A fortnight ago the current Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. John Chalmers, challenged the Church of Scotland to a decade of membership and called for the Church of Scotland to redefine membership for a new generation more switched onto digital media than previous generations. For many within the Church of Scotland Mr Chalmers hinted at what many who play a role within the leadership of churches feel. Year after year we beat ourselves up with statistics of decline, as the shifting social patterns of the world mean that people no longer align themselves to clubs and associations. Political parties, Guilds, golf clubs all tell similar stories to that of congregations, where once there were waiting lists, full halls, capacity crowds, now there are incentives to get involved. Unless of course you happen to be the Scottish Nationalist or Green Parties in post-Referendum exuberance.
Within the next few weeks it will be time to gather the statistics for congregations and Session Clerks, roll keepers and ministers will all be looking at the past year to check the Baptisms, Blessings, Weddings, Funerals, and Admissions to Membership. I had thought that this year our membership would show an increase, however in the last week any hope of that has gone and instead I think it is more likely that numbers will stay the same.
Two things struck me about what Mr Chalmers had to say. The first was the encouragement to explore digital media. Strange given that he is known for his own reluctance to use social media – a comment that I am cheeky enough to have made to him. The second was that in urging people away from traditional defining of membership, a number of the kind of increase that should be sought is still offered. Cynically I think that giving any number will lead to a calling to account by media and others if such numbers were not met.
However I’m putting my cynical hat to one side because since that reporting of the Moderator’s comments I’ve been challenged to think how the digital media used by a congregation can reach out to those beyond a normal Sunday morning congregation. As one of those ministers who has given into the pressure to place Sunday’s sermon on line, I have been amazed by the number of people who listen to it beyond the congregation. The podcast has a regular following in the USA. There are two known listeners who drop an email every so often to make comment.
In the days following the Moderator’s comments a local young man emailed to ask about how he could start coming to church, as he had never been before. In recent months he’d been struggling with the activity of the world and had begun to listen to the sermons on line, and now wanted to make the next step. What should he wear? What would happen? Where should he sit? All of these questions were answered, and I know he made it into church as he told me who he was as he was leaving.
Last Sunday as we admitted five new people to membership, there were another two in the congregation who asked how they might join and planned to be in touch, while one of those who did join “tweeted” that they had joined the church and felt blessed by the experience.
While this week I am on my fourth response to those coming through the website or Facebook page, wanting to know more about being at Christmas services and services into the New Year.
I have no idea if any of these recent connections made through digital media will grow beyond the first contact stage, but I’ve decided that I’m going to document the contact. And where better to do it than here. So when I’ve nothing to say, at the very least I can let you know if the call to redefine membership allows those of us who worry about being beaten up by statistics the opportunity to see that growth and interest can come in a new form.
So so far – 1 email about how to come to church, 1 “blessed” tweet, 2 people at church because they found the times for worship on the website.