Inactive Members

This might make you mad. In fact, every time I write about this topic, people get mad and cancel me. So be it. It has to be said, on occasion, that part of the reason our congregations are dying is that so many of our actual members are inactive. This is nothing new, in fact, it has been accepted for decades that on any given Sabbath or Sunday, you will probably only see 25-33% of any congregation in worship. It doesn’t matter how big or small, that number is pretty constant. After a couple of years at Calvary we had brought our number down enough so that we got 40-50%, but that was only because we were brave enough (sarcasm there) to remove members who hadn’t been around for 30 or so years. A radical move, that (yes – more sarcasm). And, to be fair, there are many good reasons to not go to church, and you may have one of those in your past. We have to admit to our part in this too.

When asked why they don’t participate, most members say that they feel a strong love for the place, or they want to get buried out of that congregation. I always tell them they don’t have to be a member for me to do their funeral, but that seems to make no difference. And I’m not talking about the members who come occasionally and send a donation in December; I’m talking about the people who haven’t been connected for decades. They live close enough to attend, but don’t. They don’t participate in anything, not even Christmas or Easter. They don’t support the work we do to help people. Nothing, Nada, Zilch. And yet, they get mad if you remove them from the membership rolls. Why is that? Why stay?

One of the problems with membership is that most of us join when we are 13, that delightful age where everything and everyone (except for that cutie you like in English class) is an idiot. In my experience, it is the rare 13-year-old who takes their vows of faith seriously; overwhelmingly, they just mouth the words because their parents make them do it. I was no different; it took time for me to work through how I felt about God, jettisoning a lot of the bad theology I had learned and going deeper into the question of God’s place in my life. There’s been little research on this, but the studies I have seen tell us that we should either confirm people when they are 9 or 16, or not at all. Raise them in the church like the Orthodox do, as members at baptism fully accepted by their Creator. Stop worrying about them passing a test to be good enough and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of God to touch them. And be a congregation that is kind and caring. That might help too.

One last bit of guilt, then I will leave you alone. I know that most of our members love their congregations and believe in God, and for every one of them there is a specific reason they don’t attend. My last question is this: how would you feel if our church, like so many in recent years, disappeared? Would it matter? All the Good News preached; all the care for people’s souls; all the nurture given to struggling people – all of it is gone. So many of us take the wrong approach to church; we think the church is there for us, when in fact it is there for us to help others as children of God. It is there to be a light in the darkness; to give people hope and take them deeper into the mysteries of God. Too many of those lights have gone out, and unless people of faith support their congregations, it might happen to them too. Take this for what it’s worth; get mad and cancel me. We need to hear the truth, because it will set truly set us free.

Prayer – Holy God, help our congregations to be their best versions as we do Your work in the world. Amen.

Today’s art is Friendship Baptist Church in Washington, DC, which was abandoned and then used as a canvas.