Thinking again about church membership: neglected evangelism tool?

LarkNews has a satirical story about church membership:

Faith Community sent polite but firm letters to families who attend church services and “freebie events” but never volunteer, never tithe and do not belong to a small group or other ministry. The church estimates that of its 8,000 regular attendees, only half have volunteered in the past 3 years, and a third have never given to the church.

The story is funny, as it is meant to be, but it also gets me wondering about what we mean by church membership. The Episcopal Church has detailed canons about what it means to be a member of a congregation, how one transfers one’s membership to another congregation, etc. It’s all there in Title 1, Canon 17. Here’s a snippet:

A member of this Church removing from the congregation in which that person’s membership is recorded shall procure a certificate of membership indicating that that person is recorded as a member (or adult member) of this Church and whether or not such a member:

Upon acknowledgment that a member who has received such a certificate has been enrolled in another congregation of this or another Church, the Member of the Clergy in charge or Warden issuing the certificate shall remove the name of the person from the parish register.

I’ve been a member (I thought) of a handful of Episcopal congregations in my life. I have never once done this. Has anyone?

The thing is, I think membership might be something we want to reclaim more actively in the church. So much of the world today is about minimizing commitment—people want one-off obligations, if they want obligations at all. It’s not only churches that are having trouble getting people to join. It’s political parties, service organizations, and (famously) bowling leagues. (In my mind this lack of commitment is related to prevelance irony and sarcasm in society: why commit to something when you can make fun of it?)

But Christianity is (inter alia) about a life-long commitment to God in Christ, and the church is where we experience that commitment. Membership is how we express that commitment. Commitment is one of many ways in which Christianity is counter-cultural.

The trouble is, as attendance/membership has declined and the Euro-Atlantic world has become a more secular place, the church has responded not by highlighting the importance of commitment, but minimizing it. Here, take communion, some say. You don’t even have to be baptized! The Episcopal Church welcomes you! You can belong before you believe!

There may be good reasons to say these things, but the point here is that the church comes to sound more and more like the world around it: you don’t have to commit. Along the way, our canons on membership appear to have become a casualty.

I visited a church once that had membership forms. It was such an unusual thing to see that I picked one up. The form invited me to give my information and have a meeting with the priest. That kind of form I had seen before. But what this form also said was that if I became a member, I would publicly affirm my commitment to the church in a liturgical fashion during a Sunday service. I had not seen that before. I was a visitor so I didn’t fill out the form, but I found myself impressed by it. Among other things, it indicated to me that this place really took itself seriously. (This is not the only way of showing you take yourself seriously, of course.) I should say this church was going like gang-busters when I was there.

There can be a real reluctance in the world these days to draw in-out lines. But I wonder if that’s not what the church needs to do sometimes. This is not a hostile act. On the one hand, we might say, “These are members of the church, and this is what members of the church do.” (That, more or less, is what our canons already do.) On the other hand, we say to those not in the church, “And we can’t wait for you to come join us and be committed to the transforming love of God in Christ as well. And we’re so eager for you to join us, that we’re going to come to you and show you how we’ve experienced that grace.”

It would certainly be different than what the world is used to hearing.

I’m genuinely curious (as always) how you think this might play out in the congregation you know best.

6 thoughts on “Thinking again about church membership: neglected evangelism tool?

  1. I have never once done this. Has anyone?

    Yes. If I’m reading the legalese correctly, this is standard administrative practice – although the parishes generally do all the work on the back end. Most parishes proved a “Member Information Form” that asks for the name of the parish the person previously belonged to. The new parish’s office staff then contacts the previous parish and asks for membership to be transferred; that’s done by letter.

    Then, the person is in fact removed from the membership rolls of their previous parish.

  2. Irulan

    What astonishes me, in a Baptist context, is easily members can leave a congregation. We set certain standards for accepting folk into membership: application forms, interviews,.congregational vote, etc. – but, at any given moment, a member may just up and remove him / herself from the body. And we think we have a high view of church. I can’t see a Catholic doing that…

  3. Jay Croft

    As a priest I’ve always been careful about membership transfers, in and out. But several requests for my wife to transfer membership from the last church I served toour present location have been ignored.

  4. While I’m not Episcopal, this topic is very relevant today. We were just talking about the issue of “church-hopping.” A lot of people say that they get plenty of input just from hanging out with other believers and listening to sermons independently, and don’t need to be a member of a particular congregation. I have always felt the importance of investing in one local body, certificate or not. But I find it hard to explain why. It just seems obvious to me that as a part of the spiritual maturity process, one starts to show up faithfully and become more involved in some way, taking on more responsibilities. No longer a visitor.

  5. Ron Dippo

    I agree that your action of not ‘officially’ transferring membership is probably quite common. About 1976 I began regularly attending an Episcopal church. The Rector became a good friend and though he weeded out the parish list he was casual about transfers, saying that he was more interested in folks taking an active part in the prayer life and mission of the parish. Eventually I got around to being received into the Episcopal Church, but the truth is I had already been elected to 1 or 2 terms of the Vestry!! Now I am in another parish and have still not transferred membership after 8+ years. I am just saying…

  6. I became an Episcopalian, after a long search for a religion which aligned with the Bible’s core principles, leaving the So. Baptist Church I joined and was baptised in, at age 9; to take instruction and join the Episcopalians, in good faith, at 18. I even brought more people into the church, including an (ex)spouse. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of betrayal I felt, when the church’s “elders” decided, without even taking into account, the wishes of the church’s congregants; & allowed the ordination of Robinson as a priest…diametrically opposing the teachings of both the old and new testiments and initiating the division, now experienced, in America, at every level of society. I was hoping for a reversal of the decision; but it didn’t come and I am, at age 70, wanting to take my name off the Episcopal Church rolls, so as to never be associated with these policies, based on man’s opinion; which I do not, cannot and will not, go along with. The three small churches I was affiliated with, became missions and then were closed, finally; so I don’t know where to go, to address this situation. Please advise, as I’ve already started my own Independent, non-denominational, ministry. ~Thank you.

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