Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Member-less Church, part three

It is my understanding that my Viking ancestors had a two-fold concept of time. That Which Has Been included everything from the beginning of time up until this very moment. That Which Is Yet To Be included everything from this moment until the very end of time. This moment, then, could be viewed as either the culmination of everything that came before, or the jumping off point of everything that is to come. It’s with this later perspective that I began the discussion of “the member-less church.” It’s important to recognize that it is about the church that is and might yet be more than the church that was.
I’m guided by two other thoughts. In the business world there’s a saying that there are really only two questions: “What business are you in?” and “How’s business?” And then, of course, there’s the old aphorism, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Of course, the corollary to that, which usually remains unspoken, is, “If it is broke, do what you can to figure out why and then do whatever is needed to fix it.”
So . . . with that foundation . . . let’s look at the church today. (And by this I mean especially the liberal/progressive church and, perhaps most specifically, Unitarian Universalism.) By virtually every measure you can imagine the church, today, is broke. Attendance is down. Membership is down. Pledging is down. The number of people who say that the church is a major influence in their lives is down. In every major pole the fastest growing religious affiliation is, “none.”

Those of us who care about the church today – both our own individual congregation but also the greater concept of “church” – need to look at The Church Which Has Been and try to see what’s “broken” about it. We also need to imagine The Church Which Is Yet To Be and see what we have to do to get there.

Perhaps those two questions from the business world can help here. What “business” is the church in? Contrary to much of its appearance, the church is not in the “business” of maintaining and growing the church! The church is really in the transformation “business” – the transformation of individual lives and of society as a whole. To be more specific, a Unitarian Universalist church – and the movement writ large – is not in the “business” of building up Unitarian Universalist churches. It’s in the “business” of building up Unitarian Universalists – people who live out a Unitarian Universalist expression of the human impulse. The fact that so few of us have any idea what this means is proof enough that “business” is not all that good.

I’m the first one to admit that I don’t know – in any kind of definitive way – what is “broke” about the church today. I would certainly not claim to have The Answer about how to fix it. This will take, I think, a whole lot of experimentation on the part of actual congregations willing to try some new things, willing to try to behave like The Church Which Is Yet To Be (or how they imagine this church will behave). If enough of us do this, and compare notes on our experiences, we will, together, create this Future Church.

One thing I do believe – based on my own personal and professional experiences and observations – is that the Church Which Has Been is far too focused on institutional things. To be sure, an institution needs to pay some attention to institutional things, but without conscious and intentional choices to the contrary, the default emphasis will over time increasingly be on maintenance and, perhaps also, growth of the institution. If the church were a business, or a non-profit aid agency, or a school of some kind this might be alright. (Although even for these the question of “What is your business . . . really?” would come into play.) But for a church to be too focused on itself is . . . well . . . missing the point of church.

I wrote earlier about how we need to free ourselves from the idea of church as something that we go to to that of church as something that we are. This means that the church is not the institution; rather it is the relationships and activities of the people the institution exists to serve. I think that this is one of the key transitions needed to move from the Church Which Has Been to the Church Which Is Yet To Be.

And part of this transition – I think – will be doing away with the conceptual category of “member.”

What role does this concept of “member” play in the Church Which Has Been? As we’ve seen,
  • It allows the congregation to measure its size (which assists in the figuring of its relationship with, and responsibility to, the wider movement);
  • It creates clarity on who “owns” the church and, so, is vested with the responsibilities of leadership, voting, etc.;
  • It provides a means of demonstrating one’s commitment to the institution.
And for the Church Which Has Been it has fulfilled these roles fairly well. The fact that there is often confusion between “official” members who are uninvolved and highly involved persons who are not members shows that it doesn’t fulfill these roles perfectly. But in the Church Which Is Yet To Be these will not be such important considerations.

This concept of membership begs the question – members of what? The institution! But in the Church Which Is Yet To Be the role of the institution will be much more clearly the support of individuals in community who are transforming their lives and the world. (Rather than the role of the individuals being the support of the institution as it, at least, so often feels today.)
  • It won’t really matter how many “members” are in the institution but, rather, how involved people are in its transformative work (so we’ll count attendance and participation rather than “members”);
  • It won’t really matter who “owns” the institution but, rather, who is “owned” by its mission (so we’ll rewrite our bylaws to say that decisions will be made by those most involved);
  • It won’t really matter who is “in” and who is “out” but, rather, who’s lives are being transformed and who are active in transforming the world (so we’ll find other ways to mark people’s passage into deeper and deeper relationship with one another.)
This last points to one of the great gifts of doing away with “membership” as a category. When “becoming a member” is the ultimate expression of your relationship with the church, what comes next? “Membership” is a static category, unless you create a variety of permutations – “active member,” “inactive member,” “pledging friend,” etc. – and this variety dilutes the very attributes people ascribe to “membership.” If there need to be so many nuanced sub-categories, just what does “membership” mean, anyway? But if we do away with “membership” we are freed to be even more creative in identifying and celebrating the myriad of ways that people can be – and let’s face it, are – in relationship with the community. Each person can be honored for where she or he is, and people are free to move both into more deep and less deep relationship as the realities of their lives dictate. The Church Which Is Yet To Be recognizes and honors this natural ebb and flow in a way that’s just not possible in the Church Which Has Been.

As I’ve said, I don’t believe for a moment that I have all the answers. I don’t even claim with certainty that what I’ve written here is “true,” by which I mean that it will work as I think it will. But I do know that in order to survive the Church Which Has Been must transform into the Church Which Is Yet To Be. To do that will take courage, and creativity, and a willingness to experiment and see what happens. And I do believe that great things can come from this.

In Gassho,

Print this post

1 comment:

Bob said...

Ah.. Now I see.

You see, I am a member of that community in our particular church, not a member of the church institution. When I signed the membership book and participated in the membership service and when I repeat that participation as a member welcoming new members I'm participating with that community, not part of an institution. I've never felt of our church as primarily an institution - even when I was on the board. It's a community.

When our oldest daughter was born and the severity of her brain injury became clear, it was that community that we relied on for support, not the institution. So, I view membership as my commitment to the community. It also has legal ramifications for the institution and unfortunate negative budget tensions, but those have been minor parts of my membership.

By the way, this is why I don't understand why some people choose to be involved but not as members. I take it personally - what is it about me and our community that is putting you off from joining us. But I see this other side, now, where membership is just the institution. I think that's sad.

And so I still wonder if a name change is going to help. I guess for some there is a need to change how we think about ourselves and the church and since, for me, "member" isn't a problem there, I'm not convinced that changing the word changes much. But I could probably go along so long as the legal part is still there - just properly in the background - and we emphasize who we are to each other (which I thought our particular church does, so perhaps I'm still missing something).