Redefining Membership

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How many organizations are you a member of? A quick flip through your wallet, and you will likely find several different cards representing different types of memberships.

In today’s world, it seems that membership has brought on a new meaning. We no longer regularly enter into membership through a series of promises and initiation – we buy into it. For $40 each year, a person can be a member at Sam’s Club or Costco. For $150 each year, a family can be a member of a museum. For $350 a year and up, a fan can buy into the membership branch of their favorite sports team. It seems that anything worth being a member of, comes with a price tag.

Looking at the multitude of membership opportunities around us today, I wonder if these might be among  the reasons that membership in our congregations is changing. Those who visit, even regularly, might wonder “how much is it going to cost me?” when they ponder becoming a member. Further, they might wonder what they are getting beyond Sunday morning for their money. It is a sad state of affairs, however I fear it might be a small piece of this very abstract puzzle.

As I travel around from one congregation to another, I have begun to look at the different requirements of members and the ways that members are categorized. In some cases, it seems that if a person comes to worship twice they are automatically a member… they just haven’t signed the dotted line yet. Other times, it seems that a majority of people gathered are regular visitors who have yet to be invited to join or share in the ministry of the congregation beyond Sunday morning. Then there are those occasions when a person is a member, however their membership seems to be ignored because they have not yet “bought in” financially.

There is no question about it — membership is a riddle and it seems that no one has the answer to it, and with that reality in mind I want to take a risk!

What if we changed the requirements for membership? What if instead of looking only at our Sunday attendance as a basis for how many active members and active visitors there are, we looked at the whole of our ministry? What if we remembered that more important than our membership in a congregation, we are all a member of the Body of Christ and began to minster to one another and our communities in that way? This is not to say that we should not expect for members to fill vital roles and contribute financially to the ministry of the congregation, but maybe that should not be the main focus and reason for bringing in new members.

I regularly hear stories about a group of people being involved in one or two ministries of a congregation, “but they don’t attend on Sunday.” Does this mean that they are to not be considered in the same way as the individual who IS a member but “only comes on Sunday”? What about the non-member who has attended, volunteered, and even helped to lead different ministries but has chosen not to become a member for any number of reasons?

I fear that too often, we put too much weight on this single number. Incredible ministry opportunities are placed on the back burner because of a “lack of numbers”, possible volunteers are ignored because “they can’t be relied on”, and individuals feel excluded and eventually leave our congregations all because a formal promise in a formal setting has yet to be made.

This summer, I encourage you to take a fresh look at those gathered in the pews and in the classrooms, on the buses and around the campfires. Who would not be there if we limited our ministry to those who paid their yearly subscription fee? What ministries would not occur if we checked for ID at the door each week?

The only membership, that I am aware of, mentioned in the Bible is our membership in the Body of Christ. What would happen in our congregations if we made that membership our focus rather than our yearly subscribers and card-bearing members?

How does your congregation define membership?
Who is being excluded by this definition?
Who might be included if the focus, instead, shifted to members of the Body of Christ?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

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2 thoughts on “Redefining Membership

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