Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The "M Word"

It was a different time; a different season in our cultural life. It was an era when one listened to local radio, watched whatever was on the few TV channels available and read books, magazines and news on something called paper. Many people still sat on their large front porches in the evenings and visited with their neighbors. Kids played outside with their friends and many -- if not most -- families sat down to dinner together almost every evening. During that era, schools had only a few sports teams. Sports for the kids existed of little league baseball and, perhaps, Pop Warner football.

It was the same season in our national life when certain times of the week were sacrosanct. Sundays were when families went to church, then spent significant time together. Many activities also avoided Wednesday night, another evening devoted to church involvement. Even in high school, I can recall the difficulty of finding friends to hang out with on Sunday afternoon. That was "nap time" in our home and I was free to find something else to do, but most of my friends were with their families on Sunday.

I recall my surprise when I discovered that schools and kids' sports leagues no longer avoided Wednesday night practices and games. I was doubly shocked when that attitude spilled over to Sunday afternoon and evening. Our church faced the reality that we needed to change our scheduling because the majority of our young families were becoming busy with extra activities almost every day of the week. Even though church life had once been the center of their social schedule, that era was over.

All of this plays in the background of my mind as I reflect on several recent conversations among our church leaders. Those convos have centered around the "M Word": Membership. Becoming a church member has gone the way of things like setting one's weekly schedule around church activities. Like many others, our church has seen increasing numbers in attendance and a decline in people who take the membership class, leading us to ask, "Why?". The discussion has elicited several observations:

  • Membership has become something you pay for, in places like warehouse clubs and gyms.
  • Membership often denotes something you do for your personal benefit.
  • Membership is a term that seems to have lost much of its potency in the area of commitment. The church I pastor has many military families, most of them Marines. You won't hear them say, "I'm a member of the U.S. Marine Corps," but simply, "I'm a Marine (Semper Fi)!" Similarly, athletes at one of our local high schools don't typically say, "I'm a member of the football team." Instead, it's "I play football for..." In both cases, deep levels of commitment are implied and the word "member" isn't the normal term to describe it.

What shall we do to reclaim the idea that membership means something? Thom Rainer (@ThomRainer) has written a book about it, which might help steer the conversation another direction. Could it be, though, that this will be a case in which the linguistic cultural pressure can best be met by a change in terminology? Our language is skewed with words that no longer mean what they once did and our response has been to find other ways of saying what we mean.

These thoughts are simmering with us at Stone Ridge. What do you think? If you want to contribute to the conversation and grab Rainer's book (I haven't read it), tell us what you think about it. Just this morning Thom Schultz (@ThomSchultz) posted an insightful page that relates directly to the conversation; I recommend it.


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