Monday, June 13, 2011

The Member-less Church

I've found myself recently playing around and around in my head with an idea.  It's one that makes immense sense to me, yet I seem to be having a really hard time getting this idea out of my head and into others'! When I talk about it face to face with people -- or write about it here or on FaceBook -- the way people respond seems to me to suggest that I haven't sufficiently communicated the idea as it is in my mind.  Language -- especially when there's no body language or vocal inflection to help -- can be so difficult!!!

I'm looking at the "concept" of membership, the term itself, and noting that many, if not most, of our congregations pay a great deal of attention to it. How many members do we have? How can we get more members? How do we classify our membership (e.g., "members in good standing," and "friends," and "friends who pledge," and . . .)?

Along with this, of course, we all know that there are problems -- some very active, long-time participants in our congregations are not "members" while some "members" are hardly ever, if at all, involved. Some congregations try to keep down the number of "members" they have to keep their dues to the Association affordable. And many of today's post-modern folk are turned off to churches because of what they perceive to be the church's focus on "numbers" (i.e., how many members do we have/can we get?) Etc., etc.

What I'm doing is simply asking us to look at all of this with fresh eyes. What if we did away with the conceptual category of "membership"? Stopped using that word -- and all of the assumptions that go with it.  What if we stop asking "who's a member" and its corollary "who is not"? What if , instead, we focused on "involvement" or "participation"? This might be "only" a semantic or symbolic shift, but I think it'd be quite powerful.

We would now ask people to join our movement and get involved in ministries (to and with one another and the wider world). We would stop asking them to become "members" of a particular church. We'd put our energy into courting transformation, not counting people who've gone through a "new member" course.

What I'm trying to get at here is a shift from emphasizing the preservation and development of the institution to a focus on doing the work the institution was created to do.

Ironically, I think doing this would actually increase that which right now is called "membership."  Because now it wouldn't only be people who had achieved some institutionally sanctioned threshold who could think of themselves as "members."  The people who "only" attend the weekly meditation group could rightly think of themselves as belonging to the community.  (How many "members" attend worship each week?!?!?)  The people who "only" work in one of the social justice programs, or "only" attend Lifespan Faith Development programs could now be counted.  In fact, anyone who was involved in any way -- and this, by the way, could include people who were at a place where all they could do is receive from the church -- and who considered themselves to be part of the community would, indeed, be just that.

This would be different, all right, offering both gifts and challenges.  On Wednesday I'll take a look at some of the challenges.  On Friday I'll take a shot at explaining the gifts.
In Gassho,
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Ron said...

Reminds me of what was planted by Roy Phillips for one years ago in his chapter from member to ministry in the book Transforming Congregations, and a lot from Easum Bandy 1990 era books, not to mention Organic Church by Neil Cole and Church Multiplication Association.

Margy Levine Young said...

Amen! The UUA started collecting "Average Sunday attendance" in addition to membership numbers a few years ago, and I think they may provide a better idea of how many people are involved in congregations.

More importantly, I think about those hundreds of thousands of folks who self-identify as UUs in surveys, but don't join UU churches (or even attend them). What can we do for them?

Pleemiller said...

language plays its role in our theological lens. I think you are hitting on something....
I'd never thought of the boundary set by churches having "offical" members and non members...interesting.....keep writing I want to hear more

Teresa Youngblood said...
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