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