Monday, September 25, 2006

Mixed Signals: growth not membership?

There is an enthusiasm at Montecito Covenant church that is palpable. Attendance numbers are high, giving is strong, 7 new small groups are about to form and musical talent is everywhere. Every week someone new approaches me with an idea for a new ministry initiative, a new way to use their spiritual gifts.
There is a sense that spiritual life is not about going to church but being the church where we are, where we live. I sense a deep appreciation and love across generational lines and even an appreciation for different musical expressions in worship. The younger worshipers enjoy singing classic hymns and older worshipers appreciate deep scriptures set to new tunes and rhythms. It's sometimes a challenge just to stay on top of it all.
But here's the wierd thing now. We offered an Inquirer's Class shhortly after everything started up this fall. The momentum and mood seemed right. People are finding MCC as their church home and calling it such. Yet, for two straight weeks nobody came. We sent out letters inviting new attenders, newsletter, bulletin, powerpoint and verbal announcements, and still no takers.
Is this the curve of things to come? Is institutional membership increasingly a marginal (if not negative) aspect of discipleship? Is it time for established churches to rethink the meaning of belonging into biblical categories and not not-for-profit constitutional requirements? Or is this a caving in to a culture that resists serious commitment and wants to sample spiritual products from a wide range of vendors? I'm in that middle territory of knowing we need to demonstrate flexibility and adaptability, yet wondering if we are not also compromising and being coopted.
I've written to some of the emerging church leaders I know, asking them what they do about official membership, but have heard nothing yet, so I'd be most appreciative if you have insights what your church is doing or what you think about membership in general to a local church.


At 9:36 AM , Anonymous Erika Carney Haub said...

I have experienced this same trend and likewise feel as conflicted as you are. I am the one who gets up on Sundays and gives passionate explanations regarding what membership is and why we do it, etc. (since I teach the class :) ) and while some seem to respond to that, with others it is like pulling teeth. We have a membership covenant (how we pledge to pursue God with one another) and I often talk about this as the central reason why someone should do the membership process: becoming a member is a part of our spiritual journey together and our commitment to discipleship together as a community. The "rights and priviliges" stuff about voting on the budget and serving on the board, etc. seems to matter very little to people.

At 9:39 AM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

Thanks Erika. Does your church limit leadership in any way to those who are or are not members?

At 10:08 AM , Anonymous Erika Carney Haub said...

Board leadership, yes. Ministry team leadership (hospitality, children, youth), yes. Ministry involvemen (worship team, children's and youth ministries, ushers), no.

At 9:03 AM , Anonymous Kent said...

What is the origin of membership in a church? When did it begin and for what reason? Was it to identify someonwe as belonging to a parish for quasi-legal reasons? I doubt that the church in Colosse had a membership roster.

Membership does not mean the same thing as it did 30 years ago, people join in order to have ability to use facilities or to have the right to participate in events. It is fee based. Or as in fantasy football, it is interest based and totally portable.

Why is membership a part of our spiritual journey? If anything the patterns of membership has been that it has litte to do with the spiritual journey. How many churches have people on the roles that have not been to the church in years?

Perhaps the one of the benefits that membership has is the public declaration that the others in this group can count on me. I am there for them and fro the purpose of this church.

At 10:33 AM , Anonymous dan bos said...

Great thoughts!
Kent, great questions.
A couple of questions that came up for me while reading your post: What does membership offer people that being a committed attendee won't? (not that it should be a "what can I get from it" sort of thing) But besides voting rights and the ability to serve in leadership on the council, I'm not sure people see there being much reason for it. In fact, I don't even think membership is even slightly on the radar of the 20-somethings. Could it be that many are just as committed to the Body (both large and small context) but see no reason for some seemingly legalistic "membership."

The other thought is that, as Sarah Cunningham points out in "Dear Church", membership feels exclusive. Although, at its best it isn't (or shouldn't be). In our day and age, when you hear "membership" you equate it to some snobby country club or fraternity. Sarah raises the question, "does the church stand in contrast to Jesus' requirement of people?"....Jesus only required people to believe. Belief is what makes one a disciple.

Any thoughts?

At 11:20 AM , Anonymous Erika Carney Haub said...

Dan and Kent both make good points about negative perceptions/practices in membership structures. I am close enough to the twenty-somethings in age to relate to the disillusionments, prejudices, and preferences they hold. For us, though, membership does continue to function as part of our corporate journey together in that it lays out our commitments we make to one another (reconciliation, service, prayer, giving). So when I teach a membership class, while I do spend some time on the denomination's history and mission, much more of our time together is spent sharing our spiritual journeys with one another, learning about the people and narratives that have shaped our church in the past, and discussing the things we commit to in our membership covenant.
We also renew membership every year as a congregation (you don't have to do the class more than once, but you re-affirm your commitment to the membership covenant) and this has been a great way to grow together as we share with each other ways we have struggle to live out our commitments, etc.

At 11:27 PM , Anonymous Isaac Johnson said...

i cant explain it, but i will unlikely become a member of any church for a long while, but joining r/c clubs, online sites and other social groups isn't an issue.

perhaps, and this could be my lefty bias, i take a real guarded approach to the church and its motives.

one big change im noticing and i think you pointed out in previous postings, was churches reaching out in non-conventional ways. rather than having an "inquirers class" in a church (the word "class" alone might scare some off), how about some sort of informal inquirers coffee hour at a local coffee joint?

the silver lining would be that regardless of attendance, at least you could enjoy some nice joe.

also, consider if you will, most people my age and younger (im 27) do most of their communicating online. You're "hip" - why not set up an inquirers blog!

At 6:24 PM , Anonymous Doug said...

I have four daughters. Should I be delighted when a young man who is uncomfortable with "exclusivity" and "membership" comes to me and says, "I am very committed to your daughter. I want to live with her but I see no reason to 'join' myself to her in any sort of 'legalistic' way. After all, marriage is just a formallity; it is just a ritual for you old people. People of my generation have cast off the artificiallity of wedding vows; for us our love is enough."

Should I be delighted?


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