With some 2,500 on the rolls and 850 in worship every weekend, Shandon United Methodist Church was getting about 130 new members a year.
Most of them were under 40. Most of them had young children. Sounds great, right?
Not really, said Michael Guffee Sr., the senior minister of the Columbia, S.C. congregation.
“We had a membership class we put people through and we realized it wasn’t working,” Guffee said. “We realized young adults … would come and join and then we wouldn’t see them a lot.”
The problem, he said, is that the concept of church membership — in fact, membership in anything – doesn’t resonate with most young people.
“So we decided to do something different,” Guffee said.
What Shandon United Methodist did was join the discipleship movement, which encourages lay people and ministers to focus on their callings rather than on their status within an institution.
At Guffee’s church, joining that movement has translated into new language and concepts that are used everywhere from the pulpit and Sunday school classes to children’s ministries.
“Our theme is ‘I am here to make a difference in the world,’” Guffee said.
‘Relating the teachings of Jesus’
Making that difference can look different from church to church, but it boils down to changing the language ministers and congregations use about themselves, said Mark Tidsworth, a South Carolina-based congregational consultant and author of the new book Shift: Three Big Moves for the 21st Century Church.
Doing so, in turn, can change the way they think of themselves and ultimately change the way they live out their faith, he said.
“Some are changing the way they talk,” Tidsworth said. “Rather than using words like ‘member,’ they talk about themselves as disciples.”
The latter term originates in scripture and is often used by Jesus to describe his followers. A person who conceives of herself as a disciple will likely begin to emulate the action-oriented faith of Christ’s biblical adherents.
“Being a member, versus being a Christian, means doing a lot of things at church, serving on a committee, putting on events,” Tidsworth said. “Those things are good, but we fall into the trap of thinking that’s all our faith is about.”
Someone motivated by being a follower of Christ, on the other hand, seeks to practice their faith in all their affairs — however big or small and whether at church or not.
“They are relating the teachings of Jesus to their everyday existence,” he said.
‘You have a job to do’
Mike Flanagan, the rector of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Simpsonville, S.C., spotted the need for that approach to faith in his parish and in himself.
“We were stuck,” he said.
They were stuck in the traditional pastoral parish model where the rector was the center of all communication and decision-making in the church.
“Everything came across the rector’s desk,” Flanagan said.
The shift away from that kind of thinking began with the creation of a lay-led council responsible for overseeing the day-to-day functioning of the parish.
“That freed up our vestry to do more visioning and long-range planning and to become more mission-minded,” he said.
That’s also liberated Flanagan from old ways of conceiving of the role of a priest and of his own ministry.
“When I became clergy, I was all about the worship and that the liturgy was just right, and about good preaching,” Flanagan said.
Today, Flanagan said his role is about helping people discern their callings and talents and connecting those to the needs of the parish, its ministries and the surrounding community.
“I’m encouraging people to look for, find and be involved in some sort of mission work that is fulfilling,” he said.
The priest said he is also slowly encouraging parishioners to rethink the terms they use for themselves — so that they may transform their own ministries just as he has done.
“Membership is a passive term,” he said. “I can be a member and not do anything.”
Instead, he’s referring to them as disciples or ministers.
“The implication is you have a job to do.”
‘You don’t die for membership’
Eric Spivey said he agrees with the go-slow approach to changing a congregation’s self-identity. And it’s an especially important approach for his kind of Christians, he said: Baptists.
“Our church is like many Baptist churches,” said Spivey, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Cornelia, Ga. “It’s been around about 130 years and the idea of membership has long legs.”
Congregants have grown up thinking of themselves as members and it’s a long-standing practice to formerly transfer memberships to new churches after a move or other circumstances, he said.
“Membership is just a part of who we are.”
Yet membership is problematic, he said. Once attained, it doesn’t always compel people to continue involvement — or even attendance — in church life.
And in these times of increasing secularization and decreasing Christian identity, the membership model just doesn’t hold up, he said.
“It’s no longer enough to sustain the Christian movement,” he said. “You don’t die for membership in a club.”
So at First Baptist, the concept of “sacred partners” is being promoted to remind Baptists they are called jointly to a mission known as church.
“A piece of that is rediscovering what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and for us one of our key values is growing disciples,” Spivey said.
To move further into the discipleship concept, Spivey said the church has embarked on a 30-week study of key virtues, practices and beliefs of the Christian faith.
“It’s a spiritual inventory you can use,” he said.
The staff can use it to shape the discipleship growing process. Individuals can use it to focus on those parts of their faith that need growing. Some lay people are being trained as discipleship coaches.
“It’s not about creating mass programs but about meeting each person in their own walk,” Spivey said.
Overall, the goal is to help individuals understand their faith and the importance of being part of a community that helps sustain that faith.
“As you become more sold out to Christ, you are more able to live in a world that is challenging your values,” he said.