By Darren Cushman Wood
For all of the controversy the United Methodist Judicial Council ruling 1032 (the case involving a gay man being refused membership by a Virginia pastor) stirred up it brought to light a problem that has been brewing for more than 100 years. No, not homosexuality, but the meaning of church membership.
There once was a time when becoming a member of the Methodists was an integral expression of one's discipleship. The desire for spiritual growth was the primary criteria for entrance into the church and accountability was the norm for maintenance of members.
Today, we separate becoming a member from becoming a disciple. Consider how we make members. Typically, a person is encouraged to take a three-to-four week class that covers basic information about the congregation and the denomination. Then, they are admitted into membership. Only after they become members do we attempt to disciple them and often these attempts are half-hearted.
Our approach for at least the past 50 years has been to cast the net widely, get as many as we can on the rolls, and then work at making a smaller percentage into active participants - and an even smaller number as actual disciples. The net result has been membership rolls with large percentages of inactive members and only half of our members worshipping together on any given Sunday. I believe this "norm" is a symptom of a greater spiritual problem.
Today, the typical United Methodist congregation is saturated by a variety of meanings of membership that distract from "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
Historical members - These people were active a long time ago, they left their mark, but since that time they have never come back.
Legacy members - These people were never active and they may not officially be on the rolls but assume because they were related to an active member that family ties suffice for membership.
Dues paying members - They never attend but send in the check once a year in order to keep their membership. Usually, they heard at some time an estimate on how much apportionments cost per member, and (if you are lucky) they use this as a formula. They usually become upset when you remove their names from the rolls for fear that they will not have a preacher to bury them. For them, membership is like paying taxes.
Sporadic members - Most typically, they are known as "C & E" members (Christmas and Easter) but they also come in a number of varieties from the folks who come regularly for three months, then you do not see them for another year to the ones that come once a month. For them, being a part of the church is like membership in a gym or contributing to a charity - you do it when you feel like it.
Episodic members - Like the sporadic member their attendance is uneven, but unlike the sporadic member, the episodic member will become very active for brief periods when there is crisis, but once crisis is over, participation wanes.
Frozen members - John Wesley referred to them as "almost Christians." They come on Sunday, put money in the plate, and if asked, will make a casserole. But there is no pulse, no desire for spiritual growth or missional outreach.
The root cause of this separation of membership and discipleship comes from our middle-class status. We grew because we linked ourselves with the rising middle class. But success had its price. We watered down the Gospel in order to fit the culture. Now the culture is changing and the bargain we made two generations ago is no longer paying off. Ironically, the typical Hoosier congregation cannot attract or retain people who long for spiritual growth while at the same time retain inactive members on the rolls only because they are a relative or give a modest annual donation.
With every crisis is an opportunity. The opportunity begins with pastors casting a vision through preaching and teaching that places discipleship at the center of the congregation. This vision must be embodied in our administration. Lay and pastoral leadership must lead a congregation in adopting a membership covenant tailored to its specific situation. Once adopted, the membership covenant becomes the instrument that gives clarity to potential members, accountability to inactive members and direction to the leadership in providing for the needs of everyone.
Darren Cushman Wood serves as senior pastor of Speedway United Methodist Church.