One blogger hit it on the head when he wrote that church [has become] something you go to rather than something you belong to. Compound this by the fact that many congregations do not even keep membership records and others have membership statistics that show 10-15 times the number of people on the rolls as attend. Not to mention the fact that when people report to polls or surveys, some of them insist that they attend every Sunday but do not belong to any congregation. Dig a little deeper and you find people who still identity with a denomination long after they no longer have membership or show up there (except the occasional Christmas or wedding or funeral service). While I would like to believe that having more people in the pews than you can count on a membership roll is a good thing, it is not something that happens among Lutherans -- save for the kind of Lutheran congregation which looks and acts and believes more like an Evangelical or non-denominational or emergent church than one which effectively holds to the doctrinal standard of the Book of Concord in faith and practice.
While it is a good thing for people not to attend because it does allow them instant mobility when something or someone they do not like offends, it make ecclesiastical discipline impossible. While it is a good thing for Christians who want to be anonymous on Sunday morning, it does nothing for the ability of that congregation to exercise pastoral care or count on those folks for the work of the Kingdom. While it is a good thing for those who want to come but not feel obligated to support the Church with regular offerings or take up jobs (from ushers to choir), it is a bad thing for the congregation trying to survive under the new rules or trying to maintain what were once the norm for congregations of any denomination (like choir).
It may seem like a win-win situation for the attender who does not belong but it is not quite the panacea that some dream about. Without belonging, the identity and life of the Christian or prospect remains on the fringe and fragile -- subject to a host of qualifiers that must be determined every Sunday before they attend. Long before we get to the Biblical witness of what it means to be a Christian, to gather around the Word and Table of the Lord, and to be under the pastoral care of a church and her ministers, we must admit that attending without belonging may reflect the fact that those folks really do not believe what the congregation believes. This signals an unhealthy distance between what it s confessed and what happens on Sunday morning and who is there.
Let me say clearly I hate membership record keeping. In a mobile community like ours, we constantly have people moving without giving us forwarding addresses and so we cannot even point them to a new church home. We have many people who retain their membership here because they expect to return here to live after a military change of address or short-term job transfer but then life becomes messy and they never return but we still call them members. We have people who are inactive until we remove their mailbox and name from membership and then they show up only to be offended that they did not hear from us (even though we have no current contact info). It is a pain in the neck to keep membership records and to keep them current. But the alternative is worse.
Not counting membership means we know little about our people, even less about their intentions for returning next Sunday or contributing to the work of the Kingdom or serving that work. It makes church a gamble every week to see who will be there and what that will look like -- an even bigger gamble than we have with regular members. Even worse, it make the faith secondary to the worship experience, to the welcome they receive, and the amenities the congregation provides. Detaching what is believed and confessed and taught from catechesis and membership is a sure path to self-destruction. So even though we have new people coming through the door every week, we still do the leg work of finding out who they are, if they are baptized or confirmed, what they are looking for, and how to help them return -- on top of the whether they commune question. It is messy and a pain but a needful mess and pain and the alternative is worse.
I do have a fear. Part of that fear is that if all our congregations cleaned up the membership rolls, the LCMS could see its size cut in half overnight. While that might be objectively true and Sunday morning is a more concise picture of who we are as a congregation and Synod, it would be a devastating blow that would be very hard to adjust to quickly. So while I want us to do a better job of reviewing the membership rolls, I selfishly hope that we do it slowly and deliberately. Further, it is not the rolls that are the issue but people. It does nobody any good to remove names without first reaching out to them. It does nobody any good to wait to reach out until they are effectively dechurched after so many months and years of absence that they no longer recognize us and we no longer recognize them. So this is not about shortening a list but encouraging our people to be faithful and true to the promises and pledges made when they joined and convincing them that this is not for our benefit but for THEIRS! In case you forgot, Christ died for inactive members, too. So let us be diligent but patient, caring but merciful, faithful but loving in this important task.