Church Membership: Who Counts? Who Cares?

The Washington Post reports on how “soft” numbers are for church membership in the United States–an old story among us sociologists and historians, but an important story nonetheless. The numbers are generally inflated, as many denominations and congregations don’t drop people from the rolls unless they are explicitly asked to do so–and who bothers to do that once they have drifted away from church? They’re also inflated because in at least some regions of the United States it is still “expected” that you belong to a church, so you say so when a pollster asks.

Ironies and paradoxes abound. Here’s one. The Roman Catholic Church, known for making one or two demands on its members, nonetheless keeps on its rolls anyone baptized in its churches unless they ask to be removed. But so do the Mormons and the Southern Baptists, who also are known for expecting members to toe a certain line of doctrine and practice. And even if they were the only three denominations to practice this weird kind of inclusivity (and they’re not), they’re so big that they alone would account for a huge statistical problem.

Here’s another. Major black churches, such as the National Baptist Convention and the National Missionary Baptist Convention, have reported precisely the same figures for several years: no bigger, no smaller, as the years go by. Hmm. Even Puritan New England didn’t have that kind of numerical stability.

And yet one more. Anecdotally, I’ve met dozens of people who “keep their membership” in the church of their youth, or the church of their marriage, despite having moved to and participated in a half-dozen churches since then.

And it’s not all inflation. Many churches, and particularly booming ones among evangelicals, have a lot more of what sociologists call “adherents” and even what theologians would call “functioning members” than actually sign up for formal membership, especially in our present era in which people hesitate to declare formal membership in anything–such as, say, marriage. So a church with 300 members might well have a Sunday morning attendance of 1000 and have 800 people involved in some capacity in church ministry.

These statistics matter to professional observers such as I. It helps us make certain kinds of cultural “readings,” historical comparisons, trend-spottings, and the like. So we care.

Denominational leaders care as they try to monitor various metrics, such as membership, to help them know what kind of a job they, and those clergy who report to them, are doing–and what action to take in response. (Some denominations care also because they assess congregations a certain expected tithe each year based on reported membership, so that it is actually in the congregation’s financial interest, to put it crassly, to under-report their numbers.)

And pundits and politicians care, as they want to use statistics to scare people into this or impress them into that.

But should anyone else care?

I’m wondering whether all these “wholesale” numbers mean very much when so much of what Christianity is about is “retail” instead: this congregation in this community performing this particular ministry.

I’m wondering whether congregations and individual Christians are supposed to somehow feel good that their denomination is growing and bad if their denomination is shrinking: Do such big, soft numbers really tell us anything about what matters according to Kingdom values?

I’m wondering whether membership numbers really help denominational leaders as much as, say, figures on giving (now you know how much you’ve got to work with), or ordinations (ditto), and other pretty hard numbers that make a pretty big difference.

Canada used to have much, much bigger membership numbers than it does today. And we all know that things have changed here. But we didn’t need membership numbers to notice what changed that actually mattered. Indeed, sometimes such figures distracted us into thinking there was just one story–decline–instead of multiple stories in multiple places, such as growth here but not there (regionally, confessionally, ethnically), cultural influence here but not there, spiritual vitality here but not there, and so on.

The Christian religion–and most others I can think of–is about this person, and that family, and this congregation, and that community. Numbers can, indeed, help us track certain things that matter at this scale, and Christian leaders should get good at developing and using them.

But national figures about denominational membership? Most of us don’t know about them and don’t care about them. And, given their quality and their irrelevance to most of what really matters in church life, that’s probably just fine.

0 Responses to “Church Membership: Who Counts? Who Cares?”

  1. Pat McCullough

    Interesting food for thought. I am a member of the Brethren in Christ denomination, but across the country from the church I am a member of. I currently attend (and am a pastoral intern at) a church in the Mennonite Church (USA) denomination, but I’m not a member. To add some more to the mix: when I was an infant, I was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church (even though my parents never attended church while I was a child). If you’re right about them keeping their records, well, I guess I’m on the books as a Roman Catholic! So I suppose I’m a good example of what you’re talking about.

    I keep the BIC membership because I do consider it “home” and I hope to end up at that same church some day (after grad school). We shall see.

  2. serveonegod

    Hey…wonderful writing. I’ll do my talking about “church membership” on my own blog. I don’t think anybody should have to sign or adhere to any doctrine man makes to be a “member” in any church.

  3. serveonegod

    Oh, you don’t mind if I link your blog on mine do you?

  4. Bobby Richards

    I think you have a different perception about membership in the Catholic Church, and a Catholic Parish. It is true that anyone who is Baptized with the Trinitarian formula and catechized with the Catholic truths is considered a Catholic for the rest of his/her life, unless there is a formal renunciation of his/her membership in the community. Our brother who commented earlier, is still a Catholic in our eyes, unless he has joined a different assembly; and if he has, a reconciliation can remedy that separation.

    Now being part of a Catholic parish, that is another story. In practice, inactive Catholics are not usually counted in the parish numbers. The reason is, parish members (those who have domicile in that geographic territory) have rights and can make demands. This is one of the reasons you see Catholic Churches full on Easter Morning and Christmas Eve. Sometimes this is uncharitably called the EC Catholics.

    Maybe some places there is a different experience, they may be more charitable! But in practice, most parishes I know drop their inactive members from membership.


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