Pastoring a church in the Bible belt has exposed me to some interesting cultural experiences. The Bible-belt is that swath of states across the southern US which are still home to many cultural Christians. Cultural Christians (those who are Christian only in a cultural sense) share several characteristics with biblical Christians (i.e. true Christians), but cultural Christianity consists of more simple routine and mindless tradition by comparison.
A biblical Christian will commonly seek to know and follow Christ according to Scripture, reading the Bible and striving to align with its teachings, even in the face of cultural opposition. But a cultural Christian will generally adhere to and promulgate the “Christian” traditions he or she has seen or heard from other professing Christians who share the same culture. For the biblical Christian the Bible is functional; its content is authoritative and prescriptive for beliefs and practices. For the cultural Christian the Bible is a sacred religious object, much more akin to a good luck charm than an authoritative text.
One cultural Christian tradition in the Bible-belt is an activity called “transferring your letter.” If you read a lot of church history, or if you’ve ever been involved in a Bible-belt church, then you may know exactly what I’m talking about. But if you don’t know what “transferring your letter” is all about, then allow me to briefly explain.
Many cultural Christians are members of local churches.
As a matter of fact, the Southern Baptist Convention may consist of at least twice as many cultural Christian church members as biblical ones, based on the most recent numbers. Most cultural Christians do not attend church very often (usually less than 3 times a year), but they still count their membership as something of value. And, for some strange reason, many Bible-belt churches are still glad to count these non-attending and non-functioning people as members.
Over time, Christians (biblical and cultural alike) will regularly want to stop being a member of one church and become a member of another. A Christian might move to a new town, he or she might want to help support a new church planting effort, or there might be another good reason for the switch. The most common reasons I’ve noticed in the Bible-belt for members wanting to leave one church for another is (1) to avoid dealing with some personal sin that may be exposed, (2) to protest some action of the old church’s leadership, or (3) an effort to gain in social standing with a new church’s members.
Frequently in the Bible-belt, when a church member wants to make that move, then he or she will request to “transfer” his or her membership “letter.” The “letter” is referring to his or her official membership, and to “transfer” the “letter” is to move his or her official membership from one church to another.
Historically, a “letter of commendation” was regularly given to church members who left a local church in good standing as they moved from one town or area to another.
The “letter” was intended as a kind of passport among like-minded churches. A new and unfamiliar church could basically know that the “letter-carrying” Christian moving into town had been a good church member elsewhere. The pastors and the members of the new church would be generally assured that he or she would likely be a good addition to their church.
Today, “transferring your letter” is more of a perfunctory act between churches who are merely shuffling members as though they are numbers on a score board.
Many churches still vote on whether or not to “approve” of a request for a “letter transfer,” but almost no church member could tell you why he or she would ever vote against such a request, and a request is almost never denied. Often, churches simply gain some and lose some, while they hope for a net increase over time.
Anecdotally, the vast majority of church members who request to “transfer a letter” today are unhealthy church members who deserve no such praise or approval. They have decided to leave their old church for some superficial (or even sinful) reason, and they quietly disappear until the old church office receives a request for a letter from some other church nearby.
Today’s “letters of commendation” often go to the least commendable among professing Christians in a community.
As a pastor, I have been observing this peculiar phenomenon among Bible-belt Christians for nearly eight years now. I believe the practice is grounded in good ecclesiology and historically worthwhile. But I also believe the practice has become a severe threat to the health of local churches and to the witness of the gospel.
While the practice may have been constructive in the past, I believe the current practice of “transferring letters” (over the last 20-50 years) is broken beyond repair. This practice has effectively devalued church membership, encouraged cultural Christianity (i.e. unbiblical or false Christianity), assured many hell-bound sinners that they have nothing to fear from God’s judgment, and usurped the role of careful pastoral consideration of those who desire to join a local church.
I believe the practice of “transferring membership letters” today makes local churches far less healthy, I believe it makes the gospel far less clear, and I believe it makes Christian discipleship far more difficult.
I urge local church pastors to stop receiving church members “by letter” of recommendation. Do the hard and necessary (and fruitful) work of getting to know people before you invite them to become new church members. Don’t rely on a “letter” to commend a stranger to your church family; get to know the stranger so that he or she will no longer be a stranger.
I urge church members to communicate directly with churches and pastors, instead of asking a new church to “request a letter” from your old church. Tell your current church members where you’re going, and tell them what church you plan to connect with when you get there. Tell your old pastor or pastors about your new church, and invite your new pastor(s) to contact the old one(s). The church and pastors you’re leaving behind will be glad to know you are being cared for by another good church, and your new church and pastors will be glad to hear about your past spiritual growth.
I urge church members to stop voting to approve the “transfer of a letter” for any member who is not leaving on commendable terms. If you are part of a church that votes on members coming in and going out, then it is your responsibility (as a church member) to participate in these votes conscientiously. If someone has been an uncharitable, divisive, selfish, and/or inactive member of your church, then he or she will likely be the same kind of member of the next church. Don’t tell a church they are getting a commendable new member when they are in fact dealing with a person who ought to be reproved instead of praised.
In short, I urge pastors and churches to treat church membership as a serious and meaningful relationship. The Bible describes what church membership is supposed to look like (1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Colossians 3:1-17; Hebrews 10:23-25), and it tells us that the ultimate goal is Christian maturity (Ephesians 4:15-16). The Bible commands Christians to love one another in real and substantial ways in the context of meaningful relationships (1 John 3:16-18), so that the whole world will see the authentic love of Christ on display (John 13:34-35).
May God help us, and may He bless our efforts to live faithfully as witnesses for Christ in this world.