It is no secret that church membership is declining in America. There are many reasons for this, and one of the major reasons are the various facets of the culture we now live in. In his essay, “The Challenge of Church Membership in the Twenty-First Century: Old and New Directions,” Dr. David Peter observes these facets as being consumer culture, resistance to authority and institutions, pluralism, the decline of social capital, and electronic media. These reasons are not exhaustive, but they do highlight some of the biggest trends in our culture responsible for declining membership.
Many are now viewing formal membership in the Church as too institutional, which is “particularly characteristic of younger generations” (162). This has to do in part with consumer culture. “One manifestation [of consumer culture] is that church goers envision participation in church life as a commodity to be consumed” (162).
Evidence of this is seen in the “church shopping” mentality. Rather than being concerned with whether or not they’re growing in the body of Christ, they are more concerned with whether or not a church is satisfying their needs. If one church doesn’t satisfy one need, they’ll go to another that does. So, they will visit multiple churches instead of committing to one church and will completely miss out on genuine Christian community in a unified faith. One of our authors, Christine Milner, addresses this erroneous mindset in her article, “Ask not what your church can do for you.”
Lately, there is also an increasing resistance to authority. “Official church membership has traditionally entailed subscription to doctrinal tenets, agreement to conduct one’s life in accord with behavioral standards, and the opportunity to be disciplined if either of these is violated. But American culture is uncomfortable, even antagonistic, to the idea of submission to authority” (164).
Thus, there is a rapid increase in the value of autonomy, which is evolutionist thinking. Autonomy says, “I am my own boss” (hence the rising acceptance of abortion and sex changes). Yet if this tenet of autonomy were an absolute truth—that everyone is their own boss and thus never be questioned or corrected by any authority—there would be chaos and you won’t get what you want anyway because someone stronger than you are will inevitably come and take it from you, even your life, and there’s nothing that can be done about it before or after the fact since everybody is their own boss and there is no authority (hence why this is evolutionist thinking). People want complete and utter freedom, but such unchecked freedom leads to chaos and licentiousness. Freedom without reasonable boundaries and limitations becomes self-destructive. This is why nations have laws.
People don’t like being told what to do or believe, even if what they’re being told is true, meet, and right. David Peter quotes from a journal article, “St. Cyprian said that we can’t have God as our Father if we don’t have the church as our mother… Perhaps it’s the ‘mother’ aspect that worries people—they don’t want the church to act like a mother, telling them what to do. They’d prefer to keep the church as a casual friend from which they can walk away at any time” (164).
It is no wonder, then, why we see such low levels of commitment in peoples’ relationships. Commitment is difficult, and it risks vulnerability and heartache, even in the Church. Young people will cohabitate without considering marriage first because when you’re not married, you are free to walk away at any point without any legal and moral consequences. Cohabitation is like a “dry run” of marriage; if at any point you feel like it’s not working, you can just walk away without any consequences and repercussions. And so, now that we are finally away from our parents who told us what to do, we don’t want to commit to the church our mother who tells us what to do for our own good according to the will of God the Father.
David Peter continues talking about other reasons: pluralism, the decline of social capital, and electronic media. After these, he begins to talk about how we can reassert the need for formal church membership. There are multiple ways in which this can be done—even ways that are more informal—and it all depends on the congregation and its immediate cultural context. But this essay is a good place to start for congregations to assess the culture around them and how they might be able to be an inviting community in how they talk about membership at their congregation.
Kolb, Robert, and Theodore J. Hopkins. Inviting Community. Saint Louis: Concordia Seminary Press, 2013.