So, a while back, we were talking about membership on the God Complex, and whether it’s something that we should do away with. I have wonderful friends who think that membership is irrelevant in a 21st Century church. But, I tend to think that we should keep the concept around. I like it.

When I look at things generationally, I realize that I am part of Generation X. On the whole, many of us were not and are not joiners. Just about every social construct, from political parties to church, used to decry the fact that we weren’t engaged enough.

There was a huge drop-off. I think, partly, because people were used to the large number of Boomers, and we are a much smaller generation. So, if organizations grew a lot because young Boomers were joining them, there was going to be a downturn in the numbers when Gen X came of age, because there are simply not as many of us.

And, because, as I mentioned, we’re not joiners. Many of us are pretty cynical. And we’re very innovative. So, often, we would rather start something than join something.

Yet, I see something different happening with the college students I work with. One of them recently asked if we could start a Protestant Club. I tried to stifle my shock when she said it, and I was very enthusiastic in my affirmative response, but in my head I was thinking: Really? A Protestant Club? I would never… I am so out of touch.

The truth is there is a shift with Generation Y, or the Millennials. They like joining things and they are much more politically active.

In our congregation, I cannot help but notice that people are really excited about joining the church. Even people who are my age. It usually takes them a lot longer to decide to join, and it’s more of an internal wrestling match. And I have a lot of conversations with people who “really don’t like organized religion.” And we have even had people who cross their fingers or prepare written statement clarifying what they mean by some of the affirmations of joining. But most really like to do it.

The thing that I would like to change is not whether we have membership or not. I would like to change the requirements of membership. On the radio show, Bruce and I both waxed eloquently about the importance of membership, how it makes us a part of something larger than ourselves. How it affirms our deeper commitment to a community. Etc, etc.

Then, we talked about how our denomination has a per capita (a head tax), and so people tend to meticulously clean the rolls of Presbyterian Churches.

It’s true. If you have not shown up or given money in two years, your head will roll.

But why is that? If we believe all of the beautiful things we say about membership, why not allow people to hang on a bit, after they’ve moved, or if they’re not on good terms with God for a couple of years? I mean, if we believe that this is a deeper covenant, shouldn’t we be okay with paying the $32.50 (or whatever it is) tax to the denomination, even if we don’t get a regular offering from the person? Isn’t that kind of stingy?

I have certainly had years in my life when I couldn’t bear to go to church. Or give money. I was just going through some internal wrestling at the time. I just can’t imagine getting a note from my congregation, saying that they had removed me from the rolls when I was in the midst of it. That would have cut me off for good.

What do you think?

photo by JenniPenni

19 thoughts on “Re-Membering

  1. It is true that younger people are pretty eager to join and network with each other (watch how often they hug each other compared with other age cohorts). But they want to join something in an organic way. They don’t want to be beholden to this or that group that is necessarily pre-defined unless they fee they have a say in directing it and changing it. They have always controlled their own social constructs and church membership is simply boring since it does not leave a lot of room to tinker (what Landon might go so far as to say they want to hack the systems that pre-exist).

    They are less cynical than us X’ers, more optimistic overall (although in 5 years we will see what this econ. does to them as it messed us up starting in 1987 with black tuesday). So can the pcusa allow others to develop what they need out of a community or will we force them to conform to a pre-existing structure? At some point, may we abide by God’s guiding to adapt to the co-creation of community with others.

  2. As a Chronic-Church-Joiner, I have to admit that I still understand completely not joining. I had to go to the pool a half dozen times before I committed to THAT, why should someone jump to join a faith group?

    We had a man at the church who had been attending for many years, even leading the youth group for several, and being involved in every leadership role except called ones. He had not joined because he did not see the point. He was in the pew (and choir loft) more than most, and gives more than most. The turning point was when our church was having a vote about a massive project, and it failed by two or three votes. His would have mattered.

    If we go away from “members” then it will have to be decided how we vote on things and how the leadership structure maintains a sense of call from the group. I don’t think it’s impossible, though.

    (As for me and my family, after about a month of attending and a good chat with some leadership we tend to join and get involved pretty quickly.)

  3. We are going through the same thing at my church. I, like you, still believe in membership. People need commitments to hold them accountable, but also a safe space where they know membership in a congregation is not about a denomination but about a walk with God, wherever it takes them.

    I think, we as pastors, have to model it as well.

    I blogged about it here:

  4. Carol… I was just considering this same topic a week or two ago. It got me thinking about whether membership should be about the commitment a person makes to the church or more about the commitment the church makes to the person. What if churches pledged to forever be changed because of this new person they were welcoming into their family? If we said, from this point forward we promise to love you, forgive you, care for you, nurture you no matter what? I’m wondering if we can reclaim the beautiful part of membership… not something that seems exclusionary, but something that makes you feel more a part of a community.

    I agree with you… I believe there is a shift with younger generations. I think those of us in the cynical generation are going to realize we can’t deconstruct it all! Membership might just have a really important place for the Church of today and tomorrow.

    I think I articulated it all a bit better here… … if you have some extra time to read my thoughts.

  5. I wonder that, if we moved away from our per capita system, if our membership numbers would change? Perhaps move to a system where the denomination takes a certain small percent of congregations’ budgets?

  6. Then, we talked about how our denomination has a per capita (a head tax), and so people tend to meticulously clean the rolls of Presbyterian Churches.

    It’s true. If you have not shown up or given money in two years, your head will roll.

    But why is that? If we believe all of the beautiful things we say about membership, why not allow people to hang on a bit, after they’ve moved, or if they’re not on good terms with God for a couple of years? I mean, if we believe that this is a deeper covenant, shouldn’t we be okay with paying the $32.50 (or whatever it is) tax to the denomination, even if we don’t get a regular offering from the person? Isn’t that kind of stingy?

    Strangely enough, I was under the opposite impression back when I was taking seminary courses and talking with others about the state of the PC(USA). I was given the impression that, despite the per capita costs of keeping inactive members on the roles, churches were reluctant to actually drop members. It is, after all, a rather cold thing to do, to drop a person from your membership, often without even letting them know why.

    But at $30 (or so) per person, it can be a VERY high cost to a church to keep inactive members ON the role, especially given the already-low membership numbers at so many PC(USA) churches. Already strapped for cash, an extra $30 worth of cost charged to a congregation because of a person who isn’t even present, let along contributing, is a high price to pay to keep their names on the list.

    I think, however we cut it, seeing people primarily in terms of their financial value is a dangerous thing, and I fear that charging “per capita” practically requires that we fall into this trap. On the other hand, there are valuable PC(USA) services funded via “per capita” (and nowhere else), and so dismissing that rubric would be difficult and painful to accomplish.

    Whatever else is true, this is an issue that merits further discussion.

  7. I tend to agree with allowing people to linger a bit on the roles. Being UMC we have a minimum 3 year period before we can remove anyone and I’m okay with that. For some I think that their membership is almost like a trail of bread crumbs, holy, sacramental ones, that they unconsciously hope will lead them back home. In our world of disposable relationships and social media with “delete friend” buttons, it is good to be part of something that requires something out of you to get out of.

    Just because you have a fight with your family, you can’t leave them, they are still your family. If our gathering of believers is a foretaste of our heavenly family, can’t we just keep our doors open and our lights on a little while longer in case they want to come back home?

  8. “Membership” is a concept that originated in the Christian Church. We are all members of the body of Christ. This anti-membership culture is just another instance of dumbing down the faith and diminishing commitment to Christ.

  9. Just wanted to say that our UCC church sends a letter after not hearing from someone in any way for 2 years saying we miss you, what’s up, come on back (in church-ese of course). They are asked if they’d like to keep their membership active or move to inactive. All they have to do is return the prestamped envelope and they stay on the active list, whether they actually show up or not. But, if they don’t respond at all, then we do move them to inactive. We keep the list of inactives but don’t report them to denomination and they can’t vote until they become active again – and all that takes is showing up, sending a check, or asking. It’s a pretty low bar that I think offers a lot of grace for whatever might be going on in their lives, but it manages to keep the lists a bit more accurate.
    I have found membership is a serious choice for most people, and they like to have time to think it through, but Gen X’s and Y’s do really celebrate doing it, once they decide it’s right for them.

  10. I struggle with the idea/concept of “membership.” Where many of our congregations continuing to live into church membership as another social service agency where membership grants you status, and that status is maintained through dues and a certain level of participation. Reclaiming “membership” as commitment to community, reaffirmation of one’s baptism, and membership of the body of Christ is very difficult. Sometimes the pendulum needs to swing away from “membership” as how we understand active participation in the life of particular congregation or denomination to allow it to swing back and give it deeper meaning.

    PS The congregation where I serve continue to call per capita “Presbyterian dues” no matter how often I remind them it is mission giving!

  11. Ahhh… yes. “Presbyterian dues” and the Presbytery is our “Union.” I WISH the Presbytery was our Union!

    I guess the thing that we seem to be struggling with is that we expect commitment in membership, but what about the other side of the covenant? Are we expecting the church to be faithful? Do we live up to our side of the deal if we’re so ready to cut people off because they’re a $30 liability?

  12. Great discussion here folks. I have fought this battle too recently–swinging back and forth on the pendulum of membership. I don’t really feel that the $30 cost for having a person on the roll is that big of a deal, but what I find more offensive is someone simply paying their “per capita” to be on the rolls of something that they don’t necessarily believe in or want to be a part of.

    If we should be about relationships, is that what we’re really saying when we allow someone to pay their per capita to stay on the rolls of a congregation that they really don’t want to worship with, do mission with, or support in terms of prayer or fellowship?

    I too have seen an increase in people desiring to join the church–especially in the younger ages. This Sunday we will be bringing in 17 new members into the church. 2 of them are young ladies that will join by Profession of Faith and Baptism. I had a Presby minister friend who had unfortunately had never seen an adult baptism at a Presby church. Interestingly,since I’ve been at our church we’ve done over a dozen. It’s always exciting to see people energized about joining a community of faith and continue walking together in the journey…

    May we remember the importance of our journeys together and not see it just as a bottom-line-cost-effective issue.

  13. Perhaps membership is first a matter of imagination. Can I imagine this community and me in relationship? What do I imagine this relationship to be? What vision is offered? What vocation is given? What values are exchanged? What will be the currency of the relationship imagined?

    Membership might be perceived as composed of a number of Christian practices, which when taken together compose a whole way of life. Becoming a member is perhaps the point at which one moves from what is imagined to embrace what is – a way of life. ‘Joining’ could be a more appropriate word. Retaining the suffix ‘ing’ to denote that this is indeed an open and ongoing process. As different from ‘joined’ – where the suffix ‘ed’ indicates the task is complete.

    The candidate is joining her/him self to a community with an already established Way. Hopefully this Way is composed of practices, memory and mission in which mutuality in giving and receiving is the currency, rather than commitment and accountability. Mutuality invites relationship between persons, between groups. Mutuality is the flow of a community at work.

    ‘Commitment and accountability’ sounds like the demand of an institution. I don’t want to join to an institution. Try as it may, an institution is not life giving. Institutions deal in definitions and permissions. Memberships are about an institution’s permission to use, to access, to acquire services. Membership is an agreement to align oneself with certain sorts of power. Memberships shadow exclusivity at the same time as expressing inclusivity. Who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ is defined by membership. Sheep and Goats. Accounting by division. Is this Jesus’ Way?

    To be enriched in my living, I require different energies and inspirations to those of permission and definition. I need the enthusing inspiration of Spirit filled love and grace. Extravagant compassion and liberating reconciliation come only through mutuality in relationship. Jesus does not offer membership. Jesus offers a Way of life-giving relationship – love from God and loving with other people. Jesus invites disciples, not members.

    If membership is first and foremost about imagination, little wonder that it takes time and nourishing relationships to discern joining. Disciple making is a matter of character formation, a journey to disposition. It requires time and a journey to discern where one sits with respect to well-established communities of memory, mission and practice. Let alone vice-versa.

    In the catechumenal tradition there are roles for both the community of faith and the potential joiner. Each must get to know the other. Pathways and practices are designed to provide for this mutual knowing. ‘Joining’ is not only the courageous act of a well seasoned imagination resulting in the individual discerning the call to align one’s life, values, vision and vocation to the community. There is also a role for the community to imagine itself as embracing the potential joiner into its life and vocation. There is deep mutuality in the catechumenal journey as both a person and the community explore again their memory, mission and practice. A catechumenal journey brings new imagination and new life to both parties. Baptism is the ritual / sacramental act that clues the journeys of all together and posits belonging in deepest most fulfilling sense. Thereafter, joining is the journey we take.

    Sadly, the imagination, pathways and subtly of the catechumenal journey has been largely ignored in enlightenment protestant traditions. Emerging churches, however, are rediscovering the significance of this journey. In these churches, membership has a very different meaning. There it is much more couched as discipleship in The Way.

  14. Our service as trustees, elders, and deacons is tied to our being members of the church. If we were to do away with membership, we would have to invent a new process for leadership. This is a polity headache in a connectional church.

  15. My husband was in the Air Force for 20 years and so we moved every 3 or 4 years. We always belonged to Prebyterian churches, but no one ever told me that the church paid a per capita on us So we would move into a community, join a church, and when Jim was transferred we moved to the next community and join the Presby. chruch there (if there was one) and just assumed the old church knew we had left and no longer considered ourselves members. So maybe all this angst over “cutting down” the roles is not needed for everyone who is dropped. Many move and just assume their membership in that particular church is ended.

  16. I find it difficult to discuss “membership” from an institutional perspective and a community of faith perspective at the same time. I find the conversation seems to be balled up and people talk past each other. Perhaps it would help to understand institutional membership with all its accompanying implications and community of faith commitment with its spiritual nature, nurture and God’s grace and justice lived out as separate issues for discussions purposes?

  17. rpage,

    That’s so true. It does seem like two different things, doesn’t it?

    But then, I guess that’s the conundrum we’re so often trying to figure out: how do we lead a community of faith in the midst of an institutional structure?

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