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.