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Traditional Club Memberships in Steady Decline–Including the Club Called Church

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This is one of the big-ticket issues in The Way Things Are Becoming, or The Great Emergence, to use Phyllis Tickle’s language.

The social clubs established in the late 19th through mid-20th centuries are now showing steady and apparently irreversible decline in membership.

Consider the hallowed Scouting movement brought to the U.S. by W.D. Boyce in 1910.  Its numbers have steadily dropped as reflected by this chart found at Scouting for All:

Back in 2009 The Janesville Gazette reported that the Wisconsin Jaycees dissolved their Janesville, WI  charter because they no longer had enough members.  This same article described similar fates unfolding amongst the Optimists, the Lions, the Kiwanis and the Rotarians.

“Years ago, when you were in a certain business, you almost had to belong to a service club, but it’s not that way anymore,’’ said Cindy Miser, then the Janesville Optimist Club Treasurer/Secretary.

That statement takes me back to another statement made out on the Great Plains a few years ago, one spoken by a retired, long-time pastor of a flagship church located in the heart of a small city.  “When I first became pastor,” he said, “the advice I got from my senior pastor was that I had to join a service club.  I looked around and found that the Rotary Club had most of the folks who were on city council, the school principal–folks like that.  So I joined the Rotary Club.”

It probably seemed like good wisdom back then to do exactly that.  It was a time when joining a club was the thing to do, a time when people found a larger sense of meaning and purpose in their club memberships.  And since clergy were considered part of the upwardly mobile professional class (definitely white collar!), the Rotary Club would have been a good fit.

But Ms. Miser’s statement also takes me back to the childhood experience of  church at a booming congregation in a conservative branch of U.S. Lutheranism during the late 1960’s.  A lot of up-and-coming professionals gravitated toward this expression of church and brought along their wives and families.  Granted, it was more likely that the wives “carried the male” back in that day as much as they appear to do today.  But in that church, well, women had their place–St. Paul said so, after all.   The men were active and involved, as I remember.  But I also remember that this church seemed like a place where the up-and-comers climbing the rungs of the white middle class all hung out.  As I remember it, this all-white, mostly affluent congregation aspired to a sort of greatness that could best be summed up in this dream picture:

Here’s the problem:  Ward, June, Wally and the Beav all went to church on Sunday.  Then Monday, June popped over to the Garden Club meeting once the boys were off to school.  Tuesday, Ward had his Rotary Club luncheon, where the Mayor got to make his pitch for community service projects the Rotarians could take on and deliver.  Wednesday, Beaver had Cub Scouts and Wally had Boy Scouts.  June, of course, was Den Mother, while Ward was Scoutmaster.  Then, back to church on Sunday, where June taught Sunday School, and Ward served as Elder.  Wally was trying to sort out his feelings for the attractive young girl in his Teens class, while the Beav was learning about the men in the fiery furnace from a teacher with a flannel board.  Meanwhile, the lines blurred between their Sunday church activities and their involvement in the weekday clubs.   All of them seemed necessary for the production of good, solid citizens; all of them offered beneficial social connections and friendships; and all of them seemed to be essential pillars for a healthy national society.

So what happened?  First, there was this little issue most of us have come to know as The Civil Rights Movement.  Right behind that issue came another little issue, The Vietnam War.  Then, some social reject worthy of scorn from all “decent” people everywhere, a fellow by the name of Daniel Ellsberg, released The Pentagon Papers.  Why, those classified documents had no business being published in a newspaper–never mind that they revealed a government that was lying to its citizenry about the direction of the war.

Social institutions responded to these perceived threats to Good and Decent (and white) America.  The Silent Majority elected Richard Nixon–twice.   Mainstream clergy often prayed for the success of the American mission in Vietnam, ignoring the great ironic truth exposed by Mark Twain’s “War Prayer,” written nearly six decades before, back when the U.S. was waging war in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, in my local, booming, conservative Lutheran Church, my pastor took a hard stand against rabble-rousers and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He preached in a fiery sort of way, and his message probably got rehashed at Rotary and Lion’s Club meetings the following week.

Down South, the respectable clergy from respectable houses of worship were compelled to publicly admonish the organizers and demonstrators of the 1963 Birmingham Protest, especially that outside agitator, Martin Luther King, Jr.   King responded with his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” a shout-out for compassion and action rooted in solid biblical scholarship.  King’s letter essentially stripped the red-white-and-blue veneer off the nature and purpose of the church in ways that were difficult to avoid.  But people did just that.  The system was humming along just fine, thank you; if only the uppity blacks and longhairs and feminists would just fall back into line.  Meanwhile, there were those social clubs to attend; pour enough energy into their service projects and it just might stem the tide.

Yet, the bottle had been opened and the genie was gone, if he ever was really there in the first place.  Perhaps people were just starting to awaken from a genie-induced hallucination.  Whatever the case, the trend for decline, the massive turning away from traditional, institutional organizations, had been given a starting place.  Traditional social and service clubs had begun the decades-long process of being pink-slipped by the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Wally and the Beav, who just didn’t see the value in them anymore.

The church, to the degree it has aligned itself with the principles and values of social service clubs, continues to suffer the effects of this unstinting, pink-slipping.  The effects have spilled over to practically every expression of church, whether or not that expression has bought in to the club mentality.  While it’s a tough thing to swallow for many in the church, the decline of a club called church is likely a good and necessary thing as we enter a period of history in which the stakes seem perilously high.  The “My Country- Right or Wrong ” club church that meets primarily to see one another– and to maintain the idealized remembrance of a status quo– just isn’t equipped to offer much more than palliative care for its declining membership.

Next up:  Expressions of Church that might leave good marks on the 21st century.