Revisiting Church Membership

Vine and branchesChurch Membership: What Does It Mean?

I just read a blog post that reviewed the church affiliations of the Republican presidential candidates. It is no surprise that faith is important to all of them.


Let’s see. We have:

  • A Hindu who converted to Catholicism.
  • A Baptist PK (watch out for those PKs!).
  • A  confessed Christmas/Easter Presbyterian.
  • A Presbyterian converted to Catholicism.
  • A Catholic.
  • A “quiet” Catholic.
  • An evangelical.
  • An evangelical Catholic.
  • A Southern Baptist.
  • A Southern Baptist pastor turned politician.
  • A Seventh Day Adventist.
  • A Catholic turned Mormon turned evangelical.
  • A disenfranchised Episcopalian.
  • An Episcopalian turned Presbyterian.
  • And another Baptist—at least his father was.

The list reveals the times. People change and the denominations no longer define their memberships. Adjectives are added to explain or excuse deviations from denominational stereotypes or departures from widely known doctrinal positions.


Church membership was once a sign that we were the embodiment of the vine and branches metaphor. The vine is still solid. The branches are getting a bit tangled.


Some denominations are more rigid about members and beliefs. Most are growing more flexible, criss-crossing where once they grew straight.


There were certain rules.

1. One denomination per person.

2. One congregation per person.

There was no real policing of these rules. The keepers of the “letters” were a trusted lot.


But the rules don’t always reflect the strength of a congregation accurately. Small churches often have as many “friends” working with them in mission as they do members. Any size church can have a majority of lapsed members still on the books! Hence a congregation with 1000 members might expect 150 on Sunday morning. Another congregation with 25 members might have 30 attending.


The rules belong to a simpler time—a less mobile time—a less inter-connected time. There was, after all, a time when the village had just one or two churches. The choices weren’t so complicated.


At the congregational level, the qualifications in our denomination require little commitment—one offering of record and one participation in communion per year. If a controversial vote is coming up, a lapsed member need only come to the service before the vote, take communion and deposit a check in the offering plate and their vote counts with all the others. I’ve seen voters rallied this way, so it’s not unheard of.


Keeping the communion record book was once the province of the church secretary. I wonder if anyone does this any more.


Only when church politics become contentious does anyone bother to qualify members. People who tithe, people who attend and put something in the plate regularly, have equal standing with the Easter/Christmas Christians.


Mixed marriages (aren’t they all?) call for compromise—the first test of the marriage commitment. Would one switch for the other? Would the couple find a middle ground denomination or go non-denominational.

What does church membership mean today?

Both giving and attendance are way, way down even among those who claim membership. This is likely to continue. Tithing is measured on first fruits. We all know that the government claims first fruits at three or four times a tithe and with steep penalties for noncompliance. This hurts charitable giving all around.


As for attendance, isn’t it odd that when people worked longer days, they made time for church on their only day off? Shorter weeks, shorter hours result in people whining about the need to sleep in.


The excuses are symptoms of lifestyle and value changes.


Our interconnected world values old-fashioned connectedness less. This applies not only to individuals but to denominations. All the ecumenical talk of the last few decades has resulted in little more than hierarchical maneuverings.


I am in an interesting position to ponder church membership. Our congregation was announced closed. Our members were cut off from the fellowship of believers. The rules don’t really allow for this, but the Church is notoriously poor at policing its own.


Our membership, our voting rights, our lifelong contributions and loyalty mean nothing. Our connectedness with others in the denomination mean the same—nothing.


What happened to 82 members set adrift? None that I know of joined a congregation of our denomination. A few went outside the denomination. Most remained unchurched. Among 160 congregations within our regional denomination, there were none who cared enough to speak up, to raise questions about the sense of mission, the effectiveness of church teaching, and the quality of leadership.


Membership must not be that important.


At sea, in the crossword puzzle sense, we discovered that denominations don’t mean much any more. Denominations limit dialogue, stifle the voice of the individual, and harden conscience.


Membership is cumbersome. The benefits of denominations uniting for more effective service are beginning to disappear.


A new sense of connectedness

All is not lost. We found new connections.


Here is what we learned. Each of these might become its own post!

  • Community is larger and wider than we thought.
  • Barriers of geography, language and culture are crumbling.
  • Church membership need not be exclusive.
  • There is less need for membership rules when no property is involved.
  • There is more opportunity to connect outside denominations than inside.
  • Government, community, and religion can partner.
  • Good people are willing and often eager to help without membership.
  • Doctrine is rarely discussed when people are busy working together.
  • Leaders are just as confused about what is happening in the Church as members are.