Over the course of this past year I have done a great deal of thinking about the decline of church membership both in the US and in Finland. I’ve talked with a ton of people, gone to many different churches, attending various services, read plenty of articles and books, etc.
It’s really been quite a fascinating year and I’ve learned a great deal. One of the things that keeps coming up is discussions about church membership decline.
I have to be honest, I’ve never been quite comfortable with the term. Something seems a bit odd in the phrase “church membership decline.” Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably come across a million articles about church membership decline. You’ve probably seen people write about why it’s bad and why it’s good and everything in between.
I think I’ve pinpointed my issue with the phrase. I think it’s the wrong focus. Not in the usual sense though. Understanding how the church and society is changing is important – I’m not dismissing that in any way.
My challenge with the term deals with one word in particular – “membership.” Membership implies a few things. It implies that there are those who are not members. It implies that there are privileges. It implies there are those on the inside and those on the outside. To me, I hear country club, BJs, and a host of other organizations that are concerned with the numbers.
Church for me goes beyond the numbers. It’s about people and God. Church is a place where the world gets turned upside-down and at the same time, common. It is a place of paradox and predictability. It is a place of change and comfort. It’s an organization, but so much more – a community. A community of people who believe, have questions and doubt. A community who accompanies one another in their times of struggle, pain and grief as well as in times of joy. A community that is committed to one another and to God as opposed to being committed to making sure everyone has the “right” belief first.
Does church have members – sure. Given the laws in the US, it’s a bit of a requirement that a church has to have some kind of rules of who the voting members are. So often though I have heard churches spend a great deal of time focusing on membership rather than being church. Then again, I’ve seen plenty of examples of churches who exude what it means to be church – these are healthy congregations. They range in size and location. They aren’t concerned with the numbers sitting in the pews and whether they are “growing” or “declining” but rather are they growing in Christ.
Maybe that’s the key – change the focus away from the numbers towards the relationship and reason why a church exists at all.