Does Membership Matter?

Posted: June 20, 2009 by Matt Horan in ReEmergent Church
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By Matt Horangracememberlist

          “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
          “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever form they present themselves?
          “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, but your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
          “As members of Christ’s universal church, will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries?
          “As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service?”

          Agree to these, and you become a member of the United Methodist Church.  You move from officially outside, to officially inside.  Unfortunately, this magic moment doesn’t necessarily equate with a person’s stepping onto the pathway of a disciple, never again to depart from it.  Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, FL, has brought in something like 150 new members over the last two years.  However, while worship attendance has increased, it has not increased by 150.
          Is membership a good way to measure the health of a church?  Recently Dr. Will Willimon, UMC Bishop from Northern Alabama, just last week said that it was in his weekly email newsletter.  But usually, only half of the members of a given church actually attend worship services regularly, fewer are a part of a small group, even fewer serve in some way, and fewer even than that tithe (giving 10% or more of their income to the church).
          At the recent meeting of the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church at Bethune-Cookman University, Dr. Jeff Stiggins taught a seminar on measuring success not by membership, but by the number of people that are really engaged disciples.  He teaches around the Florida Conference that the health of a church should be measured by five key indicators: Frequency of professions/reaffirmations of faith (as opposed to joining by transfer from another church), service to the community, weekly worship attendance, number of people in small discipleship groups, and generosity.  Any of those seem to be a better indicator of church health than the number of members you’ve got.
          That being said, surely there must be something good happening at a place where people are becoming members, and something’s going wrong at a place where people are leaving and becoming members someplace else.  So how are we to interpret membership numbers?  How transformative is “becoming a member” in someone’s life?  In an era where younger people need to feel like they belong before they begin to believe and undergo the spiritual transformation that Christianity is all about, perhaps “membership” is a very meaningful gift to bestow on someone new to the community.
          So, as I think about it, I’m not ready to give up membership as a measurement of church health in the absense of an alternative.  However, I’m ready for us to discuss the alternative.  With massive megachurches out there serving as the standard for church growth success, it’s tempting to feel good about the number of members.  But remember–most churches have about half of their members in attendance at worship on an average Sunday (with fewer than that serving, with even fewer than that in a small group, and with even fewer that that tithing), which means the more members you’ve got, the more people there are who are on your list, but who are not really that engaged–not really walking along the pathway of a disciple of Jesus Christ.
          So what’s the alternative?  If we were to just do away with the practice of taking in “new members,” would there be a lessening of committment?  Dr. Jim Harnish at Hyde Park once equated it to marriage.  Becoming a member is the difference between a marriage and “shacking up.”  There’s committment there that holds us together when we’re not all that inspired.  So any alternative would have to take that into account.  Either way we go, I’m eager to see what that alternative might be–breaking down the walls between those that are “inside” and those that are “outside,” while at the same time holding people to a high standard of committment and engagement beyond just membership.  After all, the church is not a club to belong to.  It is God’s vehicle for the spreading of the Good News that Jesus Christ has come to reconnect all of Creation to its Creator.  Somehow I don’t feel like the word “member” quite encapsulates that.

  1. Matt- You make some interesting observations and raise some questions that we all have to wrestle with. We have a especially interesting challenege being UM’s-we resided in a denomination that solves its problems, accomplishes its goals, and still thinks (as an institution) along patterns that are outdated by almost a century. Beauracracy is no longer the answer to world’s problems, or the most desired stle of management. Anyway.

    Your remark that young people have to belong before they start to believe is the opposite of what many churches experience (or at least assume)-that younger people have no interest in “joining” a church, despite the fact that they are committed to the cause of Christ Jesus. It is also the opposite of my life’s pattern, I’ve only joined the UM church officially, instead of the Wesleyan or whatever else, because I look ahead to the opportunities it affords me (John Wesley Fellowship).

    In any event, I think the only metric that matters if you want to assess a church’s prospects of longevity is the one that most people would put last-service (in all of its forms, evangelism, mission, etc) otherwise you ultimately have a church that will die with it’s congregation or when people stop moving into town. That is why I push every church that I have or will ever work in/for to make the “membership class” or orientation or whatever else heavy on the “mission” aspect.


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