On Sunday, July 26, 2020, the assembled congregation of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX, spent two hours discussing and voting on more than 400 absentee church members. This meeting came after our lengthy and overt attempts to reconnect with persistently non-attending church members. It was also the culmination of various conversations, teachings, and sermons on the topic of meaningful church membership as part of what it means to live as a Christian in the world.
We’ve been talking about church health and striving to become a healthier church for years, and this was a big step in that direction.
But let me put this qualifying statement right up front: You should absolutely NOT seek to remove non-attending members from your church roster if you haven’t done your due diligence beforehand. A “clean” roster is not the primary goal. We want to understand and practice meaningful membership as a church family, not just impose a ruling from on high.
As you and your church move toward greater health, and as meaningful church membership becomes more readily recognizable, then at some point you’ll be ready to take steps toward addressing your non-attending members. Removing absentee members from the roster will be hard, it will cost you relational credit, and it will require a lot of effort on the part of the pastors and members who understand the importance of doing such a thing. But anything truly worth doing in this world is going to be hard and costly.
Over the course of the last several months, in anticipation of the meeting we had among our church last Sunday, I heard some people raise objections to our planned action. I’d like to use these objections as a way to argue in favor of forging ahead, with the caveat above in mind. Here are seven objections and seven accompanying reasons why I believe local churches should remove non-attending members from their roster.
1. You’re kicking people out!
Both non-attending members and other people in the community are likely to percieve your action as a negative one. However, persistently non-attending members have already kicked themselves out. They have removed themselves from any meaningful relationships among the existing church family.
The local church who removes absentee members from the roster is merely acknowledging on paper what is already true in reality, and absentee members need to realize what they are doing to themselves. Therefore, local churches should remove non-attending members in order to help them understand that they have already effectively removed or excommunicated themselves.
2. We should ask them nicely, not give them ultimatums.
No one likes an ultimatum, since it essentially demands a decisive change. Ultimatums draw a clear line in the sand and force everyone to choose a side. But, at the end of the day, church membership is either going to be meaningful for your local church or it is not. And every local church is eventually going to have to draw the line and force the decision. Otherwise, “church member” will continue to be a meaningless status.
Furthermore, the demand for meaningful church membership should only come after reasonable attempts have been made to extend love and friendship. As I said above, every church should do the due diligence of teaching about membership, reaching out to those who are inactive, and initiating conversations among active members in order to ensure that everyone understands what is happening and why.
At some point, however, a decision has to be made. Therefore, local churches should remove non-attending members in order to reestablish the basic commitment of church membership – regular attendance.
3. Maybe they will start attending again later.
One of the main reasons people resist the idea of removing non-attending church members is that they hold onto the hope that absentee members will eventually return. But this wrongly assumes that removing someone from the membership roster necessarily bars that person from attending church services or prevents them from joining again in the future.
If your church is like mine, then anyone is welcome to attend most all of the services. Previous members who have been removed for non-attendance will be welcomed at regular church gatherings with open arms. And if they decide those removed members want to join again in the future, then we would gladly move in that direction… after, of course, we made it clear that attendance remains a basic expectation.
Local churches should remove non-attending members so that the expectation of regular attendance will be clear if-and-when those removed members ever do come back again.
4. Maybe they are attending another church.
If non-attending members are regularly attending another church, then that’s great! It’s far better that a professing Christian gather regularly with a local church than to flounder about in isolation from Christ’s visible body in the world. But a Christian should be a member of whatever church he or she is regularly attending. That’s the church family who will know him or her best, and the pastors he or she sees regularly will be far more capable of giving quality shepherding care.
Local churches should remove non-attending members so that they will feel compelled to join formally with the church they regularly attend.
5. They have been members here for so long.
Long-time church members can be a marvelous feature of a local church. Members who have been participating with the same church family for decades will often have a kind of relational capital that is hard to come by. These stalwarts of the church and of the community can sometimes personify the best among us.
But one of the main responsiblities older church members have is to give themselves to discipling efforts among younger members (Titus 2:1-10). Older members are responsible to provide examples of Christian virtue and endurance for those younger Christians who are coming up behind them.
Local churches should remove non-attending church members so that younger Christians will know that absentee Christianity is not something to emulate.
6. These non-attending members are my family!
Many Christians in the Bible-Belt (the American south) have family members who once professed faith in Christ but do not live in any meaningful sense today as followers of Jesus. The difficulties and strains of family relationships can easily compound the seeming difficulty of having candid conversations about spiritual health and church membership with a family member.
But who should love your mom or dad, or your brother or sister, or your cousin, or your aunt or uncle, or your niece or nephew more than you? And who is better suited to address their inconsistent profession of faith in Christ than you are? If your family members says he or she loves Jesus, but lives like a non-Christian in the world, then you are the person who sees and knows this false dichotomy better than anyone else.
Local churches should remove non-attending members in order to make them understand that God doesn’t have any nieces or nephews or grandchildren. God only has children, which are those adopted into His family by virtue of their union with Christ. And the ordinary way such a union is visible in the world is by their ongoing union with other Christians in the context of the local church.
7. This will make them think Christians are judgmental and legalistic.
When Christians make unpopular judgments, the world is quick to accuse them of being judgmental. Moreover, Christians have often been legalistic, and that’s a shame. But, there is a vast difference between being judgmental and making proper judgments.
Christians must never judge superficially, on the basis of socio-economic class or race, for example. But Christ Himself commands Christians to judge one another in matters of morality and obligation. In Scripture, it is clear that “those inside the church” (i.e. professing Christians) are exaclty the ones Christians are to judge with greater severity and expecation when it comes to their morality (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).
When Christians speak the truth in love, they will certainly open themselves up to being misunderstood, but this in no way relieves them of the duty to speak the truth and to make biblical judgments. Local churches should remove non-attending members so that those inside and those outside the church will have the practice of biblical judgment modeled for them in a public and obvious way.
In conclusion, non-attending members are not good for a local church. Allowing persitently non-attending members to remain on the church membership roster gives Christians and non-Christians alike the wrong idea about what it means to believe and follow Jesus Christ. Local churches should acknowldge “inactive church membership” as a problem to be solved or as a disease to be medicated or as a dysfunction to be rehabilitated.
Let me offer you (especially if you are a fellow pastor) a caution and an encouragement.
A caution: If you want to follow Christ in this world, as an individual or as an assembly of believers (i.e. a church), then you are going to face challenges and difficulties. The road to the celestial city has many off-ramps and enticing stops along the way. You’ll have good reasons to avoid obedience to Christ as you consider the commands of Scripture. But don’t be fooled. The allure of disobedience is a sham, and it will neither satisfy nor endure.
An encouragement: If you do follow in obedience to Christ in this world, even doing the hard things that very few seem to appreciate, then you will enjoy all of the benefits He’s promised you. Jesus Himself will be with you every step of the way (Matthew 28:18-20). Your efforts for righteousness and obedience will be rewarded (James 1:12; 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Peter 5:1-4). And, especially for those who lead as pastors, you’ll not be ashamed when you stand before the King to give an account (Hebrews 13:17).
May God help us to trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and may He help us to live in grateful obedience to Him. May He also grant us much fruit from our efforts to see healthier churches comprised of committed members.