removing barriers through transitioning away from a membership model.

8 Apr

As we explore what it looks like to remove barriers to participation in brick & mortar congregations in a changing religious landscape, we are seeing a shift in our dominant operating paradigm. In times past, a congregation would look at how many members it has as a measure of health and “success”. But with declining membership numbers, congregations are now shifting to looking instead at how the reimagine participation in the congregation.

The Old WayIn the old model, the vast majority of the congregation would worship together on Sunday morning. After a certain amount of time, visitors would become members, and then they would be invited to participate in the structure of the church by joining one committee or another. If someone came into the church via one of the church groups, such as a book-group or a CUUPS group or a meditation group, they would be encouraged to come to worship and eventually join the church. People who did not participate in the communal worship of the church frustrated leaders who wanted these people to “count” as members and to then support the church through their volunteer efforts and financial contributions.

The New WayThe new model turns this old way on its head. Instead of a pathway to membership, there is a new focus on multiple avenues of participation. Perhaps someone wants to come to a particular Adult Religious Education class, or they are interested in the book club. Or they want to volunteer for the soup kitchen or they turn out for the public witness march. These are people who may be involved in the church in several different ways but who may only rarely (if ever) show up at Sunday morning worship.

Until now, we would try to get these folks to come to worship, with the goal being to get on that pathway to membership. Today, we recognize that these ways of participating are valid and valuable as the church can (and should!) touch lives outside of worship as well as inside.

This new focus on multiple avenues of participation has an impact on how we do things: Faith development should not only happen in worship, it should happen at the church group level as well, whether that group is the soup-kitchen servers, the book group, an RE class, or beyond. Stewardship is the same – we can’t just “hit up” the people who are in worship but must approach the whole of the congregation.

Churches are removing barriers to participation by considering folks who engage in these other avenues and groups as community members because they are, whether or not they participate in worship or have formally signed the book. Besides, they may have very good reasons for not attending on Sunday morning. For instance, they may have to work! This leads to the issue I will discuss in the next post: utilizing technology effectively.

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