The real problem with church membership

I’m glad to be back in one piece from the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Indianapolis. Besides the fact that we drove up and had to maneuver through the usual assortment of interstate wackos, we had a much better spirit among the messengers than we’ve had in some years. I can remember a lot of annual meetings where the atmosphere was so tense you were glad to get out without being assaulted. (Remind me to tell you sometime about 1980.)

The hands-down highlight of this year’s trip was getting to see our daughter and son-in-law, who recently moved to Noblesville after she finished grad school in St. Louis. We ate here, talked about progress on their new house, and even got an unexpected opportunity to preview the much-anticipated next generation of our illustrious family lineage.

Probably the most interesting part of the programmed convention activities was the debate on the resolution about regenerate church membership. Southern Baptist bloggers [hereherehere] had been buzzing about the subject for weeks and a lot of folks were curious to see what the resolutions committee would do with the four submissions on the subject they received prior to the convention.

The committee decided to assemble elements of the submitted resolutions into one statement, and the outcome was what one might expect: None of the submitters were quite satisfied with the result. Most dissatisfied was Tom Ascol, whose call for repentance over perennially inflated membership numbers was entirely omitted from the committee’s resolution. The messengers decided to correct that, perhaps in part influenced by a quote from David Dockery that Ascol read during the presentation of his proposed amendment. The complete text of the resolution as amended is available here.

There really isn’t any argument about the need to right-size the total membership numbers reported by Southern Baptist congregations. And there isn’t any argument that for decades churches have been way too lax about accepting people into membership and keeping up with them once they did. Multitudes who joined our churches have lapsed into un-involvement. To be sure, some were never born again to begin with, hence the concern about regenerate church membership and the call for repentance. Others perhaps just drifted off and congregations failed to find out why – another good reason for a call to repentance.

I must say, however, that if I was going to tackle the issues of unregenerate people being members of the church and of congregations not holding members accountable for discipleship, I wouldn’t start with the members who haven’t attended church in recent memory. I’d start with the ones who do attend.

Lostness and disobedience among our regular attenders is a far more serious issue than the absence of people we have lost track of. If our baptism numbers are plateaued or declining in the large majority of our churches, surely it is not because our non-attending members are failing to obey Christ’s command to make disciples.

I’m a preacher’s kid, and I’ve got to say that every congregation I was in growing up had a significant number of members in regular attendance who either had never been born again or had backslidden to the point that strangers would have been surprised to learn they claimed to be Christians. While every church had a solid core of authentic, conscientious Christ-followers, they were always in the minority. Many of the lost or backslidden church members held important positions of influence in the congregation and made life virtually impossible for a pastor who just wanted to see lost souls brought to Christ. (There’s a bunch of stories in that category too. Remind me to talk about those sometime.)
 
Inflated membership numbers are a shame, and churches ought to address the situation wherever it exists. I hope the resolution passed in Indianapolis helps motivate many congregations to resolve the problem. But the real shame to the cause of Christ does not lie with those who have quit coming to our churches, for whatever reason. If you are truly concerned about regenerate church membership, if you genuinely want to see God’s spirit move more freely in your midst, look to your attenders.

The author of Hebrews wasn’t talking to unregenerate non-attenders when he wrote this:
 
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. … Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God … For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.” (Hebrews 5:12 – 6:8 NASB)

The Southern Baptist Convention will be far better off if churches make sure the people they admit into membership are in fact born-again. We will be more honest before God and the world when our total membership numbers don’t include people who were never born again or don’t want to be part of our local faith community.

But if you want to make real progress, be sure you also turn your attention to unregenerate and backslidden church members who do attend your services. Both need to understand that church membership isn’t the same thing as salvation, and that salvation is more than just the decision to accept Christ as Savior. Preach and teach the hard truth about the cost of discipleship and the role obedience and endurance play in salvation.

Getting a congregation to deal with unregenerate and backslidden people who never attend is difficult enough. Dealing with the ones who are there every Sunday is quite another. We can trim non-attenders from our membership rosters until the cows come home, but if we don’t address the situation among regular attenders that exists in most churches, how are we going to experience the renewal we long to see?

Perhaps next year we’ll have a resolution on the necessity of regenerate church members being wholeheartedly engaged in God’s redemptive mission in the world.

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About kainos

Jesus follower, Bible reader, husband/father/son/brother/uncle, rider, hiker, snapshooter
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