What do you do if membership at your church is on the wane? Or what if membership doesn’t seem to be growing at the desired rate?
It can seem self-evident that the right course of action is to make it easier to become a church member. What if there were fewer doctrines to which people had to give assent? What if, once someone became a member, we asked less of them in terms of their responsibilities to other members? It seems obvious: if you lower the cost, more will buy. In fact, what if we just ditched the idea of membership altogether?
Aaron Renn, writing in issue 15 of The Masculinist, would attempt to dissuade us. Of course, our primary reason for practicing church membership ought to be because we see it taught in Scripture—and Renn gets onto that. But he also gives us a more pragmatic reason for doing so.
He makes the case that contemporary Christianity has “low group cohesion,” because it offers a “structurally weak community.” In other words, the problems you may face with waning or stagnating membership is because your Christian community doesn’t give you much if you join, and doesn’t cost you much if you leave.
If you look at contemporary American Christianity, it’s very obvious that it is a low group environment. The barriers to membership are low, the value derived from membership in the community is ordinarily also low (absent some life trauma, for example), and the cost of defection nearly non-existent.
I think about my own church, for example, which is pretty well known locally for having strong community. What would I lose if I stopped attending there? Would people stop talking to me? Probably not. If I had a serious life problem, such as a major medical problem with my son, would they refuse to help me even if I had abandoned the faith? Not very likely.
There also appear to be remarkably few things that will get you excommunicated (kicked out) of most churches today, or even just generate problems for you, unless you deliberately rock the boat.
This, as Renn points out, makes for a stark contrast to many other religious communities. He mentions Islam, orthodox Judaism, Mormons, and Benedictine monks—groups with clearly prescribed requirements entry and where there’s usually a considerable “cost” to leaving.
He acknowledges that these kinds of “high group” organizations certainly have the potential for abuse. That’s the nature of any “high value” relationship: “Think of marriage, for example. It can be a high value relationship, but clearly involves exposing us to possible great hurt by our spouse.”
However, as Renn says: “to protect ourselves from abuse, or simply from the ability of any organization to put any constraint on our behavior, is to sunder ourselves from the majority of the value they deliver” [my italics]. He continues, “Preventing others from having the ability to harm us creates an isolated life, which is itself damaging.”
The Christian church understood this, once:
Historically, the church would appear to be a higher group than it is today. For example, it certainly policed the behavior of its members. Paul directly ordered that someone who was having sex with his mother-in-law should be excommunicated (1 Cor 5) and said that you should “keep aloof from any brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (2 Thess 3:6). . . . The church [also] helped everyone, to the point where secular poets mocked Christians for being such easy marks (see Lucian of Samosata’s Death of Peregrinus). But it also prioritized those who were members of the community (Acts 4:32, Gal 6:10, others).
Renn finishes with a series of questions:
- What value does being a member of your community provide above and beyond a) that provided by other groups and society at large; and b) that is not available on similar terms to non-members?
- What distinctive value does your community bring to the world at large that would render it at least somewhat attractional to non-members in certain contexts?
- How easy is it to become a member of your community? (Studies suggest a high cost of admission enhances group loyalty. This is one function of military boot camps.)
- What standards of behavior, if any, does your community have for members to remain in good standing? Are these objective or subjective?
- What does anyone lose if they leave your community? What is the price of defection from the group?
If we truly care about the health of our churches, we’d do well to ask ourselves those questions. As Renn notes, “minority religions need to be higher group in order to preserve their identity at all. Well guess what? Christianity is now a minority in the West.”
In other words, ensuring our Christian communities are “high group” isn’t just a question of growth. In a post-Christian America, it’s a question of survival.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the 9Marks website and is used with permission.