I was interested in a May 16, 2011 article by Amy Frykholm in the Christian Century called “Loose Connections”. You can read it here.
Two things about this article intrigued me: first, it points to the changing attitude of Christians toward membership in a local church and helps us think more broadly about how church participation might look different moving into the future.
Secondly, Frykholm, citing research by Robert Wuthnow, looks backward at trends in church membership over more than a hundred years to point out that the post World War II “glory years” of peak church involvement were actually an anomaly rather than a norm we should aspire to return to.
A few things I thought of when I read this article were:
1) Maybe churches need to stop thinking about membership numbers altogether. It may no longer be a helpful tabulation of a church’s strength or efficacy. Maybe we need to think instead of participation in various programs and missions of the church as a better indicator. And not just Sunday worship! Effective outreach can be happening at various times and locations through the year.
2) Should we even enlist members? If we don’t, what will denominations do when churches no longer have hard data on who is “in” and “out” in terms of membership? This will hamper their ability to gauge the size and character of their “fan base” or to issue per capita donations to the wider church.
3) The Church is not a “spectator sport”. Without a formal membership ritual, how would participants make the kind of commitment necessary to strengthen their own faith and the life of the faith community?
4) When we realize that membership has waxed and waned through the centuries, it takes some of the shame of decline off our shoulders. The Church was never meant to be a “growth industry” the way a business like Wal-Mart is. It is a mission, not a popularity contest.
Instead of asking, “How many members do we have on our rolls?” maybe you should be asking, “How many lives did my church touch with some kind of Good News this week?” You may find that your large church is not reaching many people with God’s love. Or you may be surprised that your tiny church is in fact casting a wide pool of shade for the spiritually weary.
The way we measure a church’s vitality is changing. How do you gauge the vitality of your church’s ministry? Is the total number of members the only measure, or are there others?