Is membership even a category associated with church any longer???
The Background: Grey Matter Research surveyed American adults who attend a local church or place of worship once a month or more. The study asked people whether their place of worship offers "any kind of official membership in the organization, or not." Among all worship-goers, 48% say such official membership is offered, 33% believe it is not, and 19% are not sure.
The Story: A new study finds that fewer than half of Americans who attend church are aware that their place of worship offers any sort of official membership.
According to the study, while some denominations and individual congregations have no official form of membership, most of the largest religious bodies do. All of the ten largest denominations in the U.S.---as measured by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies---measure some form of official membership: Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Convention, United Methodist Church, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, Episcopal Church, and National Baptist Convention USA.
I must admit that I sort of resonate with this story. You can read the whole thing here. My own experience seems to parallel what the surveys have found. Serving as the Pastor of a congregation close to a large army post only confirms that for many membership is not something high on their priority list or even much in the thoughts of folks today. I grew up in a place where church membership meant everything. I fear that it has come to mean little more than formality today. I have mixed feelings about this. While a part of me laments the callous disregard to commitment and belonging, I understand it. I belong where I attend -- so say most of the folks I encounter. I have had people argue with me that they were already members of my parish since they attended there and I have had people insist that they were members even though they had not set foot in the door for a decade or more. Maybe the latter kind of folks are influencing my frustration with keeping up the idea of membership which was clearly shaped more in a time when people were less mobile and when membership counted a great deal.
I struggle with this all the time. We carry a high number of members who no longer have a local address. Some of them are children of members not yet fully settled (if they ever will be) and others are due to military families who think they might return to Ft. Campbell or who just cannot find another church to join (think Lutheran and think liturgical). It is not so much that we have a ton of folks who wake up on Sundays and think, "Nah, I'll stay home today" as much as have people who would attend IF they were here. We also have a higher than usual number of families in which spouses belong to different churches and for whom the issue of belonging is often settled by a visitation of congregations in the general vicinity of either religious preference OR in one that might represent a compromise. Still, they have not yet fully settled on a choice and so they do not technically belong. Finally, we have the normal folks who have historic ties to this congregation but for whom attendance is no longer a part of their vocabulary of faith. They feel like they are doing just fine without attending but they hold on to the belonging part because of legacy, tradition, or familial connections.
So what do we do? In order to mean something, membership must be taught and restored both to the church and to the Christian culture. To be frank, I am not sure it is something I want to spend the bulk of my time teaching -- especially when Lutheranism is such a foreign brand in the part of the country where I live. We emphasize belonging. We confirm adults. We catechize all ages. We formally receive members on Sunday mornings 3-5 times a year. But it does not have the same cache as it once had and I am not sure whether those who join do so because they are convinced it is a good thing to do or because we have encouraged such a conclusion. Or do we simply give up on this ancient and laudable concept -- belonging, joining, covenanting together as a congregation, the people of God in this place...
In the end we are left with one more hurdle -- to re-invent the idea of membership -- or one more noble goal left unfulfilled -- if we give up the idea of membership. Parts of me are attracted to both sides of this issue -- I want to reap the benefits of membership renewal while skipping this labor to make it happen. Ultimately, however, membership means nothing without greater catechesis in the doctrine of the faith and training in righteousness (to use a Biblical term) for living the faith... What think you?