Personally, I blame the Baby Boomers.
Though that statement works for any number of topics, I apply it in this case to the degradation of church membership. No offense. Don’t take it personally, and all that jazz.
Those who were in their teens and twenties during the 1960s developed a pretty substantial anti-institutional attitude. It was all “fight the power” and “stick it to the man” and so on. Then they became forty and fifty year olds in the 1990s, and began assuming leadership roles, including in the church.
The movement of the boomer generation back to church in the late 80s and 1990s is fairly well documented. A part of that movement brought with it the residual distrust of institutional structure. This created a tension within and around the church. How do people who are geared to “stick it to the man” talk about being a part of something like the church? What does “membership” mean anymore?
Many have dismissed “membership” altogether, reasoning that it is not necessary to support an institution by joining it in order to be a follower of Jesus. This sentiment is expressed vividly with slogans like “Spiritual but not religious” or “I love Jesus but I hate the church.”
Congregations compensated by minimizing their denominational connections, sometimes quite dramatically. The denomination logo is on the sign, but it’s tucked away down in the corner where you have to squint to find it.
Many creative, innovative, and vibrant expressions of church have emerged as a result of the rejection of the institution. From cowboy church to hip hop worship services, unique, independent faith communities popped up with amazing energy, and it was a wonderful thing to witness. In many ways, the definition of church has been forever altered, and I applaud the change.
I’d like to think we live in a “post-anti-institutional” time. (Aren’t I cool? I put the word “post” in front of a term. Hipster me.) In other words, I believe we’ve moved beyond the animosity of “I love Jesus but hate the church.” We’ve realized how naïve that viewpoint is, I think. I hope.
To be sure, there are still those who value the institution of the church over the mission. These tend to be status quo kinds of people who are reticent to change. And at the same time, there are still those who tilt at the windmill of the institution, though that battle really doesn’t need to be fought any more.
I say that because I believe it.
It isn’t attractive to “stick it to the man” when “the man” is a dysfunctional, antiquated, irrelevant hairball of bureaucracy that means next to nothing in the world today. Anyone who pays any attention to the General Conference and Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church should be aware of that. And every denomination has its own parallel, I’m sure. Railing against the institution at this point is almost bullying.
All that is to say that I’m trying to reclaim “membership” as an idea that is helpful, healthy, and conducive to helping people become followers of Jesus who are changing the world for God’s sake. Remember? The mission? Being a member of a church isn’t about supporting the institution. If it ever was, it shouldn’t have been. Being a member of a church is about confessing the need for support and accountability in our corporate Christian discipleship.
On Sunday, a lifelong church member came to me and asked about the congregation’s budget. I told him that the document was available if he wanted to take a look. No, he said, I don’t need to see it, I was just wondering “if the church needed me to give some more to support the budget.”
Old school. Notice the ecclesiology - I’m not a part of the church; the church is an external group that needs me to support it. Being a member to this older member still means institutional support.
I told him, “We don’t talk about giving in terms of supporting a budget. Our gift is a proportional response to God’s gifts to us.” He got it. And I think that makes sense to people, once it sinks in. The transformation does take some time, however.
Any time you gather a group of people together, it gets messy. But gathering together sure beats trying to go it on your own. It’s hard to follow Jesus all by yourself. Lacking support, one tends to burn out. Lacking accountability, one tends to wander aimlessly. People gather together to become church to avoid those pitfalls. Will there be conflict? Yes. Will there be struggle? Of course. Will personalities clash? Yep. It is inevitable, in just about any group that gathers.
Why would I encourage anyone to join a church? Honestly, I wouldn’t. My mission is to encourage people to follow Jesus, and the support and accountability that church membership provides seems to me like the best way to do that. When church membership is done well, it is a truly beautiful relationship to behold.