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Monday, November 17, 2014

A Church With No Members?

A column I read today in The Presbyterian Outlook got my attention. Church-leadership consultant Tom Ehrich was writing about the declining popularity of church membership (“The New Age of Ad Hoc Connections,” Presbyterian Outlook, November 24, 2014).

While that may sound like bad news, he doesn’t think it’s necessarily so. It just reflects growing trends in the larger society against joining any kind of organization.

This is nothing new. Sociologists like Peter Berger have been telling us this for years. His famed bowling-leagues study documented how bowling has not diminished in popularity, although bowlers no longer like to join leagues and commit to being at the alley with their team one day per week.

The whole idea of “belonging” to a group just isn’t attractive anymore. Folks would rather go it alone, connecting with others in ad hoc ways as the need or opportunity arises.

“People are just living in different ways,” says Ehrich. “Not better or worse, just different. Wise church leaders will dial down the membership lingo and learn to offer a variety of venues, some of them ad hoc, where people can connect.”

As examples, he lists a number of brief-duration mission and service events churches have organized: packing seeds to send off to African farmers, building houses for Habitat for Humanity, delivering toys to needy children at Christmas, disaster-relief work, etc.

The membership rituals of the past hold little meaning, he goes on. “People today value groups and networks, but they want them to be free-flowing and ad hoc, centered in hanging out, last-minute planning and discovering new venues. This is an age of pop-up stores and restaurants.”

Could there ever be such a thing as a pop-up church? The Presbyterian Church is actually experimenting with such an idea, with its 1001 Worshiping Communities initiative. While not exactly pop-up churches, the new communities being fostered — based on informal gatherings in all sorts of places — do have something of that ad hoc quality. The idea is to experiment with new ways of being church together. Some of them may grow into recognizable congregations someday. Others may become something else altogether — but still a part of the Body of Christ.

Maybe Jesus himself provides a different standard. At the end of his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the king says: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

Not a hint, there, of letters of transfer.

Don’t worry so much about membership, Ehrich assures us. “Churches should ramp up their communications, so that when a need arises, they can send out a call for caring. Then just let people serve as they can, without imposing a membership expectation.”

But how, then, to measure our successes and failures? The answer, I suppose, is “We don’t.” At the end of the day, it’s not our successes that matter. It’s what the Holy Spirit is doing in our midst.

What do you think? Is church membership growing obsolete? If so, what’s emerging in its place?