The new age of ad hoc connections 

For many years, churches used the language of “belonging.” Now we find ourselves in a world where “belonging” has changed and, for many, ceased to be a value.

Churches offer rituals of joining and belonging, such as confirmation, membership classes, celebration of new members, and membership privileges such as voting on leaders and budgets.

This worked for many years. People wanted to self-identify by naming their church affiliation. After the dislocation of the Depression and World War II, people were joiners.

They joined service clubs, like Rotary, Kiwanis and the Junior League. They joined swim clubs and country clubs. Joining was a way to find a place and a friendship circle. Church joining was an important part of this settling down and fitting in.

Then it began to end. Service clubs struggled to attract new members. Country clubs closed. People were too busy for membership meetings and conventions.

In the face of this, churches have largely clung to membership rituals. For one thing, it’s how denominations keep score. For another, they truly believe that they are offering something that people ought to value, namely, belonging to the congregation, taking their part in its duties, having a “church home” and deriving identity.

Maybe people will circle back to belonging some day. But for now — and for the past 50 years — membership rituals and insistence on belonging have become obstacles. They come across as imposing barriers, affirming in-crowds and making too light of mission.

People today value groups and networks, but they want them to be free-flowing and ad hoc, centered in hanging out, last-minute planning and discovering new venues. This is an age of pop-up stores and restaurants.

Those who value joining and belonging often don’t know what to make of ad hoc networking. They sometimes criticize it as shallow and anti-commitment. I think this criticism misses the point: people are just living in different ways. Not better or worse, just different.

Wise church leaders will dial down the membership lingo and learn to offer a variety of venues, some of them ad hoc, where people can connect.

One church held a one-time event to pack seeds for African farmers. A huge crowd turned out. Habitat for Humanity builds are great for networkers. So are events like delivering toys to children at Christmas, rallying around victims of a storm, holding a prayer vigil after a local tragedy like a police shooting, when people want to make some response but not to join an ongoing group.

Custodians of longtime church groups need to be educated about changing times and encouraged to keep doing what they are doing but not to get frustrated or critical when younger people don’t join.

Rather than worry about group bylaws and officers, churches should ramp up their communications, so that when a need arises, they can send out a call for caring. Then just let people serve as they can, without imposing a membership expectation.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH’S new Fresh Day online magazine offers fresh words about faith and life, fresh voices, fresh ideas. For a free trial go to