, and we offer multiple ways to deepen your faith, connect with other people, find ways to use your gifts and talents in meaningful service, and be a part of something bigger than yourself. But none of those activities require membership.
What would membership do for her? Let her vote in congregational meetings and hold some elected offices reserved for members. Most of our ministry teams are open to all for participation, regardless of membership status, so there is little added benefit to becoming a member. It might make her feel a greater sense of official belonging, but we have had plenty of people become members who never feel like they really belong. Beyond that? I can’t quite come up with much more that membership would do for her spiritual quest.
On the other hand, I could quickly and easily generate a list of ways that her becoming a member would benefit me, the pastor. Clergy have long been taught to measure our job performance by the number of new members added to our community, so there is a great benefit to me in getting someone to sign on as a new member. The church would grow, in a tangible way that I could report on next year’s yearbook forms and in my next job search. Membership also belongs to a care-taking model of ministry, where the pastor-as-shepherd is responsible for the well-being of the sheep. Membership helps me know who I am responsible for and who I am not, who I need to visit in the hospital and who I can put off, who I need to call when they stop attending worship and who I do not. Encouraging her to become a member helps me a great deal.
The church benefits from her membership too. People would see her participate in the public rite of membership, and see the church growing in numbers. People in the pews feel good when new people (or, in her case, returning ones) join the church—it gives them a sense of pride that other people want to be a part of their community. The church can look to her for financial support, and ask her to help in leadership and service. Again acting in the care-taking model, they will know that she is “one of us” and needs us to look out for her.
While membership does a whole lot to benefit the pastor and existing edifice of the church, I’m not sure what it does to build the church of the future or nurture future disciples. I’m still not satisfied that membership might play any significant role in a person’s quest to know the God of Jesus Christ.
Do not misunderstand me—I believe we still need a faithful path for people to commit themselves to the church. Faith grows by commitment, leadership and accountability. The church should be creating communities where people can make deeper commitments, be held accountable in their Christian walk and grow as leaders and witnesses. I just don’t think membership does those things, and I’m not sure exactly what it does do.
I have encountered some new churches that have engaged a different model of membership. Everyone that participates in some way—attending worship, volunteering in a service project, showing up for a fellowship group—is considered a part of the community. As individuals get more involved, they are invited to make a specific, holistic commitment to the congregations. Some churches call them “covenant partners” or “discipleship leaders.” These people make promises that include things like continuing to grow in their faith, supporting the church financially and with their time, participating in mission and service, and sharing their faith with others.
These churches, however, have already abandoned a care-taking model of ministry, and replaced it with a missional spirit where the pastor is a visionary and inspiring spiritual leader. They usually fall outside mainline denominations, where membership numbers hold the key to representation in regional bodies and polity power. They are newer and younger, so older generations who have held membership status in the church for decades are not displaced. I think it would be difficult to make the transition in our established churches, because people would perceive it as the creation of separate social strata in the church. (Of course, there are already social strata in the church, but we don’t like to talk about that.)
I am increasingly convinced, however, that church membership is a concept that has outlived its usefulness. We must begin to create richer, more nuanced and more open ways of understanding our church communities. We must rebuild our congregations on the model of mission outposts, rather than the model of social clubs and mutual aid societies. We must imagine new ways of making decisions and governing ourselves at the local and denominational level that are based on participation rather than record-keeping. We must measure our ministries by the fruits of the spirit taking hold and transforming lives, rather than the number of people who exit or enter our registry. Changing the meaning of membership is part of the wider cultural change taking place in the church, and it will require a generation or more to unfold.
But we have to start somewhere. Sitting on that back porch, having tried my best to make traditional membership the answer to her spiritual quest and to explain membership in some meaningful way, I finally gave up. “You asked a really good question–and a tough one,” I said. “The church that you grew up in has changed, and the world has changed. We don’t place as much value as we used to on having our name counted on a list as a member of the church or the Elks or the Masons or anything else. But we still have those old systems in place, until we figure out a new and better way. There is a lot of conversation right now about what role membership plays in the church. So maybe you can think about joining as a member of the church, and together we can figure out what that will mean.” In the end, she did. Together, I hope we keep the conversation going and figure out what it might mean.