Young adults challenging traditional church membership concepts

By Jeff Brumley

The value and purpose of church membership is becoming an increasingly hot topic in Baptist and other congregations these days.

And that’s “hot” as in controversial and heated, not popular. And it’s one that occasionally pits older and younger generations against each other.

The debate comes down to this: older folks see church membership as logical and necessary while Millennials and other young people say it makes no sense.

“There’s a lot of generational angst” around the topic, said Bob Ballance, senior minister at Pine Street Church, an American Baptist congregation in Boulder, Colo.

About 30 percent of that congregation consists of Millennials, who see meaningful participation in church life as more important than being on the rolls. Older members sometimes don’t get it, he said.

Wanda Kidd was curious about the phenomenon after speaking to several college students recently. So much so that she penned a blog for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on July 22 as a way to explore the subject and get church leaders talking.

“As I talk to young adults about the value of membership in a local church, there is a real push back,” wrote Kidd, college ministry coordinator for CBF of North Carolina. She said it begs for a larger conversation about what it means to belong to a congregation.

“It seems to be a barrier that these generations cannot cross,” Kidd told Baptist News Global.

‘Affirm their engagement’

Other experts say the membership issue has been simmering for at least a three decades and is now coming to a head with the emergence of the Millennial generation.

And no one is exempt from it, said Eddie Hammett, a congregational consultant and president of Transforming Solutions in North Carolina.

“It’s across all denominations and even the size of church doesn’t seem to matter,” Hammett said.

Differing viewpoints are split right along generational lines, he said. One group sees membership as a critical measure of success, while the other sees it as pointless and even hypocritical because members often don’t attend church.

“They want the church to affirm their engagement in mission and outreach,” Hammett said. “That’s how they define membership.”

It’s increasingly becoming a volatile issue in some congregations, he added.

“This is a defining moment for the future of the church.”

‘A rhythm of life’

And it’s a moment that’s been a long time coming, said George Bullard, a church consultant and strategic coordinator of the South Carolina-based Columbia Partnership.

What Kidd has identified in her blog, Bullard said in an email to BNG, is something that has been happening for about the past three decades in North America that has now become mainstream and is impacting the traditional church significantly enough that “virtually everyone is noticing it.”

Some churches started searching for solutions even 30 years ago, Bullard said.

“The pastors and other leaders of newer, innovative congregations began to talk about the word ‘connecting’ rather than the word ‘membership,’” he said. “They suggested that adults during the first half of their adulthood desire to connect with one or more communities of faith, rather than to be members of one community of faith.”

Even then, before the rise of the Millennial generation, some young Christians were drawn more to “movements of meaning and significance rather than organizations with patterns and habits that appear to be in a rut,” Bullard said.

Churches today need to be equally creative at finding alternatives to traditional membership, said Travis Collins, director of mission advancement for the U.S. operation of Fresh Expressions, an international movement to help churches navigate postmodern culture.

Noting that membership as typically practiced does not appear in scripture, Collins said in some cases improved language may do the trick.

“Some really good churches now talk about something like ‘covenant relationships’ instead of ‘membership,’” he said. “People decide, often annually, whether they will commit to the church’s rhythm of life, to the church’s values and mission.”

Collins said Kidd’s blog is a shot across the bow, reminding churches they can no longer take traditional practices for granted.

‘Not a good rationale’

Kidd said she believes that message will take about 20 years to sink in as churches increasingly come across young people unwilling to sign on the dotted line.

“They want to know what the advantage is, what’s in it for them,” she told BNG. “If you tell them you can teach Sunday school or be on the finance committee — that is not a good rationale for them.”

That’s also what Ballance has found at Pine Street Church in Boulder.

While older adults have warmly welcomed Millennials into the church, he said, occasionally one will express concern that younger Christians are “getting away without being committed.”

Younger people will occasionally complain, too, he said.

“The whole concept of membership smacks of exclusivity and they have no interest in it — but they do want to be involved,” he said.

Jeff Brumley is assistant editor of Baptist News Global.