I know I said that I was writing a three-part series on the idea of "the member-less church." That series, then, should have come to an end with my last post. I was reminded, though, of one more thought.
What triggered this thought was the memory of a document held with great pride by the people of the First Parish in Concord, Massachussetts. It is a letter from Henry David Thoreau. In this letter, Thoreau resigns his membership in First Parish. (Possibly the only letter from someone who doesn't want to be a member of a church to have such a place of honor!) Thoreau goes on to say that if he could, he would resign his membership in the human race.
Some people are just not joiners.
Some people are of a mindset that is anti-institution and anti-organization or, at the least, can take them with a grain of salt but most certainly don't want to be tied to any of them. They hold fiercely to their freedom and independence and, as Thoreau put it, wouldn't even want to be identified as "members" of humanity.
This doesn't mean they don't engage with community. Value it, even. They just have a different way of relating to it.
And this "other way" is one of the hallmarks of the so-called "post-modern" mindset which is, for better or worse, the perspective that's in the ascendency. Post-modern people -- and this is not strickly a generational thing, but they do tend to be younger people -- do not see the world the same way as people with a "modern" orientation -- which, again, while not age limited tend to be older folk.
If, then, the church is interested in appealing to younger people -- and people with a "younger" orientation -- and is at all concerned about its future, then it needs to learn to attune itself to this "post-modern" orientation. This is not to say that it should ignore the "moderns" in its midst, but it does mean that it must learn to question and challenge the "modernist's" assumptions and be willing to try new things.
My thinking about "doing away with membership" is one such challenge. We will always have to have ways of measuring our impact, and people will always want ways to mark their belonging, yet we also need to realize that in today's world, a great deal of the currently un-churched look at the church's focus on membership as a negative. This may be hard to understand from within the modernist mind-set, yet we must recognize that it is fact. The post-modern "generation" is looking for ways to engage community without also engaging legalistic categorization -- in other words, they want to find meaningful involvement without having to take on what they see as a meaningless identity.
And a question before the church -- before any church -- is just who it exists to serve. Some see their focus on the people who already belong, and those most like them. Others believe that their primary focus should be on those who are not yet there. Studies show that the former tend to decline, while the latter tend to flourish. And we who say we draw on "the wisdom of the world's religions" should also note that most of the religious traditions we humans have ever developed have suggested that the primary focus should be on bringing people "into the fold" who are not there already.
This leads to a discussion of evangelism within Unitarian Universalism, and I'll turn to that shortly. But in the meantime, we should note that a dynamic, inclusive faith such as ours should really be looking beyond its own walls to the difference in can make in the wider world. To do this we must -- must -- strive not to be caught in doing this as we've always done them, but, rather, as they need to be done.
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