Up to now, membership has meant an official act of belonging, like having one’s “letter” reside in a certain congregation, and markers such as worshiping there on a regular basis, signing up for duties, and pledging financial support.
Membership entitled one to certain benefits, like voting at annual meetings and getting one’s children baptized or married.
That system has been largely undone by increased mobility, people’s resistance to being tied down, and people’s wanting more than a mechanistic affiliation. By every study I’ve seen, people are as committed to faith as ever, as hungry for relationship with God, and as fervent in their prayers. What they don’t care about is “membership” in the traditional sense.
As a result, congregations find their stated membership to be a closed pool of people who became members during a time when such membership was valued. Others are referred to as “non-members,” “the unchurched,” “lapsed members” or “former members.” In reality, most are simply taking a different pathway to God.
In the marketplace, they talk in terms of “traffic.” Store rent in a mall is based on foot traffic passing one’s door. Auto dealers drive traffic to their lots, in the belief that more traffic eventually means more sales.
Others talk about “touches,” “site visits,” “viewers” and “eyes.” This is a much more dynamic concept. It considers impact, not institutional affiliation. It considers long-term connection, as opposed to decide-now pressure. It rewards giving away as a Godly exercise, as opposed to getting one more name on the roster.
It’s also what works. Everyone who passes by a bakery, for example, smells the bread. Not everyone steps inside to buy a loaf, but all have been touched by the aroma and changed. They will remember where aroma happened.
Jesus, of course, never thought in terms of membership. He taught and fed whoever drew near. He created open circles of friends. He resisted the tribal leanings of his fellow Jews. His ministry was to “all who passed by.” Even though only a handful actually followed him on the way, many thousands of lives were touched.
For a faith community, “touch” has some specific meanings. One is an e-mail newsletter that goes out to everyone who has ever crossed your threshold, come to an event, or visited your Web site. Another is public activities that capture people’s imagination, such as mission work. Another is friends of friends, who come to a neighborhood gathering. Another is high visibility for your pastor.
Such activities serve a much broader audience than those who sit in your pews each Sunday. You have no idea what God will do with those “touches,” but you can be sure that none of that effort will go wasted. It might never lead to a financial pledge, but it might lead to a one-time donation on your Web site. It might feed the sort of “buzz” that does bring people to your door.
It’s also a more honest approach. Membership has an overtone of self-serving: “building numbers,” “snagging pledges.” When you seek to “touch” lives and to give “viewers” a glimpse of God’s grace, you are giving away what you have — which is what Jesus said