Membership vs. Ownership
For centuries churches have kept track of their congregants through the status of being a member. There are membership rolls. There are statistics about the type of members that are on those rolls - baptized, confirmed, adult, new, visitor, contributing, etc. Sometimes there are extra benefits that come if you reach the status of member. Fees are waved for weddings. Sunday School registration costs are reduced. Enrollment in a school, or preschool, is guaranteed and the costs are less.
The challenge with this practice is that it comes with a price. That is, the term itself carries with it a certain amount of expectation. If I am a member then there should obviously be some sort of benefit for that membership. It is woven into the very fabric of our culture. Membership status means something. It gets you into COSTCO. You can relax in the Sky Club before a flight. You receive materials and products with a membership. The list goes on for the connections between having membership status and expecting benefits as a result.
Church leaders often complain that their members have a consumer mentality when it comes to being a part of their church. Yet, the very actions taken to enlist people as members contributes to that challenging issue. We offer inspiring worship. We provide excellent youth ministry. We host insightful adult education. We have great events. We serve the needy. These aren’t bad things, they simply contribute to the expectation that being a member also means being able to get, or consume, something in return.
What I believe is a more helpful and productive approach is to invite people to become “owners” of the ministry. This does not mean that they are now asked to financially invest in the ministry in order to participate. Although, that is very important and helpful. The idea is that asking people to be owners of the ministry sets the expectation that this is not an organization in which they come and get services or certain benefits. Instead, it is a place, a mission, in which they are fully committed and invested to make happen.
The future of faith communities are utterly dependent upon this paradigm shift. Seeing ministries as a place to become an owner, an investor in its very purpose and intentions, will foster the notion that this work is shared with, not done to, any particular individual. It is unsustainable for faith communities to keep fueling the idea that they are the providers of services and a place to join and “get” those services. The shift will rely on changing the perception of what the church is about and what role people have in being a part of that church. It shouldn’t be a place to go get faith, but a place to live out faith.