When I began my life in ministry back in 1991, I served as pastor of two small rural churches in northeast Texas, Edom United Methodist Church, which is about 17 miles west of Tyler, Texas and Sexton Chapel United Methodist Church, which is about 6 miles north of Edom. At the time of my pastorate there, Edom UMC had about 200 members and about half that in worship on a good Sunday while Sexton Chapel UMC had about 25 members and about 12 on a good Sunday. I was one in a long line of pastors who had served both congregations for many years. We were part of those called "Circuit-Riders" in Methodist tradition, pastors who served more than one congregation and who often officiated at services at both each Sunday. I did that for the three years I was pastor there. I would drive out to Sexton Chapel, in the Primrose Community, and have service with 10-12 people at 9:30 each Sunday morning. Then I would return to Edom UMC and have service there with 100 folks, more or less, at 11:00. We would finish up by about noon so that we could have lunch with the tourists in town (Edom is an arts community and hosts an Arts Fair each year) at the Woodshed Cafe across the street from the Edom church most Sundays.
The church at Edom continues to grow slowly but surely, replacing those who pass away with others to continue to carry the load. The church at Sexton Chapel closed its doors in 2009 and was merged with Edom as its stronger neighbor six miles away. At one time, the church at Sexton Chapel was as strong as its neighbor church with over 100 members and was very active. During my tenure there, once a year there was a reunion with singing and dinner after worship when the children and relatives of members would drive in from Dallas or Shreveport or other cities to reminisce about the good ole days of the church. Other than that one Sunday each year, however, there were so few people in worship that the congregation could barely pay its share of the pastor's salary and keep the lights on. Finally, they could no longer function because most of the active members had died and no one was left to continue the job of keeping the church alive.
Those of us who work in ministry often worry about what will happen to churches when its members are no longer active in the life and ministry of the church. When people have their names on a church membership roll, and that is enough connection to the local church, when they stop attending church except for holidays or special days such as baptisms or confirmations, when they stop giving to their church because they rarely attend and they only give when they are present, when they no longer care to serve on a committee or work at a church clean-up day or visit the sick or shut-ins, what will happen to the church? Will it have a future?
Churches exist to provide a vision to people as to how their lives may be better because of the message that the church has to offer. It is not there simply to baptize, confirm, marry, and bury its members, although those are functions of a church, but it exists to offer something better to people than the culture can offer so that their lives will be better lives than they could have without the influence of the church in their lives. Churches exist to give meaning to the lives of all who come under its teachings and activities, whether they "belong" to a church or not.
Without "active" members a church cannot continue to live. Names on a church roll do not contribute anything to the life of a church. Only living bodies, people who can think and create and work, can make a church come alive. Even if a church has a long history, that is not what is important today. It is the people who presently make the church to be an active one that brings life to it. Otherwise it is just a building in a place that could function as a museum, as do many churches in Europe that have closed due to no one caring to continue to make it a living entity.
When people become members of the church I serve now, we ask them if they will be "faithful members" and "support its ministries". That is all that is required of people who call themselves Christians to join our church. I guess we should be more specific as to what it means to be "faithful" since that word seems to have lost some of its meaning over the years in society. Some churches ask if persons will give their prayers, presence, gifts, and service....that is helpful. Others ask if people will give of their time, talent, and treasure. That is also helpful in defining what is needed from church members. Maybe we need to be even more explicit.....Will you choose to come to church most Sundays except when you are ill or out of town, even when there is football on tv or sports to participate in otherwise? Will you choose to come to church when it is hot or cold or rainy or cloudy unless a flood or hurricane or ice storm prevents you? Will you choose to give of your resources to the church so that we can pay the pastor and staff and keep the air conditioning and heat going and pay the church insurance? Will you pray for your church and pastor and ask God to lead you into thinking about ways to be involved and active in your church? Will you serve as you are asked, knowing that God and others will help you in whatever you are asked to do?
Those would be good questions to ask of prospective members. The only thing is, if we asked straightforward questions such as those, as people considered church membership, we may have many less members than we do now. Church membership is very easy and the cost of being one is not explicit. It is easy to become a member and stay one until we die. Laying out the expectations of what it really means to be a church member, though....is a difficult thing to do.
Without active and involved members, though...any church can become like Sexton Chapel church...closed with no future because no one really cared to continue its ministries.