Search PNC News for stories of people and churches in our UCC Conference:

Idea of membership changes, affects churches

Mike Denton - Conference Minister

Conference Comments

The idea of being a “member” of an organization or group has significantly changed. It used to be rare and had a narrower definition that meant something you were asked to be a part of or something you were born into.  It carried a high expectation of involvement, identity and giving. Membership was something to be protected and had a sense of exclusivity or commitment.

Slowly, with dawn of the industrial and consumer age, use of the term began to increase as membership became packaged and sold, bundled with an “exclusive” place, product or community. It increasingly became a way to determine the haves and have nots, as well as an expanded tool to institutionalize prejudice and identity politics. It became an individual choice to be a member more than an institution’s responsibility to choose or invite members as in recent years membership organizations lost influence and control. It should be no surprise that use of the word crested in about 1960 and, since then, has been in decline as institutional trust has declined.

Church membership, in and of itself, is a problematic idea. I think it might be particularly problematic in the mainline and progressive church. The idea of church leadership or members deciding whether someone would be accepted as a member

used to be a normal part of church life (and is still an often ignored part of many constitutions and bylaws, unless there’s a conflict). As church membership declined, as ecumenism increased and as church membership decisions became exposed as a way to ensure class or ethnic exclusivity increased, the practice faded. The number of churches that offer membership classes or orientation has also declined significantly. The membership model we have in most churches is exclusively based on an individual’s decision to name themselves as a member with only the gentlest suggestion it should mean something more with the exceptions of stewardship campaigns and times of conflict. For the most part, we’ve adopted the consumerist version of membership that makes membership exchange for services as opposed to a commitment to support the values, faith, governance and mission of our churches.

Last month, I spoke of the phrase used in UCC churches, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” I noted how useless it was without an intentional effort to define “here.” Part of this conversation has to include better defining church membership (or whatever we choose to call it).

I am a strong believer in local church autonomy that’s part of covenantal congregationalism, but things start to fall apart when we equate covenantal congregationalism with individualism. It might look similar, but it’s not the same. Oversimplified, our covenant is our promise that, as a denomination, we will work together to love and serve God and God’s people. Our congregational nature recognizes that living out covenant happens primarily and best in a local church setting.

If people join a church, it makes sense they should want to help support the mission because they can best fulfill this mission with other Christians who participate in this covenant.

Our historical precedence around churches deciding who members might be is problematic. Having no expectations of members is more problematic for congregations.

If a church is not clear what membership is about, they can expect conflict, a consumer mindset around membership and a diminishment of their community. They can expect that any individual or small group can easily sidetrack a congregation’s missional goals and good intent as those individuals discover there are no repercussions for destructive or selfish behavior. They can expect individuals will share nothing if not asked for something.  Some individuals might to treat membership as more of a birthright than commitment.  Others will sometimes treat the church’s assets as theirs instead of Gods.  The church’s mission becomes serving the members and not the community and world. Like marriage, baptism or any covenant, our commitment has to be renewed and not accountable to ourselves, alone.

It’s worth taking a closer look at the idea of membership, or whatever we call it, being renewed on a regular basis. What if, as part of every Easter service or before every annual meeting, there had to be both a commitment made and a vote taken by a trusted body of the church? What if there was a ritual in which church members were reminded of their commitments to their church? What if there had to be a clear reason (health or a transition) why they couldn’t make those commitments and the church was given the opportunity to care for that person? What if individuals were given the opportunity to say,  “This community has changed so much it’s time for me to step away?” or “I need to find a new faith community closer to me” or “I have changed and it’s time to go in another direction?”

The church’s numbers have been declining since 1964. This is less important than the diminishment of our mission, vitality and clarity on what it means to be a church.  Some of the shift is because of focusing only on leaders for solving church problems, making them a false idol.

I’ll talk more about this idea in my next article.


Copyright © April 2016 Pacific Northwest Conference News


Share this article on your favorite social media Bookmark and Share