An ELCA news release elsewhere in this newsletter notes that ELCA membership declined 1.6% in calendar year 2006 – some 76,573 members left the rolls of the member churches of the ELCA. Every year since 1991 the ELCA has faced a membership loss when annual reporting for each calendar year was completed. This year was no exception.
There is, of course, a voice within me that sounds worried about this decline in membership. Frankly, I'm depending on the membership of the ELCA to care for my physical needs when I can no longer occupy the office of pastor, so I have a personal stake in what happens in our denomination. But in addition to the voice of worry, another voice sounds, if not thrilled, at least delighted by the thought that our church is growing leaner and more fit for discipleship. You see, a good portion of the membership loss is from roll cleaning: purging congregational members who show a decided disinterest in the ministry of the church as it stands.
Understand that I would prefer our members to repent of our inactivity and return to active participation in the ministry of the church. But let's be honest, folks: in some cases, it ain't happening. Inactives stay inactive and show no interest in worship, service or fellowship and thus they have already, in effect, removed themselves from being members – we just finish the act by purging them from the roster.
Now before some of you start gloating about your regular worship attendance, let me draw your attention to the final sentence of the previous paragraph – particularly the bit about "worship, service or fellowship". I would argue that within our church and our denomination there are far too many people who could be described as "worshiping inactives:" those folks who "draw near to [God] with their mouths and honor [God] with their lips, while their hearts are far from [God], and their worship of [God] is a human commandment learned by rote…" (Isaiah 29.13). Our denomination is experiencing membership decline, but we are also entering the beginning of a time of greater turmoil that will be centered in one undeniable problem: we don't live what we confess. Because of this, our witness, service and fellowship suffer from a lack of integrity, authenticity and genuine love. We've traded discipleship for comfort and service for security, neither of which are God's plan for the church.
In Mark 8.34 Jesus says, "If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Ched Myers says that "the cross in Mark's day was neither religious icon nor metaphor for personal anguish or humility. It had only one meaning: that terrible form of capital punishment reserved by imperial
Could it be that our membership decline is a sign that the true meaning of discipleship is beginning to surface in our denomination? Could it be that we are finally learning to invite one another to a life of faith that actually means something? Could it be that we are beginning to remember that when God calls us to follow, God also calls us to leave everything else behind? Could it be that we're finally moving away from being a "social club at prayer"?
I hope so, with all my heart. God doesn't need a praying Kiwanis club in Barrett. God wants disciples, people who have been captured by the life and message of Christ and understand that there is work to be done in the name of Christ in this world. God wants disciples, people who are willing to risk themselves for the sake of their neighbors. In the words of Søren Kierkegaard, "Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them. It's when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry." I think God wants a church that is a little less reasonable and far more passionate about its mission in the world, and I think that before we get to be in that church, we're going to have to go through a time of great turmoil and anxiety while the old, comfortable, reasonable church dies a slow and painful death.
Am I excited about the thought of "cleaning the rolls"? Of course I'm not. No one should be. But do I think it might be necessary to come closer to carrying out our mission? Yes, I do. Perhaps the time is coming for all of us to examine the way we live our lives and ask the hard question: "Am I really a disciple of Jesus? Do I live what I believe?" I can't answer that for you – only you and the Holy Spirit can answer that question. But I do believe that the only way to learn what it means to be an active disciple of Jesus is to be an active disciple of Jesus – membership in a church is not the same thing. Let the membership decline if it must – I'm more interested in the work of discipleship, and I believe that as discipleship grows, so will membership. It's an exciting, frustrating, challenging, invigorating time to be your pastor, because I sense a hunger for genuine faith in the world and our denomination is slowly starting to turn toward addressing that hunger. I invite all of you to consider spending more time worrying about developing discipleship and far less time worrying about building membership – God wants far more of the former and really, honestly, couldn't care less about the latter.
Yours in Christ,