Lately I have found myself involved in questions about church membership. I have had conversations with new pastors about the challenges regarding it in their congregations. I have talked with pastors who have been serving for a year or more and heard similar thoughts. I have even heard synod level people remark about the issues with membership. This all seems to lead to one question for me, what’s the point of church membership?
Maybe this says something about the circles I run in, but the only defense of the concept that I have found is that “membership provides for the good order of the congregation/organization.” How often do you use “good order” as the reason you do something? I can see how this concept was important 50-60 years ago. But it doesn’t take too much effort to see that contexts have changed. Decades ago, people didn’t move often. It was likely if you had a job it would be a career. Today, depending on who you ask the average person may have 8 jobs, or they may have 30. (At my age, I am already up to 8, so I kind of doubt that’s the total of different jobs and roles that I will serve.) Regardless, the changing economy and job market alone challenge the concept of membership.
Allow me to share a personal story. Because my wife and I have both been in “candidacy,” a process by which someone enters into relationship and discernment regarding formal ministry in my denomination, we have never officially been members of the same congregation. Consider that for a second. My wife Allison and I have been extremely active in congregations, yet we have never been members of the same one. Technically, we are both still members of our “home congregations” where we grew up because that is where we entered candidacy from. The challenge with this is that, we have since been active in at least four different congregations in short-term, part-time or full-time roles. The concept of membership in congregations assumes a long term relationship, at least that is what it seems like. Because of this, my wife and I have never considered transferring membership because our lives have been too transitory given the nature of our work, roles and callings. Basically, what I am saying, the concept of membership may work for some generations, but it certainly doesn’t work for my wife and I, and I highly doubt we are alone in this experience.
So what might be an alternative?
1) Perhaps one could be a “member” of the larger church, but not of the local congregation? This would be a challenge financially with how our congregations are structured, but it would better account for the changed economic context and life reality that younger adults (and probably more people in general) move, and move more often.
2) Perhaps we abandon the concept of membership altogether? My friend and pastor Aaron Fuller, kind of tongue and cheek pointed to the theological and ecclesiological challenge of the concept.
The concept of membership does seem to assume a transaction or exchange. Yet, the point of our faith is that faith and grace are free gifts of God. To create a barrier or requirement to some of those gifts seems to create a “work,” perhaps no better than indulgences in some ways. If we abandoned membership though, there would still need to be some concept that promoted participation and activity with the congregation or faith community. Maybe “participant” is a better word?
3) There are legal implications for membership too. Many congregations are required by their constitution, or other legal documents, to meet at least once a year to approve a budget and other financial requirements. To have such a meeting, it usually requires that a congregation or faith community have a quorum in attendance. What happens if your membership roster is not accurate, and you have people on it who have not been active in the faith community for decades? Potentially that could greatly distort the membership number of the congregation, and make it increasingly difficult to attain the quorum necessary to officially meet.
4) There are also stewardship implications with this as well. Membership usually comes with an expectation of pledging and giving. If there was no membership, how would a faith community be able to budget for its ministries and anticipate what sort of giving it would have to work with to do God’s work in its contexts and the world? (Try telling a church treasurer or any semi-business minded person that “you can just trust the money will be there.” There is a reason that some people are called into the vocations of finances and businesses. They are valid and equally important parts of ministry.)
That’s probably enough of a starting place for this conversation. I am not saying I have a definitive answer to any questions here. Rather, I honestly have a lot of questions all of a sudden about membership. Perhaps you have some thoughts you would like to share? What does membership mean for you? How has it been effective or ineffective? What do you like about the concept? What might you change?
Please join the conversation. I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts and wondering with you.
Image Credit: Membership announcement.