I’ve been in churches all my life, working in churches for thirty years and working full-time as an ordained minister for twenty years. I began noticing a decade ago church membership as a formal idea began to change. We would have trouble getting enough members to show up for business meetings in order to have a quorum--the minimum required by church bylaws to approve things like budgets, salaries and outreach to the community. New people would come to church and even become active participants but see no point in joining and becoming members. Some would even say they preferred not to be official members, because they wouldn’t be asked to serve on committees or boards. Those who would join often didn’t stay long. The first time conflict occurred or something happened not to their liking they left without saying goodbye. Membership did not seem to matter like it once did.
This week Gallup Polling released their latest results on religious life in America. The headline of their results declares for the first time since polling began in 1937 less than 50% of Americans are members of churches, synagogues, mosques or other religious organizations. The statistic is down 20% since the year 2000. Prior to that, church membership rates held steady at around 70% for over six decades. This is a huge decline! The reasons given for this dramatic change are basically three-fold: 1. Continuing rise of people with no religious affiliation 2. Generational change--Generation X is at 50% church membership and Millennials are at 35% 3. Rise in religious people who are not church members.
For churches like ours--ones with a congregational polity or ones where important business is carried out by a vote of church members, not having members (at least not committed ones) poses some real problems. Who makes decisions about the church? More importantly, it raises the question of what does it even mean to be a church if membership no longer matters? As far as I can tell, nobody has a good answer to these questions. After a year or more of church members staying home and streaming worship on TV’s and computers, will membership matter even less?
Here are a few thoughts I have on the matter:
In the near term, church membership will still matter for the 50% of believers who still claim one. The cultural changes sweeping churches today and in the years to come offer an opportunity for those of us who still say we are members of a church. We can rethink what membership means and we can recommit to following Jesus rather than thinking of church like a club, a rotary group or a bowling league.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.