Every clergy gathering sooner or later turns to the social psychology of parish membership, with special concern for what motivates new comers to attend in the first place, decide to stay or leave, and what works to accommodate them within the existing culture of the place.
Academics and church consultants have lectured and written about it for decades, but every gathering seems to start all over as if for the first time. And why not? The river of clergy who have been exposed to well researched guidance from experienced experts moves on, leaving behind those who, indeed, must start from the beginning.
I have my own take on the question based on years of consulting and teaching in the realm of community organizations. It’s only a partial answer, but it might help one or two others work out their own better ways. It begins with why someone might come into a church in the first place.
To be sure, there are life long church folk who, upon arriving in town, search out a church that looks good to them and start attending. For most newcomers, their entrance is related to a personal issue held close and seldom shared. Personal issues are high in emotional content, meaning entering a church for the first time is not without anxiety. Will I be welcomed? Will there be people like me? Will it be a place where my hunger will be fed? Will my wounds and fears be tended? Will I understand what’s going on? Will they like me? Will I be embarrassed? What if I do something wrong? Entering a church for the first time is a deeply me centered experience. Some may enter in shyness, others with feigned self confidence, or brash plunging straight ahead, but it’s all a way of dealing with the anxiety of entering for the first time. Introverts like me likely want to be relatively invisible until they can get their bearings.
If the initial experience is successful, newcomers may become regulars looking for connections with whom to share a little about their expectations and needs in companionable fellowship. Through it they may develop a greater knowledge of God as revealed in Christ Jesus, deepen their faith in God’s goodness, and grow in confidence as Christians. The simple acts of attending and participating in fellowship establish the foundation for long term commitments, and sometimes that’s as far as it goes. Is it enough? I think it is.
Others, who have gained confidence that their basic needs are met, will be attracted to more active involvement if avenues for it are made available. It’s the usual menu of choir, church school, altar guild, lay ministry, adult Christian education and other subsets of parish life beyond attending worship and coffee hour. Success depends in large part on whether the congregation provides open, barrier free, well marked avenues of access. Pastors are all too familiar with established groups resistant to newcomers invading their territory. There is nothing more common than open doors and closed circles. It doesn’t have to be that way.
In time there will be some who recognize that, working together, the congregation can do good things for those in need in the community. They are the ones who respond to the call to be missional. They retain their needs for personal nourishment, fellowship, and small group involvement, but they have a sense that the gifts and resources of the congregation need to be made available to those in need elsewhere. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and other ways of taking the good news of God in Christ Jesus out into the world is the work God has given them to do. They may find it hard to understand why everyone can’t see what they see and do what they do. In their enthusiasm to recruit others, they may put too much pressure on those not yet ready or have other interests.
Some, not many, will become more aware of how much it costs to do all that needs to be done, more aware of the blessings that have come their way, and more committed to underwriting the church budget. Sacrificial tithers can be tempted to assume a proprietary interest in church affairs, which is never a healthy thing, but it happens. They have a hard time understanding why others don’t do as they do. Those whose generosity is founded on sacred gratitude are the true financial pillars of the church, and more likely to honor the abundance of gifts distributed in different ways among the congregation.
A few will have the skills and abilities to lend their talents to overseeing the organization itself. With luck, they will be selected to serve on the parish council or vestry, providing wisdom needed to make sound policy decisions for today and tomorrow. It doesn’t always work out that way in practice. Too often the qualified few are outnumbered by those who have been arm twisted to serve, or who delight in being on boards for personal reasons with personal agendas. It’s a reality to be managed. The truth is volunteer leaders need to be led, and that’s the pastor’s job.
Does this sound a little like a Maslow pyramid? There are similarities. The point is that every congregation of any size has members in each group. Their needs must be recognized and met with none assuming priority over the others. The boundaries between groups are not just permeable, they’re vaguely drawn. Moreover, the ebb and flow of daily life means even established members can suddenly find themselves feeling like strangers, newcomers, wondering if the congregation will be a safe place of sanctuary for them.
It’s a balancing act. Each contingent within the congregation has needs and interests that must be met. Focussing in on one to the exclusion of the others will cause disruption and unhappiness among those whose needs are not being addressed. Focussing on a high priority for a season, while maintaining comfortable adequacy in the others, is more likely to encourage healthy congregational life.