Saturday, January 21, 2012

Counting the Audience

*This is one of several responses to UUA president Peter Morales' white paper on congregations, which can be found here:

There's a theory of congregations that says that each congregation has three kinds of constituents.  They are called by different names but the picture is the same.  At the center of the life of the church are its most committed members, formal and informal leaders, contributors, workers...the people you see more than once a week and who give and get.  This group could be called "leaders", or "core members" or "most committed", or any number of other phrases.

The middle group are the members, constituents, the  people who come some, participate some, and give some, who identify with a congregation but don't put it at the center of their lives.   There's another group that is further removed from the center of the congregation, sometimes called the community, (as in, the community we serve), but perhaps better called the audience.

The audience includes the people who come to services but don't join or contribute, sometimes just on Christmas Eve, or when they are between relationships, or when their mother comes to town.  They are the people who use the church parking lot as a staging ground for group hikes, who rely on the food pantry,  whose children go to the child care center which only pays it's direct expenses in rent, but not the cost of the capital investment in the physical plant.  The audience includes the people who read the op-ed's which the minister produces, whose organizations meet for free in the meeting rooms, and those who are considering membership and getting involved.

The audience is hard to count and easy for the leaders to resent.  After all, these are the people who use the infrastructure, physical and emotional, which the church leaders have worked to provide, but they don't usually want to be part because their experience with the entity "congregation" is that it will try to suck them in, make them feel guilty, and ask them for money.  So they make themselves scarce when counting time comes.

On the other hand, they do a lot of wonderful things for a congregation.  How good does it feel to have a full house on Christmas eve, after all?  As the TV ad says,  "priceless".    We church folks do what we do to serve...and not just the folks who pledge.  Watching our resentment level is a good spiritual discipline.  It's a congregation and not a club, after all.  The audience is a given.   Plus, if we are good listeners, our audience keeps us fresh.  They are our outside audit, if we let them be.  And some of them will be enticed into the second or even the first circles because they come to notice that good things happen inside the circle.

Discovering a respectful  name for folks that I had thought of as "hanger-oners" or, on my bad day,  "free-loaders", was a wonderful day in my ministry.


Amy said...

Thank you for this.

I thought the third, outermost group would be what we might call mission field, and wonder where it is in this formulation. Surely we serve people who never walk in our doors (for example, whom did California congregations serve by opposing Prop 8? a handful of their members, yes, but mostly, millions of Californians). Maybe if we remembered that, we could stop thinking of ourselves as a club and therefore let go of worry about those who were benefiting without paying dues.

June Herold said...

Attendees who are light participants, if at all, seem to me to be among the secular majority who recognize gaps in their lives. They appreciate and want to experience what is sacred but without believing in a spirit. I believe that ministry that is digital has the potential of helping them to fill those gaps and also to recognize a liberal religious voice in our local and national discourse and to support it and stand by it, regardless of membership status.

Liz James said...

As someone who always "got" the structure of church and it's usefulness, I only recently realized the incredibly inflexible nature of our communities. In our congregation, we have three real options "Member" "Not here (left, or never came)" and "Member, but not a very good one". We pride ourselves in saying we have no "price tag" in terms of creed or identity, yet we attach a very heavy one in terms of fixed roles. I wonder what would happen if we focused less on how to get people to be "fully integrated members" and more on how to find ways for people to participate and contribute across a variety of roles...