Challenges of Membership

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By Leslie King

membership smallAfter enjoying discussion in August’s Church Leaders Roundtable regarding church growth, I was asked to expand on experience I had implementing a response to the challenges of membership within a particular Presbyterian Church. The particular challenge that we faced was a stagnant demographic (little to no growth), a declining membership base and a desire to grow. The first two realities seemed to make the third impossible.

It was 1994 and the congregation had called me right out of seminary to partner with them in this adaptive challenge. The most pressing concern among the congregation was membership.  And as the congregation and I got to know one another, it became apparent and when we imagined membership, we were primarily understanding it as a way to “keep the doors open.”  In other words, Christian membership, which may be best understood as the organic and emergent response to Christ, was imagined to be something that Elders, Deacons, clergy and the existing congregation could orchestrate or “control” in order to get a solvent budget and a full sanctuary. Of course, this best guess sounds obviously faulty to the reader of this blog. But perhaps, our best guess in early 1994 is not too far from underlying assumptions of many congregational redevelopment and new church development models.

Without fully understanding why, I remember feeling a need to be freed from our desperate desire for new members. Our desperation was keeping us anxious. Our desperation was keeping our esteem sub par among our Presbyterian peers and colleagues not to mention other churches in town. In order to calm our system, I experimented with a new response to the congregation’s lament. When, in the Sunday morning receiving line they would declare,  “We wish more people were here on Sunday mornings,” I would respond by saying, “The crowd that gathers is the perfect crowd, I want no more.” This took us back at first. I was not even sure I believed it. But the phrase was the beginning of our healing. Though the congregation was surprised by the phrase it began to allow freedom from desperation and anxiety. It provided care to our esteem which allowed us the energy to gently build an imperfect but genuine program. (We learned that many church seekers were not looking for perfection, as much as they were looking for a genuine faith community.) Perhaps, most importantly, the phrase helped me, as pastor, to get off the dime and begin the dance of ministry with those gathered. I did not wait for a better circumstance in which to invest my skills and talents.

In the wake of our new response, we enjoyed a surge in energy. The session was a pulse point within that energy surge.  They were in synch with their congregation. In the midst of the energy surge, the session made two important decisions.

They first decided to invest their mission money in their stagnant community. We were not the only ones struggling. We met with our Presbytery and asked for the blessing to keep our mission money local to our community. These were hard conversations for us to have with the Presbytery, but important. In the end, we decided that we could best serve our Presbytery and national church by serving those in our community. If our community did not know the Presbyterian Church USA as a reliable and invested group, it seemed unlikely that we would be practicing faithfulness to the itinerant Christ.

Secondly, the session decided to stop examinations for membership. It was an ironic decision since we weren’t hosting more than one a year anyway. This decision was a break with the Book of Order. The break with the Book of Order kept us from pretending that the problem was that “people just didn’t want to come to church”. We began to live the question “Who is it that want to come to this church and what can they teach us?”  This break allowed a break from the pressure of pretending to know more about the church than our visitors. We participated in the energy of the gospel which remembers people reaching toward and claiming a faith in Christ of their own initiative. We stopped asking people to prove themselves up front. We put our efforts into educating and nurturing them in the Presbyterian way AFTER they joined. The session effectively said to one another “let’s see who claims us”, then we will love and educate those people. We did not publicly display them and demand questions of them in a worship service because it seemed “showy” to them and to us.

The membership model became:

  1. Meet with Pastor to discuss faith and life in the church
  2. Dine over pie with the session and be received into membership
  3. Find leadership positions/involvement positions for those individual right away.
  4. The pulpit and Christian Education environments were encouraged as ways to learn more about faith and denomination.

The results were mixed. Some became people who could talk the Presbyterian talk and others were more connected with the local congregation than the denomination. (Though these results seem to be prominent in every church, even those with rigorous membership requirements.)

Over the years, worship attendance expanded from 30 or so worshippers to as many as 120 on an average Sunday. In all that time, we completed our year-end statistical reports. And every year, we wondered if we had been faithful in our understanding of membership and the adjustments we had made in order to be a congregation who might expand. Years later, I would read the book, The Unfinished Church by Bernard Prusak. The book provided me a comfort that I have received no place else but the gospel regarding an expanding community. In it, Prusak notes,

The emerging Church did not stress unchangeability or a fixity of structures . . . To the contrary, it was still open-ended, and had to be.  Jesus had chosen the Twelve and had left an emphasis on service or “pro-existence” but did not otherwise predetermine the development of his community.  (56)


KingAfter serving in her first call, at First Presbyterian Church of Osawatomie Kansas, Leslie King is currently pastor of First Presbyterian of Waco Texas.  She is happily a wife and mother. 

3 replies
  1. Kathleen Murphy
    Kathleen Murphy says:

    I watched this process from the ouside. “Unlikely” was a word I heard this congregation use and embrace. They always knew the hill was high, but they consistently turned toward the hill and proceeded to address it. They seemed to love the idea of living in the midst of the unlikely and trusting God to reveal the possibilities. Over time, I saw increasing smiles, energy, acceptance, wonder, camaraderie, and delight in the new learning that came with the influx of new and diverse congregants. I saw two of the members recently, and one of them said, “We are doing well, we have grown many great leaders, you know.”

  2. Cindy Schwalm
    Cindy Schwalm says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I never knew what our congregation under your leadership did or didn’t do that grew the membership.

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