This week we asked our bloggers to consider “membership” – How is our understanding of membership changing? Is membership important? What are new ways of moving forward? These are their responses.
Last week, I had a conversation with a woman at a church I have been attending while living in the Pittsburgh area. This woman, who is in her early 60s, grew up in the same church where she now brings her grandchildren.
“We need to find more members, particularly young people, but we are struggling to do so,” she said. “We have a praise band and offer more youth programs now. But we feel disappointed because we are failing to bring in young people.”
There are many different reasons and opinions as to the decrease in membership in mainline denominations, especially the PC(USA). And this decline of membership – not just in our denomination but other mainline denominations – has been studied and discussed by those far more versed and articulate than me. However, to summarize their conclusion in the simplest of terms: Our congregation members are aging and those who make up the millennial generation don’t typically attend Sunday worship services on a weekly basis like their parents and grandparents once did.
However, while creating ideas and initiatives to grow church membership is the most important item on session meeting agendas, I see a need for another conversation to happen when it comes to membership growth. And that conversation needs to be about what happens if our churches are not able to attract new members.
As someone who has been working in ministry for a year now, one common theme I am starting to see in congregations are church members who are tirelessly trying new ways to attract new members to their congregation. They are starting praise bands, hosting free church dinners and creating new and alternative worship ministries. I am still amazed by these dedicated church members who are desperately trying to grow their church family by reaching out to the larger community around them.
But for a lot of dedicated congregation members (such as the woman I spoke of earlier), there is a sense of personal failure when efforts to attract new church members fail.
Even though I believe it will be the role of us “next generation clergy” to bring the church out into new communities, those of us just starting our careers in ministry need to learn how to have conversations and provide pastoral care to members who feel a sense of failure and a feeling of dis-service to God if they are not successful in bringing new members into their church.
While it may be hard for any church to make the decision to close or even worse, merge with a neighboring congregation down the street, I think its important to remind ourselves not to become discouraged when that praise band, community church dinner or second service fail to attract the new church members. Just as it will be the role of us to find alternative ways of doing ministry outside the context of traditional Sunday worship, it will also be our role to remind our fellow sisters and brothers in our congregations that just because our efforts to gain church members may not be working, it doesn’t mean God is not using our ministry anymore. It fact, it may mean that God is going to use our ministry in a way we have never tried before.
Christopher Schilling is a 2013 graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is a candidate for ministry in the Presbytery of the Redwoods in Northern California. Christopher is also a freelance journalist, creative writer and has a passion for the outdoors, running, radio broadcasting and cars.