According to Gallup, church membership is down while (self-reported) religious observance is up. Why the disconnect? Episcopal Bishop Greg Rickel says that the 20th century model of the big-staff, big-program church is no longer normative nor sustainable in a world characterized by loose connections and informal networking. Congregations will need to think about membership in new ways. Rickel says we need to think of congregations as base camps for spiritual explorer.
Rickel and others say in the Christian Century, that people are thinking about affiliation differently that we did in the middle of the last century, so churches will need new ways of thinking about membership.
Despite the changing patterns of church affiliation, most churches still approach membership the way they did in the 1960s. New attendees are encouraged to attend a class to learn about the history and theology of the denomination and of the local congregation, with the expectation that they will join the church. But if new modes of affiliation are appearing, churches will need new ways of thinking about membership.
Rickel, an Episcopal bishop in Washington State, thinks that churches do not yet know how to measure what this means. “What denominational metrics people are asking—how many people are in church on Sunday, for example—may not be the right measure for today. The measures that contemporary churches need may be more intuitive and more spiritual in nature.”
Rickel points to a small church in his diocese that is located along the Columbia River. The population of the area is declining, and membership growth is not a realistic goal. Nevertheless, the congregation is a dynamic and important part of the community, because it is a community and service center. Rickel likens it to a base camp—a place along the journey where people stop to receive nourishment, training, basic supplies and encouragement.
“We’ve only been paying attention,” Rickel said, “to the people who stay. But maybe that’s not the purpose [of the base camp]. Maybe we’ve been treating base camps as permanent residences.”
In order to operate as base camps, Rickel said, congregations need not give up their identity or cease offering a challenging “rule for living.” In fact, he said, young adults are eager for such a challenge. But churches need to be able to witness to the gospel when they have only a few chances to reach any one person.
This is the key to the era we are entering, said sociologist Wade Clark Roof. “Local congregations have to take into account the fact that they may only have a one-time shot. Churches will need to put new emphasis on touching people’s lives instead of gaining new members. These are two different enterprises.”
Institutions, Roof noted, want to count people. They want to report growth. But they may not be able to do that in the way they once did. Their assessment of vitality will have to take a different form.