It’s no secret that church membership is on the decline in the United States. This trend seems especially pressing in the Church of the Brethren, where numbers keep dropping and the average age in our congregations keeps rising. And this is certainly a serious concern, especially since thriving church membership often means having the financial and human resources necessary to fully carry out many of our most sacred callings, especially impactful service ministries.
So it’s only natural that declining church membership becomes shorthand for a church in crisis, an urgent problem that not only needs fixing, but that should singularly absorb the totality of a church’s time, attention, passion, and resources. Decisions should be made, our fears tell us, on the sole basis of what will increase church membership. And we can even point to examples from scripture to back up our claims: the numerous passages from the Gospel documenting the large crowds that come to see Jesus. The way the Pentecost story concludes by documenting how many new people joined the church that day. Both seem to imply that the size of the crowd is a measure of a successful ministry.
But evaluating the health of a congregation solely on its size isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous, it runs counter to the example set out in scripture and throughout the history of the Church, and, ultimately, it’s counter-productive.
I’m guilty. In the past, I’ve used declining church membership as evidence to support my claims about the dire need for a new way forward for the Church. Here, and elsewhere, I’ve written that the Church need only look at its waning attendance registers to understand that it’s doing something wrong, especially since much of the deterioration is happening among young adults who leave the Church and never come back. And I’ve argued that the church ought to become more inclusive and welcoming if it wants to see young people come back. I’m sure I’ll make those arguments again in the future because I do believe that they are true.
But I was wrong to make arguments that rest solely upon the metric of church membership as if that is a suitable facsimile of a vital ministry or a healthy relationship between a church and Christ. These arguments reflect the deeply flawed and tortured logic of a materialistic and consumer-driven culture. They substitute size and sheen for substance. They dehumanize people by turning them into numbers, rather than recognizing the precious truth of how God is refracted through every person. And they fetishize the money placed into collection plates while denying the infinitely greater worth of the hands passing those plates along.
There are huge churches that are totally dead. Megachurches with 5,000 members worshipping in one building, in which the fabric of Christian community is in tatters because nobody bothers to get to know anyone else. There are churches with hundreds of members who view worship as a rote and lifeless social obligation, not a joyous communion with Christ and community. There are plenty of large churches with hulking sanctuaries and conspicuous steeples that might as well be totally invisible because they make no effort to serve the people in the surrounding community.
And there are tiny churches that are deeply invested in discipleship–creating communities that are bound together and finely woven, worshipping God with genuine enthusiasm and devotion, and practicing service as a core component of what it means to be the Church. In fact, sometimes small faith communities are uniquely well-equipped to cultivate discipleship.
Here’s the truth: the Church should be welcoming, affirming, and inclusive because that’s the type of church Jesus modeled for us, not because that’s the way to draw a crowd.
I am confident that young adults will be attracted to such a church, as will people of all ages who have left the church because they were personally hurt by it or because they couldn’t remain part of a hypocritical, judgemental, and unchristlike institution. But even if the opposite turned out to be true–if we could bolster church membership by being less welcoming, less inclusive, more judgemental–that would be the wrong decision. That would be Peter-denying-Christ-three-times-level wrong. That would be selling our soul to gain the world wrong. That would be betraying Jesus for forty silver coins wrong.
Throughout the history of the Church, this decision has emerged time and again: should we follow Christ, or should we follow the numbers? Often, the Church chose wrongly, intertwining the Church and empire because a hulking, imposing oppressive state sure was a convenient and effective vehicle for bolstering church membership through force. But sometimes, acolytes of Christ have chosen the right path, and they set an enduring example that we should emulate as we sort out what it means to be the Church today.
When the eight original Brethren baptized one another in the Eder River in 1708, they chose to believe that obedience to Christ was a better way to measure the health of a church than the number of people in the pews. They lived in an oppressive theocracy. Church participation was pretty much 100% because everyone who didn’t participate risked persecution and execution. So the numbers were great, but the church was dead.
The original Brethren knew that eight committed disciples of Christ worshiping freely because they loved God was a lot better than an entire principality of people coerced into empty worship under the threat of death. The latter knew the ways of religion and submitted in fear. The former knew the ways of God and embraced God and one another joyfully.
Of course, it is nice to have healthy membership, both in spirit and in numbers. The Church of the Brethren should be concerned that its American membership is declining, especially since we’re seeing attrition not just when older members pass away, but because younger members are consciously choosing to leave the church. That trend is simply unsustainable in the long term, and it will preclude our ability to be the vital body we’ve been in the world in terms of service and in terms of illuminating Jesus’ peculiar ministry of peace, justice, and compassion.
But my assertion is that when the Church chooses to live by faith, rather than by fear, the rest will come as well. As long as we endeavor to bear God’s fruit of peace and justice, God will provide new opportunities for the church to thrive, just as a farmer cultivates his crop to produce year after year. But perhaps we have to expand our definition of what it means to “thrive” beyond sheer numbers.
After all, it isn’t really the number of people in the crowds in front of Jesus that matter in the gospel. What matters is what those crowds heard and the way that they walked away: amazed and transformed. Nor is the point of Pentecost the number of people who joined the church that day. The point is that the fire of the holy spirit danced on their heads, and for a moment they existed in perfect community with one another, and it changed them.
Emmett Eldred is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in Creative Writing; Professional Writing; and Ethics, History, and Public Policy. His passions include reading about, writing about, and snuggling with pugs. Emmett is the founder of DunkerPunks.com and he wants lots more people to contribute! Fill out a Dunker Punks profile, and join the conversation! He also co-hosts the Dunker Punks Podcast. Follow Emmett on Twitter @emmetteldred and follow Dunker Punks on Twitter @DunkerPunks and on Facebook.