Loose connections: What's happening to church membership?

May 16, 2011
Daniel C. Richardson

Read the sidebar article, "Dismembership Plan."

When I went to church recently with a friend, we didn't attend her church because she doesn't have a church anymore. She was once a loyal member of a church but dropped her membership when she was disappointed by a change in leadership. Since then, she's attended various churches but never joined one. One might say she's church shopping, but the shopping has gone on so long that it's clear she has no intention of buying—of joining a church. She meets regularly with a small group for Bible study, and her children attend youth groups of various kinds, but she is not affiliated with a particular church.

My friend is not unusual. A set of 2010 Gallup polls revealed that while religious participation (at least self-reported participation) is on the rise, Americans are less likely to identify with a particular religious group. People do not belong to churches the way they once did, even when they show up for religious services.

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow argues that in recent years new ways of relating to institutions have developed—ways that are fluid and hard to pin down. People develop "loose connections." At a time when many churches face declining membership, they must also grapple with the reality that even those who attend have a different idea of what participation means.

In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that the U.S. lacked many institutions of the Old World, but that Americans were nevertheless a "nation of joiners." They created and enthusiastically participated in voluntary organizations, including churches. Americans were not constrained by duty or tradition to join churches, but they did. The reason, Tocqueville decided, was "self-interest properly understood." People saw the benefit of being connected. For 200 years, the voluntary nature of American religion has created a dynamic religious marketplace and produced vibrant religious congregations.

Voluntary church membership has been strong in American history, but it has never been stable. Church membership has waxed and waned over the years. It increased dramatically at two periods in particular. The first was in the mid-19th century, during the Second Great Awakening, when reformers like Charles Finney argued that Christian faith demands an individual commitment. A series of revivals led by Finney and a host of frontier preachers brought religion to ordinary people and sparked not only a massive renewal of religious piety but a spike in church membership, especially among Baptists and Methodists. Historians calculate that whereas in 1800 only one in six Americans was a church member, by 1850 that figure was one in three.

The other major growth period for church membership was during the baby-boom years following World War II. Many kinds of voluntary organizations flourished in this period, from parent-teacher associations to social clubs to service organizations. Historians argue that belonging to a church was a primary means of social belonging; church membership marked one's place in the community.

For mainline Protestants, the postwar religious boom led to a peak in church membership in the mid-1960s. With an increase in members came building programs, large staffs and the expansion of national denominations. For many, this model of church life is still the norm even though membership has been declining for almost 50 years.

The 1960s should not be taken as the historical norm, notes historian Mark Noll. He contrasts the mid-20th-century model of membership with churches in the 19th century, whose primary income came from renting pews. Finney created a stir when he created a "free church" in New York City—a church no one had to pay to sit down in. Noll notes that denominations in the 19th century survived for years with just three or four staff members at the national level—not the hundreds that came to be employed by denominations in the 20th century. The rise of what Episcopal bishop Greg Rickel calls the "religious-industrial complex" is a phenomenon of the 20th century.

This model of church is threatened by the trend toward loose connections, especially as that trend takes hold among people in their twenties and thirties. Young people are less likely to join either a church or a social club; they stay in one place for less time and connect through informal networks rather than through institutions. Says Wuthnow: "In this demographic, it is less common than was true among their parents to attend church regularly (unless they are married and have children) and more common to engage in church shopping and hopping; i.e., attend sporadically at several different congregations."

Wuthnow points to geographical transience and technological shifts. "Although churchgoers still have friends at their local congregations, they now have loose ties with friends, organizations, and information sources that span the globe." In many cases these other connections are as important in shaping behavior as are ties to a local church.

Pastors corroborate Wuthnow's assertion. They note a deep reluctance among young adults to join a church. People in their thirties, notes Rebecca Kemper Poos, a UCC pastor in Colorado, are wary of any long-term commitment to an ideology or institution. Bill Bohline, a Lutheran pastor in Lakeville, Minnesota, said a recent study showed that the demographics of his Lakeville congregation matched the demographics of the area in every respect but one—among thirtysomethings. The thirtysomethings were absent from church. While some of them drop their kids off at the church for programs, they don't come in themselves.

Despite the changing patterns of church affiliation, most churches still approach membership the way they did in the 1960s. New attendees are encouraged to attend a class to learn about the history and theology of the denomination and of the local congregation, with the expectation that they will join the church. But if new modes of affiliation are appearing, churches will need new ways of thinking about membership.

Rickel, an Episcopal bishop in Washington State, thinks that churches do not yet know how to measure what this means. "What denominational metrics people are asking—how many people are in church on Sunday, for example—may not be the right measure for today. The measures that contemporary churches need may be more intuitive and more spiritual in nature."

Rickel points to a small church in his diocese that is located along the Columbia River. The population of the area is declining, and membership growth is not a realistic goal. Never­theless, the congregation is a dynamic and important part of the community, because it is a community and service center. Rickel likens it to a base camp—a place along the journey where people stop to receive nourishment, training, basic supplies and encouragement.

"We've only been paying attention," Rickel said, "to the people who stay. But maybe that's not the purpose [of the base camp]. Maybe we've been treating base camps as permanent residences."

In order to operate as base camps, Rickel said, congregations need not give up their identity or cease offering a challenging "rule for living." In fact, he said, young adults are eager for such a challenge. But churches need to be able to witness to the gospel when they have only a few chances to reach any one person.

This is the key to the era we are entering, said sociologist Wade Clark Roof. "Local congregations have to take into account the fact that they may only have a one-time shot. Churches will need to put new emphasis on touching people's lives instead of gaining new members. These are two different enterprises."

Institutions, Roof noted, want to count people. They want to report growth. But they may not be able to do that in the way they once did. Their assessment of vitality will have to take a different form.

"The forms are going to be more fluid, but this simply means that people will have to think seriously about what is worth preserving and why," said Roof. "That is not a bad question for religious institutions to ask. Lived traditions are always adapting to new circumstances."

Craig Mueller is pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago, home to many young-adult professionals. On any given Sunday, he says, he can look out over his congregation and see several dozen young people whose names he does not know and who are unlikely to pursue a relationship with the church. They do not stay for the social hour, and they do not participate in small groups or Bible studies.

Mueller said he once thought it was his job to pursue these worshipers and lead them into membership. Now he is not so sure. He believes that people need a spectrum of entry points to church and a variety of ways of participating—from just sitting in a pew to being on a committee to helping with worship planning.

More than half the members at Holy Trinity are under the age of 40, and more than 300 new members have joined the church over the past decade.

Mueller said he wants attenders to know that there is a lot to be gained from a deeper and more sustained commitment to the church, yet he also tries to extend a no-strings-attached welcome.

"In light of the demographics and the sociological trends, it is clear that we need to welcome people in their ambivalence, and at the same time find ways to invite and deepen commitment. It is a difficult balance," Mueller said.

One thing is clear: a church shouldn't measure the effectiveness of its ministries solely by counting members.

"Let's say that JoAnn has joined a committee. Great. I can  measure that," said Mueller. "But let's say that Mark is living his baptism in committed ways in his daily life and I can't see that. That doesn't make it less significant." People who do not want further involvement in church are still being nourished "by the assembly and by the liturgy," he insisted.

Not everyone agrees with Mueller. James Wellman, a Presbyterian pastor who teaches American religion at the University of Washington, worries that trends toward loose ways of belonging to church reinforce a consumerist mentality. People move around and refuse to commit because they think there may be something more tantalizing still out there.

In their study of contemporary religion, American Grace, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue that belonging is good for people and that people who belong to institutions tend to increase their contributions to society in other areas. Regular churchgoers are more likely to vote, to volunteer their time and to take an active role in civic life.

Belonging to a particular community also has deep theological meaning. The beautiful part of belonging to a congregation, said Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor in Iowa, "is that you create a community of common people gathered for a holy purpose and united by that sense of purpose." When you become a member, he said, you discover the privilege of being a giver as well as a taker. A church, unlike other sectors of society, does not have qualifications for joining. Membership is open to all. But it does involve an element of commitment, even a covenant, with a specific group of people over time.

"That is the secret gift that unfolds as you become integrated into something that is larger than yourself. You find yourself saying yes to possibilities that you would never otherwise imagine."

The word membership has powerful biblical roots, and it is difficult to imagine a Christian community making no appeal to it. "We are all members," writes Paul in Ephesians, "one of another." The metaphor expresses an indivisible unity—Christians belong to one another the way an arm belongs to a body. And an arm can't live without being part of the body. Paul invokes the language of member and body to try to persuade early Christians that they belonged to one another in a profound way.

The challenge for churches is to be able to recognize and adapt to people's looser ways of affiliating with church while continuing to teach that belonging to one another is indispensable to the Christian vision.



I too am like the author's friend. I have recently left a church where I had been a member for 12 years, serving faithfully as an elder for 2.5 years. However, through instances of slander, disrespect and disregard, I have decided to move on, but am not looking to join anywhere right away. I don't know what my future holds with the church; I suspect that for right now I need to heal and will probably only be visiting for a while. What makes this so difficult is that I'm called to the Church, so it remains to be seen what my future holds but church membership is definitely not an immediate choice for me. I've even thought of finding a small Bible study group to meet with. I just need a safe space right now.

I also am not in that young adult category--I'm 46 years old. So, you will find people of all ages not putting down permanent roots.

Community and Church

I have been a member of St. Ann's Episcopal church for 40+ years. I began as an intern from Vanderbilt Divinity School and as a cradle Episcopalian was not expecting to stay among those who I considered frozen chosen. However, St. Ann's surprised me in ways it is hard to capture in a word or two. It was and continues to be a place that is open, honest, transparent, and interested in facilitating personal and spiritual growth. We do not try to hold onto people who come through our doors. We try to be a place a person can stay out of personal choice. We try to make our community a part of the neighborhood responding to its needs with outreach that is local and relevant. I think people choose a church when it feels like a place that wants them to serve not just as another person in the pew but as someone chosen to serve.

Episcopal Church

The Episcopal church is a dying church. The membership in this church has dropped more than any other church in America

Dying, eh?

I tend to make something of a theological practice out of not responding to anonymous comments about the death of the Episcopal Church (or protestantism, or Christianity, or family), but it does strike me now and then that if these are the only voices out there, those of us who are always mystified to hear their stark, nameless declarations will get lost.

I tend to have two reactions to things like this and some of the article's points.

The first is that it doesn't gel with my experience. At 26, I'm an unmarried young adult -- part of that demographic that I frequently hear lamented as perenially absent from the life of the body of Christ in the world. But we're not . . . I attend and serve at an Episcopal Church, as do many of my (demographically-similar) friends. We're in it for the long haul, because it's the church that taught us to love the world God gave us, including our own selves and one another.

My church is connected to multiple churches in other countries (without, I dare to say, being overly-patriarchal about our relationships), and does service in the local community. We have beautiful music. I've worshipped (in the last two weeks) with a Fisk organ and with a drum set and guitar. I've had conversations about faith with folks from 15 to 75. I've heard great pentacost sermons and watched people laugh together as they wore red and threw picnics on sidewalks and in parking lots.

At Ash Wednesday this year, the diocese took advantage of this new desire to have "loose connections" by offering ashes to people on the street. Many people found it really meaningful, and we got some fun stories out of it too (such as a [female] Episcopal priest being asked if she was a Catholic priest, explaining she wasn't, and then having the person decline ashes from her).

I used to work with teenagers around Chicago, which had me travelling a lot and seeing different churches. Many, many churches are alive and well, with growing communities.

I have no idea where these anonymous statistics came from, but they don't represent the church that I'm part of, which is full of growth and vitality.

The second thought I have around comments like this anonymous one is (to quote my bishop and who knows who all else), "For a Christian, death isn't the worst thing that can happen to you."


Shoot, and with all that lengthy comment, I meant to add my name to it; I'm Ben Varnum, and I'm a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.

Religion or Faith- Church or Community

I similarly had a long connection with the Anglican system in NZ, underlying the membership and activity system for years was the fact that faith in God was the foundation. Finally when the perception became that the hierarchy of the church preferred the continuation of the status quo (especially a equipping of the laity by way of ordination but only of those approved by the hierarchy rather than by way of the vox populi) we left,and have always felt a great reluctance to re-join or even re-attend as it would have been an insertion, unwelcome by both the evangelical and liberal/ or orthodox camps, who want to be left to their petty squabbles or the maintenance of the actual church infrastructure (church, pews, the charade and parade of holiness). After 15 years of theological seclusion, thought, and prayer (and nearly totally slipping out of the back door of faith on occasions) we have now reasserted our desire for just help and somehow serve the body of Christ but in a quite humble and different church setting; all the while seeing the world now no longer as opposed to revelation and as an enemy of God, but rather as the love object of God in Christ.

Christian formation?

It's very helpful to see in words what I've experienced as a church member and employee.

As a Christian educator (or faith formation leader -- the terminology changes too), I'm feeling that it's all the more important to equip parents to help children build their faith. Kids don't come every week anymore; they might do Vacation Bible School at one church, youth group at another and Sunday morning class once a month at a third. It's my hope and prayer that parents will find what they need, as they rove around, to equip them as faith formation leaders themselves.

Membership and 20-30 year olds

Coming from someone in my late 20s I am here to tell you that the church has done little if anything to address the changes in the culture. I grew up in the "Bible belt" and can attest to the idea of the church refusing to deviate from the same mentality it has had since 1945. Some of the churches I have sat in (or through, however you want to view it) have not made a major policy change since the 60s or before. I also went to a Christian HS and found out firsthand how fast the kids from that school changed when released from that mentaility. Too many kids (or young people) don't want to sit and hear sermons. They really desire to hear something that will bring meat to the disscussions. They are looking for disscussions with the leadership. No one wants to hear how God is going to beat you for percieved (or real) wrongs.

While people in the churches

While people in the churches need to consider change, God's word does not change. What is wrong will be punished.

Walking Wounded

The article fails to mention those of us who have been wounded by the church. We know where healing and wholeness lies, but we are afraid of being wounded again. I would guess that those of us who don't join and those of us who don't make our identities known fall into this category.

Walking Wonded, a request following the anonymous post of May 19

I can see how the choice of not joining a congregation and of remaining anonymous may serve the need for safety and self protection. As I was reading, I noticed the same lack of attention to the church inflicted/experienced wounds that keep people away or anonymous. My question is: how could the Church reach out and offer a sense of safety and trust? I guess the Church needs to regain people's trust where it has been breached. And it may take some time to be known as a compassionate, safe and healthy Church. But I also wonder if anyone feels moved to offer other insights and guidance.

Critical Conversation

I think this is a critical issue on our churches, especially those of us with a congregational polity. In our democratic system, membership is tied to voting, and it is tied to denominational representation. We don't know how to govern ourselves without membership.

On the ground as a local church pastor, I struggle to report our growth. How do we talk about the way our people are getting more invested, more faithful? How do we talk about the way they attend worship more frequently, pray more often, ask deeper questions? Yes, we add members, but that number is a shadow of the true growth happening in our congregation.

I think that the idea of membership serves the institution well, but it doesn't do much to help people become disciples of Jesus. I wrote a post about this last year at http://forthesomedaybook.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/the-meaning-of-church-..., if anyone is interested in a similar concern with a different perspective.

Thanks for a great post.

Timely subject

I've been thinking of this a lot. An interesting question is: in the church today as it actually is, how much spiritual help and growth does it offer? Do we attend because something is really happening, or primarily out of tradition and habit? I do the latter. But people came from miles around to see and hear Jesus; there was really something amazing to experience. Today I think many - most? - churches are mostly about maintaining traditions, at least mine does. (And don't get me started on the power plays, infighting, etc). So I am not surprised, nor do I blame, people for saying, no thanks, I can worship God in different settings.

Membership Woes

Wow. An entire article about church membership that does not even use the word "money"!!! Is this a reframe or just plain denial?

All Does Not Fit Small Size

Great article. One problem Ithat might be making this problem more difficult is the small size of so many churches in the quickly deflating mainline Protestant denominations. When there is such a small church, the personalities of a few people and/or the minister become dominating and a certain inflexible culture is established, however unintentional. I have found that makes it very difficult to want to commit to a place and certainly adds to the sense that there must be something better out there even if showing up on Sundays becomes comfortable. You don't get invited to the inside party and often don't want to get invited to the inside party. I may be all wet, but it seemed the large churches provided different groups of people to have a smaller sense of community in the larger church, or allowed people to feel comfortable not having the church as a social connection on top of wanting simply to go to church. Staying in one place I imagine was easier for everyone. Also, with larger churches, there is a greater possibility of resources like gyms to bring people in. I perceive that too many ministers have the idea that there's something wrong if everyone doesn't want to go to Bible study. If you only want people who come to Bible study, you're kind of missing the point of ministry, I think. Maybe all those staff at denomination HQs can think about how to have less churches with more people and a greater capacity to figure out what people need.

the current question

I think you stated the big church/small church problem very well - particularly in your last sentence: " how to have less churches with more people and a greater capacity to figure out what people need."

If we had an obvious answer, life in the American church world would be so much easier and nicer.

Having served churches from small to mega in my 20 years in the ministry of the ELCA in the midwest, I have to say no answers were immediately obvious to me, even though we acted as if they were.

Membership and Body of Christ

While theology can't properly be used to dismiss any of the discussion in this article, theology still needs to be addressed.  Theologically, from a United Methodist perspective, we become members of the Body of Christ at baptism and we become professing members of a congregation -- itself an expression of the Body of Christ -- at confirmation.  Now, this can't be used to beat people over the head until they show up.  But it does remind us that they are members of a body, and thus attached to us in an indisolluble way, whether they show up or not.  When we are troubled by their absence, then, the operative question is not so much "how do we get them to become interested in our congregation," but rather, "how can we help them understand the importance of this connection both to them and to us?  None of this necessarily replaces any of the discussion in the article, but I think it adds an important additional dimension to it.

Going against the stream

Last Sunday (Fifth Sunday of Easter, A) at our Episcopal Church in my sermon I referred to the Epistle reading from 1 Peter where Christians undergoing some kind of suffering are addressed as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation... God own people..."  We're not used to being addressed corporately like that.  We are much more comfortable with an individual, private spirituality that easily shields us from facing the strifes and injustices of the world.  For Christians outside the civil societies we've created in the West, hearing that we have membership in Christ's Body resonates much more quickly.  The societal picture in the West seems to show that we're living on the tail end of the Enlightenment emphasis on individuality and personal freedoms.  But that can only go so far in matters of faith.  So, were going against the stream to talk about being members of a corporate body that has a particular incarnational reality in our local community of faith.  Bonhoeffer's seminal work, Life Together drives that home very well.  C. S. Lewis speaks of it with great humor in his Screwtape Letters.  Just a few references that come to mind.  In trying to figure out how this relates to "church" membership we cannot loose hold of the importance of our life together on a corporate basis.  Maybe it means we just accept that we'll be smaller and leaner and have a bigger learning curve for people coming into our fellowship.

The Rev. C. Barry Turner

Active participation vs. Membership

Loose connections apply to more than the young. We are in our 60's. Currently we no longer regularly attend the church of which we are members due to serious theological differences with the rector, and we attend and actively support a church of a different denomination which we have no intention of joining. We teach Sunday School, give generously, support a mission outreach in another community, and serve in various projects. This latter church's flexibility in not pressing us for membership has helped us feel welcome. We do not think formal membership would add anything. I suppose this is somewhere between "loose connections" and membership.

This resonates

I am an almost-cradle Presbyterian in a PCUSA church where I've been a member for 10 years. The church is struggling as are so many - declining membership, older folk anxious for the church to survive yet unwilling to loosen their grip on the wheel lest the younger folk drive down an unfamiliar road, a pastor with us three years whom some like personally but no one respects as a pastor (something about a "leadership style" that is akin to steamroller), yet a church with a strong commitment to mission, and many close ties among folks of different generations. At this point I stay as a member for the sake of those ties, and for my daughter who has never known another church and considers this her home, but frankly I spend more time at other churches -- mostly PCUSA, but not always - participating in classes and fellowship and sometimes worship as well. If one could be a member of the PCUSA without being linked to a particular church, I would take that option, and feel at home.

My Local Church

We started attending our current church about seven years ago. It is very unlike my previous experiences. It is a young congregation in terms of both its history and its demographics. They don't take offerings or teach on money, but have a very financially generous congregation. Indeed, the congregation is very active in the life and ministries of church, volunteering in all kinds of sacrificial ways. I was therefore taken aback when we asked to become members and we're told that they don't do membership - seeing it as a kind of stuffy, old-fashioned way to about church life. In other words, I guess I have had the reverse experience from this article - not a church wanting unwilling people to become members but someone wanting membership but the church refusing. We have stayed and cheerfully joined in the high giving, high volunteering culture.

Wellman may be correct that

Wellman may be correct that some persons do not join church out of a consumerist mentality. It is always good to consider how culture, capitalism and consumerism are affecting institutions, faith practices and behavior. How else might consumerism be affecting young adults?? What about the economy and corporate culture? It would be interesting to know how many jobs a young adult may expect to have through their 30's. I assume that there are high possibilities of job change or transfer, or at least there is the fear or expectation that a young adult will not be in the same town for long. How does that affect church membership? Are these trends very different than in previous eras and generations?

“People's looser ways ..."

“The challenge for churches is to be able to recognize and adapt to people's looser ways of affiliating with church while continuing to teach that belonging to one another is indispensable to the Christian vision,” - Amy Frykholm.

I don’t mean my comments here as sarcasm, nor as advocacy for any particular theological position, nor as one-ups-manship under a scientific guise of reporting data and studies. And, I don’t have answers for Frykolm’s tribe of Christian Century readers and sympaticos. If you read her article (not just reviews of it), it’s easy to see that she’s wrestling with data too obvious and too painful to hide, namely, that “membership has been declining [in mainline churches] for almost 50 years.” This decline is long chronicled.

What’s missing from Frykholm’s report is mention of the fact that the church-phyla which is not declining in membership, and which has been growing robustly for more than 50 years, is a church-family which is not likely to be readers or cohorts of the Christian Century nor understanding of mainline angst, namely, the charismatic and Pentecostal phyla of churches.

It’s not fair to reduce the complex and frustrating phenomena of the fifty-year decline in mainline membership to simple formulas, but the Hartford Seminary report, “A Report on Religion in the United States Today” (2001) is just one of dozens of studies which identify clarity and definiteness (a certain narrow-mindedness) of theology as just one factor (among many other factors) contributing to a “cohesion” which is a countable-cause for growth in church numbers and vitality. I’m not promoting nor discounting the Hartford report. It’s just one sample among many. All such studies deserve scrutiny because it’s notoriously difficult-to-bordering-on-impossible in sociological studies of religion to come up with valid religious scalars (categories for measuring how stuff like theology maps to measuring magnitudes, like numbers in church membership). And anyone who thinks that theology alone is the dominating factor predicting increases or decreases in church membership doesn’t understand reality. No matter how these trends are justified or rationalized, there is a weird and generic problem, a counter-intuitive and puzzling problem for the mainline churches, a problem of how and why increasingly vague and fuzzy theologies aimed at a courtship with wider public audiences have not resulted in more attendance and a reversal of the hemorrhaging decline in membership.

The intuitive sense (not the counter-intuitive one) is as simple as a little axiom borrowed from another discipline, but which feels intuitively true across all disciplines – "You can write a fuzzy decision that gets nine votes," Justice Scalia has said, "or a very clear decision that gets five votes." No one needs to be a Supreme Court Justice or a fancy theologian to know what every parent of children already knows, namely, the more narrow, the more specific, and the more “very clear” the parental instructions (“clean your room, which means take out the trash, make your bed, clean the hamster crap off the floor, NOW”), in contrast to vague and “fuzzy” parental instructions (“wouldn’t it be nice and sweet to sort of clean your room, that is, when you feel like it, if you ever do, honey”), the more resistance children may put up. So if Scalia’s true and intuitive little proverb holds remotely true for theology too, then the more vague and more fuzzy theology becomes, the larger and more robustly growing church membership ought to be (i.e., “fuzzy” theology should get more votes).

So what?

So in practice, it’s about as fuzzy as fuzzy can be for Amy Frykholm to hail “people's looser ways of affiliating with church.” Since “people's looser ways” can mean any-fuzzy-thing and a fuzzy-nothing-in-particular. Hailing to “people's looser ways” should score a near-perfect 10 on any fuzzy scale. And get more votes. But, churches with this fuzzy sensibility and with correspondingly fuzzy theologies are not growing and not getting more votes. Data on church growth shows the counter-intuitive and opposite result, namely, it’s not “a fuzzy decision” [i.e., fuzzy theology], but rather, “very clear” (so-called narrow-minded) theologies which are attracting membership growth.

There’s nothing evaluative in my comments. It’s up to each minister-theologian and each church member to evaluate and judge for themselves the satisfactions they get from defining both theology and church membership so fuzzily that they can count non-attenders (“people's looser ways”) as metaphysical and mystical members of their “church,” or instead, the satisfactions of narrow, exclusive, yet “very clear” theologies which should arguably result in a loss of membership, while having an opposite effect. The perils of theological rationalization and self-justification are immanent and on parade all around. Pentecostals may gloat that their Pentecostal growth proves their rightness and blessedness by God. Mainline churches may rationalize that their decline in church membership is the true fulfillment of kenotic theology, emptying church pews, with the church dying to its churchy-self, and with death as proof of living for God. Theological rationalizations will never end on both sides. Which is one reason why religious scalars are difficult-to-impossible to define and get right for measuring the real influence of religion and the reasons for its growth and decline.

Responding to Guiseppe's comment from June

I believed you asked how could a church respond to those who have been wounded and show herself to be worthy to be trusted.  I was the first respondent to this post back in May and now that I'm 6+months out from when I first responded, I can tell you that the best way for a church to show that it can be trusted is to be itself.  Don't try too hard, just be who you are. Genuineness is probably the best way, in my opinion.  A church that tries too hard or seems to be just trying to get people on the roll and plugged into doing something, can be smelled a mile away.  

I have now been attending a church for the last 5 months or so and have even attended the newcomer's class.  I'm not looking to join just yet, but I do support this church financially.  I have found a Wednesday night class led by the pastor that is open to dialogue and is a very comfortable environment.  Actually, it's a breath of fresh air to be able to discuss topics openly without fear of being shut down for having a different view.  Questions are actually okay.  The people have been very warm and receptive to me and I couldn't ask for anything else.  There is no pressure to join and people are genuinely welcomed whether they join or not.  About the only thing that I could not do at this time is hold an elected position or vote.  Other than that, there are many ways to plug in.  If more churches made such access easier and without the unspoken weight of needing to join, that might help.  No one wants to enter into a relationship in which they feel there are ulterior motives from the other party and churches are no different.  

Keeping our brothers

I am puzzled by the fact that in the article, and in all the comments, there is no discussion of any of these churches actually reaching out to members in their homes and reaffirnming the interest of the church community in them even if their own interest in the church has waned. There are stories of people dropping out of their former church congregation, but no recounting of a pastor or church elder coming by to ask how they are doing and try to help resolve the reasons that are keeping them from attending. Has no one thought of such a program, or is it considered useless or socially gauche?

Also, the orientation of most people commenting here seems to be toward satisfying their own perceived spiritual needs, rather than feeling any obligation to look after the spiritual needs of other members of the congregation.