Membership – I

Few topics get Quakers talking as much as membership. For some people, knowing “I’m a member” is terribly important. It’s like being married, or like being a citizen of a country. Being a member is a statement to oneself and to the rest of the group about faith and commitment and things like that.

For other people, membership isn’t too important. And that’s not a put-down, either – it’s always surprising to find out how many of the best people in our meeting aren’t members. These are people who “belong” because of what they do, not because of what the membership roll says.

To some extent, membership is a choice, a voluntary move; people choose to be Friends rather than Methodists, or Catholics, or Buddhists, or whatever.

In another way, though, membership is not a choice. Many people report joining Friends out of a feeling that “this is where I belong, this is my place.” For these people, membership isn’t a choice, but rather a discovery of where they’ve belonged from the beginning. I have met many people who’ve told me, “The moment I walked into Quaker meeting, I knew I was home.”

Many churches of all denominations have been reporting declines in membership for a long time – 40 or 50 years. Sometimes this has been a drastic drop in response to a crisis, a scandal, or a policy change in the denomination. More often, the decline reflects a shift in population from rural to urban areas, or a move to some other part of the country.

In some cases, this decline in formal membership has been paralleled by a decline in the number of people at worship on Sundays. In many yearly meetings where I have been able to study the numbers in detail, though, I’ve seen a different trend: membership has declined, but attendance at worship has remained much more stable.

It’s a commonplace that people born after the Baby Boom tend to be less interested in being members of a church. In response, some churches have done away with membership altogether, and focus entirely on the number of people who show up at worship. Most Quaker meetings have tended to blur the distinction between “members” and “attenders”, and membership carries no special perks with it.

In spite of these larger trends, Quakers still argue passionately about membership. In my next post, I’m planning to talk about some of these distinctively Quaker quirks and quibbles. I’m looking forward to some lively feedback – and to hearing lots of questions from readers.


1 Response to “Membership – I”

  1. 1 Steven Davison November 21, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Joshua, good to have you back.

    I think membership is one of our most important issues. All of our problems—and blessings—come to us as people asking for membership.

    But I do decry the blurring of the distinction between attenders and members. What do we have to offer people as the distinctive value of membership?

    It used to be that you were joining a covenantal community—that you agreed that the life of the spirit was incomplete without community and that you agreed to a set of mutual responsibilities regarding its conduct: the meeting was invited to engage with you about your spiritual life, and you would commit to the life of the meeting. Now, only one side of the covenant happens—if that.

    Our personal lives are totally off limits. Our vocal ministry—speaking here of unprogrammed meetings, mostly, of course—only attracts the meeting’s attention if it is hurtful or disruptive—maybe. Our other ministries—of witness or service—we often pursue without our meeting even knowing, and if our meeting does know what we’re doing, the meeting often is not equipped to provide discernment or support and oversight.

    What, then, is left? Welcome! You can serve on our committees.

    My experience with unprogrammed, pastoral meetings is too limited to know whether things are different among you. Does West Richmond let applicants for membership know that you intend to work with them on whatever baggage they might bring with them, with their vocal ministry, with their other callings, whatever they are? Does the New Association consider these essential elements of the membership process?

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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.



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