“Rocking the Membership Boat”

The newsletters of various ministries are ever crossing my desk.

I admit, I don’t read them all. (Many hit “file 13” with little more than a slight twinge of regret that I don’t have more time.)

Something caught my eye, though, in Richard Foster’s July, 2007 Perspective. (I encourage your clicking and engaging it for yourself.) Among other things, its focus was “the dangers of institutional preservation.” One of the things it commended was a engagement of Jan Linn, his writings, and the “Jesus Connection.”

And so, I clicked and looked into things. Eventually, bought three of Linn’s books… and have been swept away by this prophetic voice. (I strongly encourage your prayerful consideration of all three!)

Among the biggest “WOW!” moments (it’s written there in the margin of the book) came as I read Linn’s chapter on “The Percentage Game” in Rocking the Membership Boat: Counting Members or Having Members Who Count.

Can’t help but share an exceprt here:

…today we are in a time of numerical and financial decline wherein megachurches are booming and non-megachurches are struggling to survive. This makes leaders even more vulnerable to the pressure from a consumeristic churchgoing public to give them what they want. Of course, not everyone comes to church with this kind of attitude. All churches have faithful members who genuinely love and serve Jesus and make numerous sacrifices on behalf of their church. The point is, these people are not the majority, and that is what creates the pressure. Truth be told, this has always been the case. First Church, Main Street, USA, has been living by the 80/20 principle since it was founded. Eighty percent of the people who attend church watch twenty percent do all the work. This means most of the people who show up on Sunday do nothing but that.

Although this is the way it’s always been, there is a difference now. Overall numbers are much smaller today, giving more power to the 80 percent who can and do vote with their feet and their pocketbook. Give them what they want or they will go or give somewhere else. Their power comes from the fact that most churches cannot afford to lose them, nominally involved as they may be. When churches were full, the nominally involved had little power to affect decisions about ministry. They could go somewhere else, and the average church didn’t feel the impact. Usually someone else took their place the next week…

Of course, being in the 20 percent group is no guarantee that one’s understanding of the gospel or the meaning of church membership is better than those in the 80 percent group, although their level of participation does give reason to think it is. But that is really not the main point either. The crucial thing is that the 80 percent hold the power to influence the church because the 20 percent are constantly trying to figure out ways to get the 80 percent more involved. In other words, the 80 percent group, by virtue of not being involved, are the consumers, and consumers hold the power in a market-driven culture. In a new church, power tilts even more to the 80 percent because numerical growth is not simply desirable but necessary. Indeed, the combination of a culturally conditioned view of success in the church and consumeristic thinking in the general public means we are in the ironic position of the unchurched holding all the power in a new church.

It is not difficult to see the pressure at work in this situation that leads ministers and churches to lower the threshold for membership as much as possible. The reality of what it takes to survive as an institution in a market-driven culture has put all churches in jeopardy. But the basic question is not one of survival. It is one of integrity. What Christians today must face is the truth that the loss of integrity in ministry is a fate worse than institutional death…

Borrowing from (Willowcreek’s) John Ortberg, Linn concludes:  “The only power ministers and churches have to resist the pressure of dancing to whatever tune it takes to get people to come to church or stay is knowing genuine survival in ministry is more about keeping our eyes on Jesus than sitting safely in the boat.” (Membership Boat, pp. 35-36, 39-41)


O Lord, help me, help us to keep our eyes and you… and get out of the boat!!

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