Many churches intentionally welcome all people, citing especially persons of color, gays and lesbians, and those of differing socio-economic classes. Knowing that many people today struggle with the institutional church, our congregational welcome also singles out people who are ambivalent toward organized religion.
It is surprising how often people name the significance of that brief welcoming statement. Apparently they have not experienced church in that way or they have a different impression of faith communities.
Hospitality is an essential outreach strategy for the Lakeview community which is made up predominantly of young adults in their 20s and 30s. A number of recent studies show that approximately 25% of Americans claim no religious affiliation, yet it is 33% among the Millennial generation.
On any given Sunday, our worshiping assembly is made up of longtime and newer members—about half them Millennials— and several dozen more young adults who are not members of the congregation. Some have been attending occasionally for months or even years, but have never signed a worship registration card or made themselves known. Some I recognize and others may have been there a number of times, but because their attendance is so sporadic, I am unable to form a pastoral relationship with them. In fact, when I do eventually get to know some of them, they tell me that they appreciated the anonymity and the freedom to be present without a sense of obligation.
The above may be a snapshot of the future in which public worship is fluid gathering of both active members that support a congregation financially and assume various service and leadership roles, and those who hunger for community and spiritual connection, but are suspicious of things institutional—such as membership and stewardship programs. David Lose bluntly diagnoses the challenge:
So what if all the decline in our congregations and denominations . . . is simply the result of a massive cultural shift? That is, what if we now live in a world where the emerging generation a) has tons of options for ways to think about and make sense of their lives, b) has way less time for things that don’t feel purposeful or worthwhile, and c) (and as a result of a and b) just don’t do things because their parents did but instead only commit to things that make a tangible difference in the world, both theirs and the world around them?
I guess another way of putting this is, what if our congregations are set up – in terms of things like “membership” and “pledges” and “new member classes” and “friendship pads” – to respond to the needs of those who came of age in the fifties, sixties, and seventies but have little to offer millennials? In other words, what if the way we do church just doesn’t make much sense to the youngest third of our population? What then?1
For Members Only?
Is it possible to be a public church that welcomes people at whatever level of commitment they find themselves, while encouraging others to become more involved in the life and mission of the community? The default setting for most congregations is to welcome and get to know new people, and then invite them—in fact, expect them— to become members. Yet that strategy does not work for a number of people today.
I suspect that the larger the worship attendance, the easier it is for folks to slip in and out of worship without being invited to coffee hour or cornered to sing in the choir. It is often smaller worshiping communities that, usually with good intention, risk suffocating newcomers by being overly friendly at first. I suspect most do not return because we either seen too needy or we give off the impression that we are desperate for newer or younger members.
It is no doubt difficult for pastors and staff members to maneuver in a public church made up of both members and those in various levels of attendance, interest, or commitment. I am often torn between the institutional side of me that is concerned with offerings, attendance, and having enough people to maintain the ministry of the congregation, and the other side which wants folks to feel free to get to know the community and participate at whatever level is comfortable for them. My intuition tells me that in my current context it is probably better to err on the side of giving people space in contrast to an earlier pastoral model of courting someone and inviting them for coffee and conversation after they attend worship three or four times.
What Shall We Call Them?
There is a lot of troubling news these days about declining membership and worship attendance in mainline denominations. But there is a lot of good news, at least in our urban neighborhood. Each Sunday there are many young adults checking out the churches in Lakeview. Clearly, they hunger for something. Is it community, ritual, meaning, hope, connection?
How should we relate to this growing number of people who may gradually consider a particular congregation their church home, but are not members and have no desire to become such? Some may actually attend several congregations from time to time while finding yoga, a twelve-step group, and meditation to be beneficial parts of their spiritual package.
The term membership and the implicit expectations seem to be a stumbling block for a number of them. Membership at a gym, country club, or art museum usually involves dues or fees that provide certain benefits. If one can worship without becoming a member, and the only privilege gained by further commitment is voting at congregational meetings, that is not much motivation for the lukewarm church attender.
Members of the Body of Christ
What shall we call the people who show up in our worshiping assemblies? There are many good reasons to use the word “members.” St. Paul writes about the body of Christ and the individual members of it (1 Corinthians 12:27). The baptismal liturgy states that we are “members of the church, the body of Christ.”2
In the Affirmation of Baptism rite, those affirming the baptismal covenant are asked to:
live among God’s faithful people,
hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.3
As I often explain to those asking about membership, the above promise is to live one’s baptismal life both within a faith community in the world. There is no mention of the individual congregation, Lutheranism, or membership, for that matter.
Yet the ELCA constitution speaks specifically of members of a congregation, either baptized in that community or transferred from another congregation. Note the privileges and responsibilities named for church membership:
a. make regular use of the means of grace, both Word and sacraments;
b. live a Christian life in accordance with the Word of God and the teachings of the Lutheran church; and
c. support the work of this congregation, the synod, and the churchwide organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America through contributions of their time, abilities, and financial support as biblical stewards.4
As custodians of an institution, we need members who participate, contribute financially, volunteer, and assume leadership in our faith communities. We need to continue to invite people to become members of our congregations, conduct stewardship appeals, develop community, and provide opportunities for folks to grow in faith and commitment.
Other Terms, Other Ways?
Yet, I continue to struggle with how to integrate folks who may consider our communities their church home but not necessarily under the terms and conditions we set. If our only invitation is to the new member class, a certain percentage of folks may never respond or, if pushed too strongly, may stop attending.
Are there other terms we could use in addition to membership? The ELCA model constitution provides the concept of associate membership for those who wish to affiliate with a worshipping community yet retain their primary ties to another congregation. Yet that distinction may not solve the concern I am addressing. In many Roman Catholic parishes, newcomers are invited to register, assuming that if they are already Catholic, what they are doing is affiliating with that particular faith community. Since many Lutheran congregations welcome former Roman Catholics as a major demographic among newcomers, that may be a good way to establish looser ties in transient communities than the often intimidating and permanent sounding concept of membership.
If an invitation to a new member class may limit the number of people who respond, calling a gathering an introduction—or something similar—may allow such a session to appeal to both those on a membership track and those who we might consider seekers or inquirers.
The Catechumenal Model
For those drawn to a spiritual process of exploration and renewal, the catechumenate may be a welcome alternative to membership classes. Rather than merely teaching people what Lutherans believe and describing the uniqueness of a particular congregation, what if our goal was to first get to know newcomers and seekers, hear their stories and questions, and discover what they are searching for?
Such a model of spiritual exploration and renewal might be appropriate not only for introductory gatherings for newcomers but also for a more formal catechumenal program. A catechumenal process might be appropriate for those:
* who did not grow up Christian and/or have not been baptized;
* new to Lutheranism, liturgy, or a sacramental tradition;
* who have been estranged from the church but are now drawn to community and communal worship;
* sensing a stirring of the Spirit, yet filled with questions;
* who may have grown up Lutheran but didn’t think about it when they were confirmed, and would like to learn more about Christian faith and life in community;
* parents wanting to grow in their faith as part of the baptismal promises they make on behalf of their children
Developing a catechumenal process appropriate to a congregation’s context could provide a unique kind of faith formation for the many seekers in today’s cultural milieu. A number of resources for the catechumenate are available and several congregations in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod currently offer the catechumenate. A future issue of Let’s Talk will delve into the process further and will include examples and reflections from individual parishes.
The Way Forward
Whether we like it or not, a growing number of people today are spiritual hungry, yet religiously ambivalent. Shopping for a church has made what congregations offer a commodity like other things in daily life. Regardless of our feelings toward this reality, I urge us to find a place for these seekers and inquirers in our pews. Unfortunately, there are not clear blueprints for the way forward in such a terrain. This can be disconcerting and will likely stir up our own resistance and ambivalence as church leaders. Yet my hope is that we will begin to focus on essentials and let go of practices and terminology that no longer serve us. The challenges of these days may very well lead to a surprising sense of renewal and reformation.
- ^Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), p. 227.
- ^ELW, p. 236.
- ^Model Constitution for Congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2013, C8.04.