Church membership has come up in many of my conversations lately. I’ve been asked all kinds of questions about membership and why it matters: Is it OK for us to keep participating in church services and activities if we don’t join the church? What is the difference between a member and a non-member? Do my beliefs need to be exactly aligned with our denomination if I join this church? What are the benefits of church membership?
All of these conversations have taken place with people in their 30s and 40s, and it makes me aware of the air of suspicion surrounding “membership” for many. I am aware of that basic suspicion in myself. Recently, I went into a store that has become notorious in my own mind for trying to get customers to join their “club” to rank up points and receive discounts. Thus far, I have chosen not to join the group and have remained insistent that I don’t want or need to. I went to the checkout counter ready to say, “No, thank you” when the question came. But my response was not good enough and the sales person tried to insist that I join. After saying “No” at least three times, I looked into the cashier’s eyes, drew my hand across my neck, and repeated, “No.” She rang up my items and I left. As I got into my car I thought, “Wow, doesn’t ‘no’ mean ‘no’?”
It’s true that we are bombarded with groups to join and places where we can be a “member.” The key tags, cards, emails, and coupons all add up, and it gets downright overwhelming. We feel less and less anonymous as the grocery store sends us coupons that match up with what we tend to buy. It can feel a little creepy too. So I certainly understand not wanting to become a member of every store and group in town. I get not wanting to share your personal information with the cashier at the store you go to twice a year.
But membership in a church is different, or at least it should be. Joining a church is not about early bird sales or access to coupons, it’s about making an outward commitment to being part of something greater. It is certainly a statement of faith and of trust. It is a statement of belonging, as in belonging to God, belonging to the family of God. Churches, in some sense, are temporary. When we join a church, we claim that at least for now, in this time and place, we will commit to worship, listen, struggle, share and serve with this particular community. In this time and place, I will be a part of this body, this living organism, seeking to serve God and love neighbor.
I’m getting concerned about the larger numbers of active church participants who have decided, for one reason or another, that they don’t want to join the church. In our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), church members vote on certain things, including who will serve as church officers and pastors. But more than that, it is our church members who are called, elected, ordained and installed as church officers (elders and deacons) to lead the church. We value the leadership provided by lay members of the church; we value having leaders from different age groups and stages in life. Not only do I see it becoming more difficult to find people willing to serve in these important roles, but the group of people on which to call is lacking people in their 30s and 40s. While we have many of these adults participating in the life of our congregation, they are not eligible to serve as church officers if they are not members.
All of this makes me think we are not sustainable if we don’t seek a new formula for membership and/or serving as a church officer. I’m beginning to suspect our model of church membership is outdated.
But I see bright hope on the horizon. I asked the group of high school youth who have joined the church as full members: Why do you think it’s important to join a church? Why did you join the church? They talked about being brought to church initially by their families and just going with the flow, but they recognize that now, as church members, they have a voice and a vote. They feel both empowered to serve and a sense of responsibility. As members, the youth can help the church decide where God is calling us and how we want to serve the community. One of the youth said, “We don’t just have to watch the church become stagnant, we can make decisions for change.” The youth recognize the church as their extended family and part of who they are. They value not only being a part of it, but caring for the church family and contributing to the whole.
I hope we will learn from these younger voices who are an important part of our church across the nation. I hope we will consider how church membership might need to evolve in the coming years. I hope we will be open to change.
What do you think about church membership? What is the future of church membership?