Friday, September 15, 2006

belonging and membership

In common with a lot of baptist churches we are having a think about what it measn to belong and what that has to do with being a 'member'. Chatting with a mate this afternoon, he told me his fiance - an anglican - was extremely puzzled by our baptist way of doing things. Well, join the club, love...

Here are some reflections on where I think we are and what the implcations are. They'll appear in a couple of posts - just to keep it manageable.

Some suggest we live in a low-commitment culture and that this has had an effect on people’s willingness to commit themselves to anything. We see it in the shortage of volunteers for church programmes and offices; we see it in the patterns of attendance at church – twicers used to refer to people who came twice on a Sunday but now tends to refer to those who come to a service twice a month. Many lament the passing of a generation – now in their 70s and 80s – who were very committed to the traditional structures of our Baptist churches and who are not being replaced the generations rising behind them.

So-called ‘low commitment’ is seen in all kinds of areas of life. Will Hutton uncovered it among shareholders who have no commitment to the long-term health of companies but only an eye to a quick return and a desire to keep their investment options open. Others point to the divorce rate and, more significantly, the falling number of marriages to indicate that we have a different attitude to long-term relationships than previous generations. On top of that, cohabiting couples are four-times as likely as married couples to split up. A study of choirs and music groups in Milton Keynes showed declining membership in all of them and even steeper declines in the actual attendance of those members at rehearsals and performances. And in Bromley, Community Links has lamented recently how difficult it is to get volunteers for all sorts of groups that used to be well-supported.

No wonder churches are struggling, then. In common with other organizations, we are affected by changing patterns of commitment which themselves are products of wider and deeper changes in the way people live their lives – longer working hours, greater travel times to work, more diverse and widely spread families, greater participation in all kinds of entertainment (cinema, gigs, theatre, eating out, working out – all of which have grown more popular over the past generation).

One of the key cultural shifts in the past 30 years has become something of a clich̩. It is called consumerism. Once this described the practice of shopping and applied to a few wealthy people who had the levels of disposable income that allowed them to shop for fun. Since the 1980s such consumption has become the focus of the British economy Рspending in the high streets and especially on our homes and gardens has become the bell-weather of economic health; property values have become the prime measure of individual wealth and investing in our properties is not only a key leisure activity but also an industry employing many thousands. One of the key facets of consumerism is that it suggests anyone can become an expert, anyone can determine what is best for them and their family, choice is king.

And consumerism has spilled over into the way we regard other areas of life that once would have been talked of in terms of ‘service’. For example, opticians used to be part of the health sector, providing a ‘service’ to ‘patients’; now they are shops selling glasses and other devices to customers. Such a change has happened in all areas of public service – health, education, social services, housing, etc. We increasingly want these services to meet our needs not an agenda set by others. We used to say ‘doctor knows best’, now we demand that doctors do what we ask them; the health services is said to be more ‘patient-focused’; the doctor as ‘expert’ has been replaced as the doctor as provider of what the patient – who has become the ‘expert’ (no one knows me like I do) – wants. Likewise in schools we’ve seen the rise of parental choice; they are the consumers of educational services for their children. This might or might not be a good thing, but it is a product of a consumer mentality.

Not surprisingly this change in the way we think about these core activities, affects how we think and feel about other commitments – including religious ones. The rise of new spiritualities through the 1990s is indicative of a desire to have a spiritual dimension to our lives that is driven by the same desire to have something tailor-made, that fits me like a glove. The authors of the major study of the town of Kendal published last year under the title The Spiritual Revolution, subtitled their work ‘why religion is giving way to spirituality’. In their view religion was an organized activity where the agenda and rules were set by religious hierarchies and especially by experts known as priests, whereas spirituality is an individually-tailored response to the transcendent.

Does this have any bearing on church membership? I think is raises some pretty fundamental issues. What do you think?

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