Why do people join your congregation? Is it because of the relationships they’ve developed? Or is it because of the shared beliefs of the congregation? You may have an easy answer to these questions, but the answer is anything but easy to understand.
The shared beliefs of a congregation are a significant reason why people become members. I’ve had people tell me the reasons they like or dislike a congregation is because of the shared beliefs of the congregation. Shared beliefs can be about anything: creation, how God works in the world, the authority of scripture, human sexuality, or positions on social justice. I was asked to pastor a congregation where there were significant differences between their shared beliefs and my own beliefs. I questioned whether I would be a good fit. Beliefs matter and play a role in the decision to join a congregation. But here is where it gets complicated.
The relationships we form in a congregation determine our level of participation. Consider the committed leaders in your congregation. Without having knowledge of them, I can predict they are deeply connected to the people in your congregation. In other words, the congregation IS their primary friendship network. A commitment to membership is determined by one’s ability to create meaningful friendships. Members become friends with members. And here is where we move beyond complicated to confusing.
When I ask someone the question, “Think about the last time you consider leaving a congregation. Was it because of the way people were behaving or because of a belief the congregation adopted or failed to adopt?” Typically, the answer is both! Or, if I ask the question, “If your closest friends decide to leave the congregation, do you stay or go?”, it’s difficult for people to answer. Most of the time the answer is, “It depends.” That’s because beliefs and relationships influence our decisions. So, while we’d like to think the reason people join a congregation is because of shared beliefs, the reality is much more complicated. In my tradition, the United Methodist Church, belonging precedes believing. You don’t have to agree to a specific set of doctrines or creeds to participate.
When I consider my life journey from a conservative theological position to one that is progressive, I remember specific people who shaped my thinking. I'd like to believe that it was their thinking and ideas that influenced me, but I know my relationship with them played an important role. To be sure, it was their stories and narratives that had the greatest impact on me. Stories and narratives are relationship builders. Language is symbolic and registers at an emotional level. Our beliefs often spring forth from stories and encounters which are first and foremost about relationships. So, do you still "believe" that membership is mostly about beliefs?
Just one more example of how relationships play a significant role in determining membership. Critical mass impacts attendance and membership. Congregational leaders know this. It is easier to draw people to a sanctuary that is 80% full than to a sanctuary that is 10% full. The more people you have filling the worship space, the easier it is to attract new people. Beliefs do matter, but at the end of the day, people make the difference.
And now the final point that moves this conversation from confusing to a conundrum. There is a growing segment of the population that is willing to end a long-term relationship over differences in beliefs. As the population becomes increasingly polarized, it’s a challenge for people to relate to each other while believing different things. I would argue that this has less to do with specific belief and more to do with the challenges of relationships. It’s not the specific beliefs that are polarizing. People struggle to remain in the relationship despite the differences. Indeed, if it were truly about beliefs, we would actually be in a much better place as a country. For myself, when I’m solid in my understanding of a belief I have less of a need to defend the belief when challenged or to require agreement from others when there is disagreement.
My hunch is that in today’s climate of polarization, congregations would do better to support their members to develop individual core beliefs and guiding principles. Individuals are in a better position to relate to others when they are clearer about what they believe and how they think about the world and their relationship with God. It's less about shared beliefs, and more about clarity of beliefs.
The conundrum is that while most congregational leaders think people join because of the shared beliefs of the congregation, the truth is that it is more about the relationship system. The challenge becomes supporting individual efforts to clarify and articulate core beliefs and guiding principles without losing members over disagreement.
Dr. Murray Bowen described the relationship process as part of the force for togetherness and the effort to have clear beliefs and guiding principles as part of the force for togetherness. He said it this way:
“A critical index of the functioning of an emotional system is the balance of the togetherness-individuality forces. The two forces exactly balance each other. In a period of calm, the two forces operate as a friendly team, largely out of sight. . . . Any emotional system has an amount of togetherness, and a reciprocal amount of individuality, which constitute a life style or “norm” for that group. Optimum functioning would be somewhere near a fifty-fifty balance, with neither force overriding the other and the system sufficiently flexible to adapt to change.” Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, page 277.
As you make plans to grow your congregation, consider that membership is a 50/50 balance between a relationship process and beliefs (togetherness and individuality). How can a congregation welcome new people with a balanced approach to cultivating both relationships and beliefs? What beliefs are current members using as a resource to their functioning? For current members, specifically those who articulate a positive congregational experience, how many connections (relationships) do they have in the congregation? Do member who report a positive experience with the congregation place a larger emphasis on the relationships they have or the work they are doing on clarifying their beliefs? What opportunities are available for individuals to develop relationships with other members? What opportunities are available for individuals to clarify their core beliefs and guiding principles?
What questions come to mind as you consider membership in your congregation?