There was a time when we were a nation of joiners. This was especially true in the 1950s, after the GI's came home from WWII, went to college, got jobs, and started families. They joined Masonic orders, service clubs, and fraternal organizations, while we kids joined the Scouts (Boys, Girls -- and some were Campfire Girls). My Dad was a church member, a Lion, and an Elk. Of course, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble were members of the Loyal Order of the Water Buffaloes, while Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were Raccoons.
They also joined churches in huge numbers, so large of numbers that denominations went on building booms, putting churches on every corner and expanding well out into the suburbs. Much of this is documented in American Grace (Robert Putnam and David Campbell), a book that should be read by anyone wanting to know why so many churches are filled with older people, when younger folks have decided against it. Unlike our parents and grandparents, we're not nearly the joiners that they were, and its showing.
We who inhabit the churches, especially long established churches know a lot about the changing tides. People aren't joining like the once did. But that doesn't mean that younger generations aren't going to churches, they simply are less likely to join up. It's quite possible that your church is like my church. I've got a number of people who attend regularly, contribute, sing in the choir, and help out in different ways, but aren't yet ready to join. They're so regular that many members just assume they've joined.
This phenomena is detailed in an important Christian Century article written by Amy Frykholm entitled: "Loose Connections: What's Happening to Church Membership?" Amy takes a look not only at the change in patterns, which include both church shopping (a phrase that suggests that the person intends to buy at some point) and church hopping (such folks probably aren't intending to buy, they just kind of move from one community to the next, maybe attending several different ones), but suggests that churches will need to start thinking about finding new ways of engaging such people. Simply having more new members classes probably won't do the job!
So what to do? Amy closes with these words:
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 member and 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.
Membership has important meanings attached, but how should we understand membership in this more mobile age when options are greater, joining isn't nearly as attractive as it once was, and recognizing that a lot of people have either gotten burned by churches or just got burned out by all the "church work?" I encourage taking a look at the article, but also engaging in a conversation about being church or even being community in an age of "loose connections!"