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Membership, Belonging, and Following

The older ladies in the women’s group used to complain about the lack of commitment of the younger women in the church.  “They don’t come to meetings, they don’t help with the rummage sale, etc.”  The younger women’s response, of course, was that they had full time jobs and couldn’t come to meetings or activities during the day.  The older ladies tried to understand, but also felt a bit judged for their generation’s decisions to engage in demanding full time, but unpaid employment in the home and in the volunteer arena which gave them a bit more flexibility over how they spent their day.  “We were busy, too, but we found time for church.”  The hard reality was not so much the differing availability of time, but how different generations wanted to use their time.

Amy Frykholm, in a Christian Century article (May 31, 2011) every pastor will read with a nodding head, adds to this familiar conversation in her review of what sociologists and pastors are saying about attitudes toward membership in institutions in general, and church in particular.  “Loose connections” is how she describes post-Baby Boomer feelings about joining.  This is particularly true among 30 somethings, especially if they are single.  “Sociologist Robert Wuthnow argues that in recent years new ways of relating to institutions have developed – ways that are fluid and hard to pin down.  People develop ‘loose connections.’  At a time when many churches face declining membership, they must also grapple with the reality that even those who attend have a different idea of what participation means.”

Membership has been the Holy Grail of the Protestant Mainline.  For the post-World War Two generation that joined just about everything in town, this worked well.  Growth implied success, and there was plenty of success to celebrate.  For my generation, coming of age in the mid to late sixties, it has been a disaster, riding the downhill course of declining mainline membership toward statistics much more normative in American history with the exception of the Second Great Awakening.  With institutional membership as the report card, most of us have struggled to deal with a sense of failure, or at least disappointment, for much of our ministries.  Even if our own congregations have been thriving, denominational numbers have not.  Not fun.

To be sure, we have our own faults to confess.  Too much worship is boring.  Too many programs are poorly designed.  Too many leaders haven’t been overly creative in responding to changing circumstances.  And, above all, too many mainliners have been allergic to evangelism.  But you probably could have made the same comments about pastors in the wonderful 50’s.  The church of my childhood grew in numbers, had a burgeoning Sunday School, and added a big new addition in spite of the fact that the beloved pastor was widely acknowledged to be a less than inspiring preacher.  Today that same church struggles, and the preaching is probably better than it has been in a long time.  When I became General Minister and President the United Church of Christ had something like 1.3 million members and received financial support from the churches of about $12 million.  Today we hover just over the psychological break point of one million members and will soon drop below, and income is a little over half of what it once was.  I made my share of mistakes.  But I don’t think anything I did or didn’t do made much difference to this institutional decline.

The phenomenon of loose connections is hard on institutions whose paradigm for participation is membership (and the associated financial commitment).  As sociologist Wade Clark Roof notes, “institutions want to count people.”  It may help clergy morale to be reminded that we are caught up in cultural shifts over which we have little control.  But that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to lead in the midst of these shifts, and not just lead, but lead the church.  Loose connections are a reality, but that doesn’t mean they’re simply to be celebrated.  Belonging is at the heart of the Gospel where we are members of the body of Christ in a very organic sense.  If we made a mistake at all, it was growing comfortable with church as voluntary association rather than church as the community of the baptized.  How often did our new member vows lean far more heavily on institutional responsibility than on faith commitment?

More than once pastors have asked me, “Are we sailing a sinking ship?”  If we take seriously the Gospel promises, and learn anything from two millennia of ecclesiastical endurance despite massive external change and internal ineptitude, the answer must be no.  On the other hand, merely leading a quaint and archaic parade of tall ships isn’t the answer, either.  “The forms are going to be more fluid,” says Roof.  “But this simply means that people will have to think seriously about what is worth preserving and why.  That is not a bad question for religious institutions to ask.  Lived traditions are always adapting to new circumstances.”

Loose connections may be the cultural reality we’re dealing with.  We should neither welcome them nor rail against them, but deal with them.  And by dealing with them I mean finding ways for even the loose connection to be lures toward the belonging that is inherent in the ways of discipleship.  Belonging and membership lists may not be inextricably linked.  The first disciples may offer a clue.  For them, belonging meant following a spiritually rich yet often  costly way of life.  Perhaps we need to figure out what it means to ask the question, “Whom do you follow?” rather than “where do you belong?”

John H. Thomas



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