The Riddle of Church Membership

Three weeks ago, Gallup polling came out with results of a recent survey on church attendance.  It showed nothing surprising, really, except to highlight again the growing number of non-affiliated religious people in this country.

The headline was the fact that, for the first time since this survey was conducted some 80 years ago, less than half of all Americans belong to a house of worship.  That number, which now stands at 47%, held steady at around 70% or better from 1937 to 1999 before dropping annually each year since then. 

There are many other intricacies to this survey but Gallup concludes the results by saying: “The U.S. remains a religious nation … but far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship.”

But does a decline in formal church membership mean that people are less religious, spiritual, or in search of a relationship with the divine?  I don’t think so.

“Church Membership” has always been what separates “successful” churches and “struggling” churches.  What many are asking today, and the question this survey begs, is whether or not this is a useful yardstick for measuring the work of God in people’s lives and in the world.

There are churches today who are saying “no;” formal membership numbers do not reflect the health of a congregation. 

In fact, the whole notion of “membership” feels absolutely antiquated to many working in the field of congregational revitalization.  “Membership” smacks of being in or out.  Country clubs have “memberships.”  It feels elitist and exclusionary such that some churches are abandoning the whole notion of formal membership.

Here at FCC, we offer membership but don’t require it.  We have found a kind of middle ground.  To me, membership is important because it gives you a deeper sense of belonging to the community.  You feel a sense of ownership regarding what goes on here and the decisions that are made.  At the same time, NOT being a member shouldn’t preclude your active participation in any way; which it doesn’t.

The bottom line is that there is a benefit to disengaging from these traditional measurements for congregational success because it allows us to ask broader and more relevant questions.  Questions like:

What are people hungry for?

Is the church offering a variety of connection points for people?

Where is the line between commitment and flexibility?

We may be “in the world but not of the world” but how “in the world” are we?  Is the church a relevant presence in the world and in people’s lives and, if not, what are we missing?

Of course every church wants to grow; but these kinds of questions are, in my view, more important than: “How do we get more members?”

While it is sad to note this on-going decline in formal church membership, I think this survey is a good reminder that the spirit of God is more concerned with connection and transformation than membership statistics.

In Christ,

–Rev. Dominic