One thing is clear: a church shouldn’t measure the effectiveness of its ministries solely by counting members.
“Let’s say that JoAnn has joined a committee. Great. I can measure that,” said Mueller. “But let’s say that Mark is living his baptism in committed ways in his daily life and I can’t see that. That doesn’t make it less significant.” People who do not want further involvement in church are still being nourished “by the assembly and by the liturgy,” he insisted.
Not everyone agrees with Mueller. James Wellman, a Presbyterian pastor who teaches American religion at the University of Washington, worries that trends toward loose ways of belonging to church reinforce a consumerist mentality. People move around and refuse to commit because they think there may be something more tantalizing still out there.
In their study of contemporary religion, American Grace, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue that belonging is good for people and that people who belong to institutions tend to increase their contributions to society in other areas. Regular churchgoers are more likely to vote, to volunteer their time and to take an active role in civic life.
Belonging to a particular community also has deep theological meaning. The beautiful part of belonging to a congregation, said Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor in Iowa, “is that you create a community of common people gathered for a holy purpose and united by that sense of purpose.” When you become a member, he said, you discover the privilege of being a giver as well as a taker. A church, unlike other sectors of society, does not have qualifications for joining. Membership is open to all. But it does involve an element of commitment, even a covenant, with a specific group of people over time.
“That is the secret gift that unfolds as you become integrated into something that is larger than yourself. You find yourself saying yes to possibilities that you would never otherwise imagine.”
The word membership has powerful biblical roots, and it is difficult to imagine a Christian community making no appeal to it. “We are all members,” writes Paul in Ephesians, “one of another.” The metaphor expresses an indivisible unity—Christians belong to one another the way an arm belongs to a body. And an arm can’t live without being part of the body. Paul invokes the language of memberand body to try to persuade early Christians that they belonged to one another in a profound way.
The challenge for churches is to be able to recognize and adapt to people’s looser ways of affiliating with church while continuing to teach that belonging to one another is indispensable to the Christian vision.