Membership and Engagement

This post is based, in part, on this post from 2017.

Lent is a season of confession and penance, fasting and self-denial. Lent is a season of preparation for the greatest celebration on the church calendar. Lent is a season of preparing for Easter and the declaration of our faith: “Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed!”

Lent is also the season when I receive the most emails promising the perfect method to turn visitors into lifelong members of my congregation. You see, there will be more people than usual in attendance at our Easter morning service—heck, we’ll even have two services that morning—and the weeks after Easter are the perfect time to get those visitors to come back and join our congregation. The weeks after Easter are the perfect time to get those membership numbers to go up!

And there are people in my congregation who are concerned about membership. There are people who ask, “When is so-and-so going to finally join the church? They’ve been attending for years.” There are people who seem to think that the measure of our success as a little consulate of the kingdom of God are those numbers that are printed in our annual report: total membership, new members, confirmations, and baptisms.

I’m just not one of those people.

Don’t get me wrong, I think new members are great. I would love to see the number of official members in my congregation go up. Seeing numbers like that increase get a certain part of my brain to light up and release happy chemicals. I’m all for it.

But I also know two important things about membership.

First, membership is a formality. It doesn’t really confer any additional rights or responsibilities, except that non-members can’t vote in congregational meetings or serve on committees, and they have to pay a little more to rent the church for weddings. Non-members can still be part of Sunday School and Bible study, and the Lenten program and the choir and all of that. They can still be part of our church family.

And, to be entirely fair, there are plenty of members who barely darken the church door. I suspect that a lot of those ‘visitors’ on Easter Sunday will be members who we just haven’t seen in a while.

Second, membership is an outmoded idea. I know that the World-War-Two generation really liked to join organizations and institutions. There are reasons that fraternal organizations, bowling leagues, and, yes, even churches enjoyed a boom when that generation was at its peak. But the Baby Boomers were less inclined to do that, and Gen-Xers like myself even less so, and Millennials even less so. We just aren’t a nation of joiners anymore.

And that means that all of those nice young families who are faithfully in worship on Sunday morning, and helping out with Sunday School, and singing in the choir, tend to just not see the point in formal membership.

And that makes me think that membership isn’t the right number to focus on. The right number is—really, the right numbers are—engagement. Instead of measuring the number of people who have made a formal commitment to our church communities, we should measure the number of people who are actively engaged in the lives of our church communities. And, if we’re in a position where we can collect the data, we should be measure how engaged with our church communities the average person is.

So, instead of asking, “How many people have become formal members,” we might ask questions like this:

  • How many people are in worship?
  • How many people are showing up to special seasonal programs like Lenten studies or Advent studies?
  • How many people are engaged in regular programs like Bible studies?
  • How many people are volunteering for different tasks, from reading the scriptures during worship to going on mission trips?
  • How many people are doing informal volunteering like making casseroles and visiting homebound members of our community?

And, as I wrote above, if we’re really good about collecting data, we could keep track of what each person in our community is doing and get a good gauge of how engaged in person is. (Though that may be a bit much for most churches).

Focusing on these numbers would tell us a lot more than who has made a formal decision to join our congregations. It would tell us how active people are in our congregations. And don’t we want people who are active and engaged in the lives of our communities—even if they aren’t formal members—more than we want long official lists of people who may or may not be active and engaged?

I think we do.

The Church Is Not a Business

I attend a lot of church meetings. And I’ve been attending these meetings for years. This includes the meetings where we have conversations — sometimes they’re very difficult conversations — about money. We talk about how we’re going to raise the money we need in order to do the things we do, from supporting a local program that provides lunch food for youth while school is on summer break, to sending our adults on mission trips, to paying our musicians, to telling people in our community that we exist. We talk about how we’re going to spend the money we have. And, sometimes, we talk about how we’re going to have to make some hard choices about how we’re going to spend the money we have if we don’t do a better job of raising the money we need.

And, every so often, someone will say something like this: “We have to make these choices. Whether we like it or not, the church is a business.”

And those kinds of statements always bother me.

It’s true that the church is a business in a trivial sense. Churches do some of the things that businesses do and they have some of the concerns that businesses have. Churches raise money and spend money. Churches buy things and sell things. Churches need to deal with balance sheets and income statements and a lot of other things that businesses also have to deal with. But that’s true of other things, too. If that’s what we mean when we say that something is a business, then libraries are businesses, and cities are businesses, and families are businesses.

If that’s what we mean when we say something is a business, then maybe even individuals are businesses. People like you and me. Little businesses.

But that isn’t what we usually mean by the word ‘business’. What we usually mean when we use that word is an organization whose primary purpose is buying and selling and making money. It might do that in a noble way: many news organizations are interested in making money by getting important information into the hands of as many people as possible. It might do that in a terrible way: weapons manufacturers are interested in making money by making and selling the weapons of war. Most businesses do that in a pretty neutral way. They sell books or bread or bicycles. But regardless of what they do, their primary purpose is to buy and sell and make money. 

And that’s not true of individuals or families. Or churches.

There are plenty of voices that tell us to believe that everything — including individuals and families and churches — are businesses. For example, there’s an entire branch of charity skepticism that tells nonprofit organizations that they need to think and behave more like businesses. And there are many ways that we buy into that idea. We elect business people to public office because they tell us that the government should be run more like a business. We trust business people to propose public policies because they tell us that wealthy people are more innovative. We do things like — and I’m obviously guilty of this — have personal brands and think of ourselves as something like a business. At least, some of the time.

And those voices are the voice of mammon. At least, a little bit.

The biggest struggle in the story of Christianity is the struggle between mammon and the Kingdom of God. Jesus makes the choice clear: “No one can serve two masters,” he says, “for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”1Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13 Or, maybe even more starkly,

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

[…]

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”2Luke 12:16-21, 32-34

The church isn’t just not a business. It is a not-a-business. It is the opposite of a business. 

And, yes, churches raise and spend money. They buy and sell things. They deal with balance sheets and income statements and a lot of other things that businesses — and nonprofit organizations and families and individuals — also have to deal with. But those are things that churches happen to deal with, because we live in a time when business practices are part of the zeitgeist. They are not what the church is about. The church is about something else.

If I can bold, the church is about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed, and proclaiming a time of the Lord’s favor.3Luke 4:18-19 Everything else — including the buying, the selling, the balance sheets, and the income statements, and everything else — serves that purpose.

Footnotes   [ + ]

The Christian Persecution Complex

According to legend, Stephen was the first Christian martyr. One of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food to widows in the community, he was full of grace and power, and a compelling speaker. He was arrested for blasphemy, brought before the Sanhedrin, and stoned.1Acts 6:1-7:60 And that’s an important story. The early Christians faced real persecution at the hands of the political and religious authorities of Judea and Rome. People died. More than that, people were killed by the machinery of power.

In some parts of the world, modern Christians face similar threats. According to a report from Aid to the Church in Need, Christians in China, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkey faced serious oppression and persecution. This ranged from church buildings being torn down and congregations being forced to disband, to Christians being targeted by extremist groups like Daesh, to government crackdowns on Christians. And, of course, as a Christian I find this persecution horrific. But — and I want to be very clear about this — I am not against this persecution because the victims are Christian. I am against it because the victims are victims. As a Christian, I am called to be against persecution and oppression no matter who the victims are and no matter who the perpetrators are.

There are a lot of countries that aren’t on the list provided by Aid the Church in Need. One of them is the United States. And that’s because Christians in the United States simply are not persecuted or oppressed. Yes, there are individual cases of people being mistreated because they are Christian. But there is simply no systematic persecution or oppression of Christians in the United States.

Which is why I find columns like this one by Douglas MacKinnon so annoying.

MacKinnon begins his column with a question: “How Long Will I Be Allowed to Remain a Christian?”

And he ends it with a series of rhetorical questions that he believes evoke Christian persecution in ancient Rome:

Will we soon have to meet with fellow Christians in secret? Will we have to whisper our beliefs from the shadows? Will those Christians with “traditional” beliefs lose their jobs and livelihoods if discovered?

As more and more of the mainstream media, entertainment, academia and the hi-tech world continue to purge or discriminate against Christians, what future job fields will be open to young Christians?

Will those Christian children eventually be forced to renounce or deny their faith in order to get a job and provide for their families?

In between, he tries to convince readers that, in the United States, Christians and Christianity are mocked, belittled, and attacked by liberals, social justice warriors, and other people who “worship at the altar of political correctness.” And he has examples that range from being brow-beaten for saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and ridiculed for a vision he claims to have had, to a teacher who was fired for giving a Bible to a student and a Marine who was discharged for refusing to remove a Bible verse from her work space. Of course, he fails to mention that the teacher was later rehired and that the Marine never raised the issue of religious freedom during her original court martial. More importantly, he tries to equate these inconveniences — as unjust as they may be — with the life-and-death struggles that Christians face in other parts of the world.

Quelle connerie.

It is absolutely true that it is not okay to make fun of someone, or vandalize handouts, or otherwise harm someone because of their religious beliefs. But it is also true that American Christians — and, especially, American evangelicals — have a long history of serving as examples of the adage that to someone who is privileged, equality feels like oppression. What Christians like MacKinnon do not like is that Christians are not as shielded from ridicule as we once were (though, of course, we are still shielded). 

The fact is that there is no statistically significant risk of the church I serve being shut down. Or of my livelihood being made illegal. Or of people who believe what I believe being attacked in the streets. Or of people who believe what I believe being denied entry into the United States. Or of a government agency observing the worship services I lead. But all of these are real risks faced by Christians in other parts of the world. And most of them are risks faced by members of religious minorities here in the United States.

Of course, there is a risk that someone somewhere — and maybe even someone on television or in a movie — will make fun of my religion. Or tear down a flyer that I’ve put up in a public place. Or suggest that my beliefs are wrong or misguided or irrational or dangerous. There is, in short, a risk that I will be treated slightly worse than mainline and evangelical Christians were treated in the United States a generation or two ago. And that I will still be treated significantly better than members of religious minorities in the United States have been treated for decades if not generations. In short, there is a risk that I will enjoy significant privilege without enjoying all of the privileges that Christians in the United States have grown accustomed to.

And that’s not really a problem… except insofar that, as Christians, we shouldn’t be enjoying those privileges at all. “Woe to you when all speak well of you,” writes Luke, “for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”2Luke 6:26

MacKinnon’s questions don’t point to the persecution of American Christians. They point to our weakness. MacKinnon will be allowed to remain a Christian as long as he wants to. He will continue to be able to meet with his fellow Christians in public spaces. He will continue to be able to share his beliefs through mass media. There will continue to be government sponsored chaplains and prayer breakfasts and red masses. He will continue to have political and social power, privilege, and prestige.

And here’s the thing. If the threat of the possibility of losing that power, privilege, and prestige is enough to cause him to question whether or not he will be allowed to remain a Christian, then I’m not sure whether he can share that name with people half a world away who confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior even under the very real threat of death. I am certain that he has no right to invoke them in the cause of protecting his own — and my own — privilege.

Footnotes   [ + ]

“Don’t Be a Jerk” Is Not the Core Message of the Gospel

The post that set this post off is an old one from John Pavlovitz: The Church of Not Being Horrible. The core of that post is a common one. What we really need — what would cut to the heart of the Christian gospel and maybe even all religion — is a church that understands the importance of not being horrible to each other. Maybe we even need a church that embraces that ethic; a church that takes not being horrible to each other as its mission.

Here is what Pavlovitz writes:

I’m starting a new church: the Church of Not Being Horrible.

Our mission statement is simply this — Don’t be horrible to people:

[…]

The central question at any given moment in the church is: Am I being horrible right now? If one concludes that they are, they endeavor to not do so. If they are unsure, they allow other people to help them see their horrible blind spots of privilege, prejudice, and ignorance—and then they respond.

In other words, our sacred calling is to be decent, to be kind, to be compassionate, to be whatever it is that we believe the world is lacking: to be the kind of people the world needs—and it definitely needs people being less horrible these days.

Pavlovitz admits that ‘not being horrible’ is a low bar to set. And I’ll concede that, in a world where some people seem to make a vocation out of robbing other people of their dignity, ‘not being horrible’ can be a beautiful aspiration.

But I have two problems with this watering down of the Christian gospel and Christian ethics.

First, not being horrible is not the same as being decent, kind, and compassionate. Refraining from kicking someone when they’re down is not the same as helping them get back up. And calling on people to not be horrible is not a call to anything more than the apathy of simply not actively hurting people.

Not being horrible is not the same as being decent, kind, and compassionate. Refraining from kicking someone when their down is not the same as helping them get back up. Click To Tweet

What Pavlovitz wants isn’t just a world where people don’t hurt each other. He doesn’t want just a world where people refrain from taking away other people’s civil rights or caricaturing other people’s religion. What Pavlovitz wants — and what I want, as well — is a world where people carry each other. I think that what we both want is a world characterized not by the apathy of not actively hurting each other, but a world characterized by the passionate work of helping one another.

Second, related, and maybe more importantly, the life that the gospel calls us to — the life that Jesus Christ calls us to — isn’t a life of not being horrible. It’s a life of active, zealous, foolhardy, and dangerous love for our friends, our neighbors, and our enemies. In a world where people do make a habit out of robbing others of their dignity, the positive call to love each other — the call to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a time of God’s favor — is a call to revolution.

In a world where people do make a habit out of robbing others of their dignity, the positive call to love each other is a call to revolution. Click To Tweet

And those of us who are Christians shouldn’t water that down to not being horrible.

Hubs and Networks (and the United Church of Christ)

Last week, my denomination — the United Church of Christ — released a bit of bad news. Fourteen people were laid off as the national setting of the denomination reorganized itself around new mission priorities. Among the transitions are the combining of operations and global ministries; the combining of justice work and local church ministries; and the combining of Publishing, Identity, and Communication with the Office of Philanthropy and Stewardship to form an Office of Philanthropy and Marketing. As a colleague and friend who used to work at the national offices pointed out on Facebook, this continues a precipitous decline in staff there: from around 300 near the beginning of the century to slightly more than 100 now (someone else pointed out that there were more than 400 in the early 90s).

These layoffs aren’t surprising. The national setting and muddle judicatories have been shrinking as long as the denomination has existed. Every year brings predictions about when the United Church of Christ will close its doors, even if individual congregations keep going.

One of the biggest challenges for the United Church of Christ is how money flows through it. Offerings are collected in struggling local congregations. Some of that money — almost always a shrinking amount — is sent to middle judicatories. Those struggling middle judicatories then send some of that monty — again, almost always a shrinking amount — on to the national setting. The pie keeps getting smaller every year and at every level, and much of the reorganization at every level is about surviving on less and less.

And, unfortunately, too many of the expressions of the United Church of Christ — from local churches to the national setting — respond to that shrinking pie by focusing on how they can get more instead of how they can connect more. We focus more and more on our hubs; we focus less and less on our networks.

Let me give a simple example. The new Director of Marketing and Philanthropy will be tasked with raising money for the United Church of Christ, meaning, by and large, the national setting and its initiatives. She will also be responsible for developing stewardship materials for local congregations. Historically, those materials include some third-party books on stewardship, as well as annual themed posters, bulletin inserts, pledge cards, letters, and so on (which, of course, local congregations have to pay for). That means she’s focused mostly on raising money for her hub: the national setting.

What’s missing? Real coaching and training for the local congregations who want to support the national setting and who are themselves struggling. In other words: the creation of networks that will connect professionals and successful congregations with congregations that they can help.

And that’s also true on a broader scale. As a denomination — and like many other mainline denominations — we are focused on the survival of hubs, from local churches through middle judicatories to the national setting.

But any future for the United Church of Christ, I suspect, isn’t found in keeping hubs alive. It’s found in creating and sustaining dynamic networks. If the United Church of Christ wants to be an effective denomination in the future, it needs to invest in serving and connecting its local congregations, covenanted ministries, and other expressions. For example:

  • we might invest substantially in a group of consultants and coaches focused on stewardship and church vitality
  • we might look at how congregations who are successful at a certain ministry can be connected to congregations interested in developing a similar ministry and share resources
  • we might provide smaller congregations merge into single church bodies with multiple campuses
  • we might investigate what new models of membership — models that recognize that fewer people are likely to belong to the same congregation for their entire lives — might look like

There are any number of options here, but they are all based on networks. And it is investment in creating and sustaining those networks — not keeping hubs functioning — that will help the United Church of Christ remain a powerful force in the future.

Membership and Engagement

Recently, I’ve had a few conversations about church membership. The simple fact is that most mainline congregations are facing declining and aging memberships, and some of the congregations want to do something about it. And I always answer the same way:

I’m not concerned with membership; I’m concerned with engagement.

Membership in most mainline congregations is a formality. Someone who has been coming to worship for a while might take a membership class where they learn things about that congregation and its denomination. Then they stand in front of the congregation some Sunday morning and make some promises. And the members of the congregation who are there that morning make some promises. And the new member signs a book.

Now that person is a member. And the perk is that they can serve on committees and vote in the congregational meeting. And if they don’t show up for a few years and somebody bothers cleaning up the rolls, they’ll be taken off the membership list. Yay.

Engagement is a way of life. Each summer, at the church where I’m a member, we have Christmas in July. That Sunday morning, we collect diapers and toilet paper and feminine hygiene products for the food pantry. And this year, a young woman who is not a member and who occasionally comes to services reached out to her friends and said,

My church is doing this thing and I think it would be great if you got involved. If you want to give, but don’t want to come to services, let me know. I’ll get your donation and take it myself.

I don’t know if that young woman will ever stand in front of the congregation and make promises and sign a book. I don’t know if she will ever become a member. But she is engaged. She may even be more engaged – at least in this one thing – than some of our members.

We know for a fact that not all members are involved in the life of the congregation. We know that not everyone who is involved in the life of the congregation is a member. We know that someone who is engaged in the life of the community makes more of a difference than someone who is not, even if they aren’t a member, and even if the person who isn’t engaged has been a member for forty years.

And yet we spend so much time and energy worrying about membership when we should be focusing on engagement.

I’m not saying to ignore membership. Membership, probably, still matters. But if we focus on engagement – if we focus on getting people involved in our communities, without worrying about whether they take the formal step that improves our numbers in the yearbook – then membership, if it matters, will follow.

On the Nashville Statement

On Tuesday, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released a statement on human sexuality in order to affirm that these anti-LGBTQA Christians are, in fact, anti-LGBTQA. Just in case anyone had forgotten.

Here’s the first paragraph of their preamble:

Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being. By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences. The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry wants people to know that the Nashville Statement does not represent Nashville. I want people to know that the Nashville Statement does not represent Christianity.

Yes, the people who wrote it are Christians and, like all Christians, are caught up in a web of sin and are wholly reliant on God’s grace. But they do not represent Christianity. Christianity is represented by love and compassion for all people. And, despite the statement of the founder of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the Nashville Statement is not rooted in the love and compassion that are at the heart of the gospel.

We Need to be Noticers

One of the things I’ve learned over my time in the nonprofit sector is that it takes a whole lot of people to make a difference in even one life. Even something as seemingly simple as getting a person who is homeless into temporary housing is a process that involves a lot of people pitching in. On large scale issues – like fighting white supremacy or changing housing policy – change is the result of the work of hundreds, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people.

And yet…

Even in the nonprofit sector, we celebrate rock stars. Even in the church, we pay the most attention to our celebrities. I can appreciate that. People can become symbols of something bigger than themselves, and there are reasons to pay attention to people doing big things.

But it’s also important to notice the other people. The people who aren’t rock stars. The people who aren’t celebrities. Even in the little corner of the world that is the nonprofit sector. Even in the little corder of the world that is the progressive church. There are people doing the hard work of making a difference every day. And, while they’re not in it for the kudos, they deserve to be acknowledged. They deserve to be thanked.

So take a minute this week to notice someone who might not usually get noticed and say ‘thank you’. It means a lot.

The United Church of Christ Needs to Invest in Stewardship

Last week, I attended the United Church of Christ’s General Synod. General Synod is our biannual business meeting, full of resolutions to be examined and officers to be elected. There are also exhibits, workshops, reunions, and lots (and lots) of events. Even the extroverts are exhausted after a few days!

One of our tasks at Synod was to debate a resolution about covenantal giving and adopting fundraising best practices (I wrote a little bit about it a few weeks ago). Here’s the key paragraph:

Be it further resolved that the Thirty First General Synod of the United Church of Christ encourages all ministry settings of the United Church of Christ to establish coordinated and comprehensive development programs using best practices that: are sensitive to the needs of all settings of the church; are responsive to changing patterns and practices of generosity across the church and within the culture in which the church lives; are consistent with norms, expectations, and policies of a donor-centered approach to fundraising and philanthropy; and empower congregations and individual donors to donate directly to the mission priorities that are most compelling to them.

This is a great resolution, and I’m glad that it passed. But, as with all resolutions, it means that there’s serious work to do.

As I wandered the exhibit hall and pored over the list of workshops, I noticed that there was a severe lack of compelling materials to help congregations and other expressions of the United Church of Christ to establish those coordinated and comprehensive development programs. Most congregations, associations, and conferences do not have fundraising professionals on staff. Most probably don’t even have fundraising professionals in their pews. In the absence of professionals, this work is going to be left to pastors and volunteers.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But those pastors and volunteers need to be well-resourced by the denomination. They need a way to understand fundraising from a practical, theological, and pastoral perspective that is honest to the history and values of the United Church of Christ. There is a desperate need for the denomination to invest in resources for clergy and laity in all expressions of the United Church of Christ. In my opinion, this means books, manuals, workshops, webinars, and specialized ministers.

When so many congregations are struggling financially, we cannot afford to have this resolution simply be a suggestion for congregations, conferences, and other bodies. We must invest in the work of ensuring that our denomination and its expressions have the financial resources that they need.

Baptist News Global: Diana Butler Bass: SBC Decline Dispels Idea That Only Liberal Denominations Die

“The issue is not whether you’re a liberal or a conservative denomination,” she said. “That’s irrelevant. The issue is: Are you a congregation that provides a way of meaningful life for people to be able to navigate chaotic times and to be able to connect with God, to experience a new sense of the Spirit, to be able to love and be compassionate? That’s what makes religious communities vibrant, not whether they are liberal or conservative.”

Baptist News Global: Diana Butler Bass: SBC Decline Dispels Idea That Only Liberal Denominations Die

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