Sunday, January 25, 2004

Churches, belonging and membership

I shared a coffee with Nate Cull recently. The conversation roamed around to the way the internet builds community. We applauded open source communities; places like open office, and the way they build community.

Nate mentioned some research done on open source communities and how participation follows a sort of bell curve; very committed at the core who give lots of time, through the whole range of involvement, to those on the very fringe, who give very little.

He then dropped in what I thought was a stunning observation;

most churches don’t have bell curve commitment, they have flat commitment. You are either in or you are out. There is not way for grades of commitment. In fact, most community volunteer groups are like this and most community groups struggle to retain members.

Kevin Ward wrote a great paper on traditional sporting clubs membership, which was plummeting in New Zealand (even worse than the church) and the rise in popularity of touch rugby as a summer sport – which much lower and much more casual commitments needed.

So I thought about this in relation to Graceway, the community I planted. We made some effort to move toward a bell curve. We had two categories; “members” and then “friends” of Graceway.

The “friends” were a category for people who might not be physically present but liked our ethos, and cheered, prayed and encouraged from a distance. The “members” filled out a survey form when they joined, and could contribute to a varying degree – lots to little. And each year we gave the survey forms back and said that we recognised that life commitments changed (children, interests, jobs) and so people could decide afresh what they might contribute. So there were some gradients.

But what about you out there? How can we shift church belonging from flat to bell curve, and take account of the huge variety of ways contemporary people express belonging?

Posted by steve at 09:29 PM


  1. Steve, you said “How can we shift church belonging from flat to bell curve, and take account of the huge variety of ways contemporary people express belonging?”
    Answer: flag membership and concentrate on community formation ( its not that simple)

    1. Membership should not be the basis for belonging. One Church in Scotland ( I think) wrote to 600 of its members asking them to reconsider their membership as only about 10% actually belonged to the church (ie attended). If membership is the basis for belonging perhaps you should re-evaluate what membership is or flag membership and work on community.
    2.Kevin Ward (and myself) have always said that belonging preceeds believing. Most church membership consists of “believers”
    What if you want to belong and dont yet believe – you cant be members, but you can be part of the community. Maybe thats where some of your Graceway “friends” fit in?
    3. In the church that I “belong” to ( but am not a member of) membership is useful for voting for church leadership and committment ( ie tithing and such like). Thats it. Im treated as an integral member, even though I may not attend or tithe every week. But if you want to create community, rather than a two tiered adherants and membership system, wouldn’t it be better to have optional membership – and if you are not a member you are not treated as a second class parishioner, but all pastoral care etc is available to you and you are treated as an integral member of the church, and can vote, lead mid week groups etc..

    But another question arises, As a pastor, how do you know who are the people who show the necessary commitment to your church – ie not just belong – if you dont have membership? Do you have a roll call and tick em off?
    Anyone have an answer?

    Comment by dave the rave — January 25, 2004 @ 10:14 pm

  2. Yay me for getting on Steve’s blog. 🙂

    I think one of the ways ‘classic modern’ churches do accomodate for varying levels of involvement at the moment is through having multiple optional programs. You express your level of interest through joining another sub-group – much like in a Unix computer system. Guest/visitor level member: walk through the door. Authenticated guest: leave your name on the guest book. Entry-level member: attend Sunday services, tithe. Advanced member: attend homegroup, Alpha group, mission group, prayer group, etc. (Same thing happens with committees and workgroups in the business world. I guess the concept of groups became used as a computer security model because it represents what happens in many organisations).

    So I’m not sure the issue is so much that the capability for varying levels of involvement isn’t there, but that in many evangelical churches there may be a pastoral expectation that in a fully healthy church everyone will be as involved as possible. Where the healthy model may well be that everyone not be fully involved – because otherwise, that means you have no fringe members, and the fringe are the ones who are highly mobile, dividing their time between multiple realms and are busy connecting you with the rest of the world.

    That was what I got out of the idea, anyway. I’ll try to go dig up the original article about open source project participation. Googling for ‘open source power law’ gets me Clay Shirky’s study on power-law distributions in weblog connections, which is not really about the same thing at all.

    The “law of two feet” from Open Space is a closer concept, I think.

    Comment by Nate Cull — January 26, 2004 @ 12:08 am

  3. I reckon we have a bell curve of belonging in our South Island rural parish.

    How did the shift from flat to bell curve happen? Through relationships. Basing recognition of belonging on the relationship that builds in response to people’s interest. A key shift for the local people was to stop assuming that people who didn’t attend church didn’t have a faith.

    The following is something I wrote in our parish newsletter (the “letter from home” that goes out to everyone who wants it – that is, it covers the range of the bell shape) in the middle of 2003. It was not long after I’d heard Kevin Ward speak:

    ““Believing without belonging” – I’ve often heard that phrase used to express what people want nowadays. It’s not that we – people generally – don’t believe in God or don’t have any spiritual experience. Sociologists have admitted that they got it wrong with their “secularisation” thesis in the 70’s predicting the end of faith. (One quotable quote: “The most amazing thing about the 20th Century is that God didn’t die.”) Most people do have spiritual beliefs of some kind, a framework for understanding their life that identifies what really matters and what they hope for.

    What is noticeable now is that people prefer to believe without belonging to an institution that regulates their beliefs. Believing without belonging, but is it?

    Not quite. I’d say: believing without institutional belonging, that is without adhering and conforming to a set form of beliefs and laid-down ways of expressing them.

    What we want nowadays is space to explore: most of us don’t want the ‘done deal’ of an established spiritual system.

    But, as I see it, we still like to belong in the sense of feeling that we are among people who accept us. I commented recently at a Baptism service that I think this is what many parents are seeking when then want their children christened. They are picking up on church as a family in the best sense, as people who accept us and care about us, who welcome us whenever we turn up, who allow us to be unique individuals at the same time as offering the strong bond of guaranteed relationships, no matter what. People who live the Christian Way and practice the Christian Ethic.

    Belonging without conformity-requirements is what a church and a family can offer. And in relation to church it can be an experience of belonging that gives us a safe place to touch base, check out experiences, tap into other people’s insights, as we make our own way on our own spiritual journey.”

    Comment by Robyn McPhail — January 31, 2004 @ 10:28 am

  4. Tithing is a commandment of God. The purpose of which is not just to maintain the structure of the religious institution but it is how we receive our own blessings from God. Luke 6:38 says “give and it shall be given unto you; good measure pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give unto your bossom. For with the same measure that you mete (give) withal (in its entirity) it shall be measured to you again.” Tithing should be taught as a form of worship, not as a members duty. We are to give freely of our increase.
    We have many religious denominations practicing today, many of which have very different viewpoints on tithing and giving. However we need to remember that as believers we are all one body in Christ Jesus. What benefit then is a denominational label? Is it merely a “club” where only those who pay a fee may belong? God forbid. Did the Christ make his sacrifice for only that little group or did He make it for the whole world…Whosover believes”?
    Tithing is meant to be a form of worship by the believer, not necessarily the “church member”. It is definitely not meant to be an order used for group membership. God’s people are required to give to keep the work of the kingdom going and to aide those who are in need, it is not and never has been for a traditional expectation of an organizational membership. Giving not only shows the love of God which was extended to us but it helps to encourage others to join in God’s kingdom growth.

    Comment by Mildred — April 7, 2004 @ 3:13 am

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