By David Briggs
Is church membership as relevant to new generations?
Perhaps not so much, according to a study of worshipers on both sides of the membership fence.
Churchgoers ages 15 to 24 accounted for just 7 percent of members of congregations, while worshipers in that age group made up 13 percent of participating non-members. In contrast, nearly three in 10 church members were 65 and older, but only 16 percent of participating non-members in U.S. congregations came from that age group.
The generational contrasts were among several insights into the characteristics of members and participating non-members in the study presented by researchers Joelle Kopacz and Jack Marcum at the recent meeting of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion in Turku, Finland.
Kopacz, research associate with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and Marcum, coordinator of research services for the denomination, analyzed data from 142,000 individuals and 548 congregations from the 2001 and 2008-2009 waves of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. Participating non-members were those who attend worship and other congregational activities but do not take steps to join the congregation. Visitors were not included.
Members and participating non-members were similar in some important ways. For example, 96 percent of members and 84 percent of non-members reported attending services at least two to three times a month. And they shared similar beliefs, with 51 percent of both groups agreeing with the statement, "All the different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth.”
But the study also found striking differences, particularly in the degree of involvement beyond attending services.
Less than half of members said they were not involved in activities outside of worship, while 83 percent of non-members reported not participating in other activities.
Other differences included:
- Giving: Fifty-three percent of members gave 5 percent or more of their income; 23 percent of non-members gave at the same level.
- Length of attendance: Slightly more than a quarter of members have attended the congregation five years or less; 69 percent of non-members have attended five years or less.
- Marital status: Sixty-nine percent of members, compared to 55 percent of non-members, were married.
- Household income: The median family income was $54,000 for members and $45,000 for non-members.
The issue is important to congregations because, as the study findings affirm, members are more likely to be active participants supporting the congregations with their time, talent and treasure. In practical terms, there are only so many attenders some scholars describe as "free riders" that a congregation can support.
The challenge in moving people from attenders to committed members may be more difficult in an age when Americans are a more mobile society. Fewer people are making long-term commitments, whether it is to a job, a place to live or even to institutions such as marriage.
The study, however, offers some clues to creating an environment where more worshipers choose to become members.
Churches with a relatively high number of people who are generous givers, feel a strong sense of belonging to the congregation, have close friends there and participate in activities such as Sunday school have relatively fewer non-members, researchers found.
One takeaway: There is a time in every season for evangelism. Getting people through the doors is only the beginning for nurturing congregations where everyone feels like they belong, and experience spiritual growth and mutual care and love in community.
There may not be an awards program a la American Express, but membership has its privileges.