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.

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