Good news! In this summer of growing deeper into community, we’re also growing in numbers. Today the Stanley family–Christy, Jeff, and Zach–will be joining Pilgrimage.
Welcoming new members is a joy. Knowing that folks have been through a discernment process and have decided that this is the place, these are the people with whom they want to continue their faith journey? An utter joy!
And the tiniest bit confusing. Because church membership isn’t what it used to be.
When I became your pastor in 2001, most folks who visited found us in the phone book. Often, they were UCC transplants from the north looking for a familiar church experience in the south, which–let’s face it–was hard to find. Folks weren’t that interested in Inquirer’s classes because they were lifelong UCCers; they already knew all the answers. They just wanted to join…because that’s what you did when you moved to a new community–you found the nearest UCC church and you joined… kind of like joining the gym.
Things are different now. Now, I’d say 95% of folks find us on the web. The other 5% come because of the messages on our sign. Very few people are lifelong UCC. In fact, very few people are UCC at all. When people attend Inquirer’s classes now, when it’s time to go, they want to keep talking, keep learning about the UCC. In fact, the interest in the last Inquirer’s class was so intense, I’ve decided to teach a UCC ABC’s class. It’ll begin August 16.
At the same time that inquirers have become more interested in learning about the UCC, they’ve become less interested in becoming members of the community. In my reading about this non-joining trend, I’ve learned that folks aren’t joining much of anything anymore–not faith communities, not professional organizations, not anything. (Except gyms, I guess. 🙂
The place we’ve been wrestling with the not-joining trend here at Pilgrimage is in the deacons. Do you know how the deacons’ ministry here works? Drawing on the description of the first deacons in Acts 6, our deacons see to the care of the community’s members.
In this congregation, we do that by divvying up all the families. Each deacon stays in touch with up to 10 families in the church. If there is a pastoral need, they work to see if our community can meet that need. When I can’t make a hospital visit, they do that. They’ve even received training to take communion to folks who aren’t able to attend worship. If you have a pastoral need, I am of course always available. Your deacon also is available to listen, pray, and connect you with more practical care like providing food, respite care, that sort of thing.
Here’s how the changing role of church membership impacts the deacons. If someone is a member, but they no longer attend, how long do they stay in touch? How many times does a deacon reach out when the person they’re contacting doesn’t respond? Is it good stewardship of our deacons’ time and energy to keep reaching out to people who don’t reach back?
On the other side, if someone is very active in the community, should we refrain from assigning them a deacon because they haven’t joined? Is having a deacon a “perk” of membership, or is it a key part of being community? And what about name tags? Are name tags a perk of church membership? Do you only get a name when you’re officially part of the community? The answer to that is no! If you want a name tag, contact Lynne.
So, if church membership isn’t what it used to be, what is it? What will it mean—for them and for us—when the Stanleys sign the membership book in a few minutes?
Today we begin a four-week exploration of Romans 12, which is a how-to manual on community. Today’s passage is similar to another of Paul’s reflections on community– I Corinthians 12, the Mr. Potato Head passage….you know—we’re all part of the body of Christ, we have different functions AND we’re all connected. If we were all eyes, where would the hearing be? If we were all mouths, where would the listening be? That’s why I asked for this encore performance of the The Body drama today. What a beautiful illustration of just how important EVERY SINGLE PART of the body is….and how important it is for all those parts to work together. And how necessary diversity is.
The body metaphor also works well as we seek to grow deeper into community. There’s a tweak in the Romans passage, though, that has stuck with me and won’t let go. Verses 4-5: 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
Members of one another? What does that mean? The body drama illustrates it well. Where would the legs be without the brain? Where would the bladder be without the lungs? Where would the big toe be without the stomach? And where would any of the other parts be without the heart “pumping, pumping, pumping?”
Each part is a member of every other part. If any part isn’t functioning well, all the others are affected. If one part is sick or injured or tired, all the other parts have to work harder. A fully-functioning body requires all the parts to work well together.
And a fully-functioning body of Christ requires that all its members work well together, to actively engage their interconnectedness, to depend on their diversity. If we remain only members of the body or institution and not members of each other, then our membership can only remain shallow and perfunctory….kind of like becoming a member of the gym and never going to work out. And we all know how NOT working out affects bodies.
So maybe the changing landscape of church membership isn’t so much puzzling as it is an opportunity…Maybe it’s an opportunity to grow deeper into community by taking seriously how interconnected we are.
How interconnected are we? As you reflect over this summer of growing deeper into community, how have we been working together? What are some examples of us becoming members of one another, of depending on our diversity, of working together so that we, as the body of Christ, might act others into well-being? (Responses from congregants.)
The intent of some sermons is to challenge you to see things in new ways. This isn’t one of those sermons…because we’ve just heard about many ways in which this community already is working well together as a body. We have spent time together, talked together, played together, gotten to know each other better, learned about our diverse gifts, and used them not only to strengthen our Pilgrimage community, but also to act others into well-being outside this community.
The landscape of church membership is changing…and personally, I think that might be one of the best things to happen to the body of Christ in a good long while. This notion that we are members of one another–and not simply of an institution…living as if we are members of one another is ushering us in to a deeper experience Christian community than we’ve ever had. What good news!
Church membership isn’t what it used to be. Thanks be to God!
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2015
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.