7 Reasons Local Churches Should Remove Non-Attending Members from Their Membership

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.

Working for Healthier Churches in the Bible-belt: The “Letter Transfer”

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.

What is a Membership Covenant?

A membership covenant is simply a summary of the agreement between church members. Historically, membership covenants were quite common among Protestant churches, including Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans. And many churches still use them today.

As a matter of fact, all local churches have some kind of membership covenant… even those churches who don’t have a formal status of “church member.” Written or unwritten, formal or informal, there is always some sort of basic agreement made between those gathered in the name of Christ for the purpose of public worship and edification.

Gathering in agreement and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is fundamental to the definition of what it means to be a Christian church.

That said, many churches publish a formal membership covenant. The purposes behind such a thing are manifold, but a simple and straightforward reason to have a formal membership covenant is so that members will know what is expected of them and what they should expect of one another.

One can read the whole New Testament, searching for every “one another” command, and thus summarize the biblical obligations and privileges of church membership, but it sure is easier and clearer if we can all agree on a basic set of promises that aim at representing the essence of such things.

Membership covenants of various lengths and content have been published over the years, but I am particularly fond of one authored by J. Newton Brown. Brown’s covenant was published by the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay) in 1853, and it was printed within the 1956 Baptist Hymnal because of how widely it was being used among Baptist Churches in America.

As with all membership covenants, one has to decide what to include and what to exclude. Truth be told, I think Brown’s covenant seeks to bind the conscience in ways that the Scripture does not, so I do not endorse it entirely. But there are many features that commend it.

As early as November of 1940 (though probably earlier), when First Baptist Church of Diana, TX (the church I pastor), was still called James Baptist Church, Brown’s membership covenant was formally embraced as the standing summary of members’ obligations and privileges.

The words below are a duplicate of that early Southern Baptist covenant (odd spelling included), which was adopted by those early members of FBC Diana.

Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and on profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, we do now in the presence of God, angels, and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.

We engage therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this Church in knowledge, holiness, and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrines; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the Church, and the relief of the poor, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations. 

We also engage to maintain family and secret devotions; to religiously educate our children; to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances; to walk circumspectly in the world; to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements, and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all tattling, back-biting, and excessive anger; to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage, and to be zealous in our efforts to advance the kingdom of our Saviour.

We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember each other in prayer; to aid each other in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy of speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the rules of our Saviour to secure it without delay.

We moreover engage that when we remove from this place we will, as soon as possible, unite with some other church, where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word.

Whether your church has a formal membership covenant or not, it is the privilege and obligation of every Christian to seek out intentional, meaningful, and regulated relationships with other Christians. May God bless your efforts to love Christ and to love His people by giving yourself to such relationships within a local church nearby.

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.

Please, Join My Church!

“My church is the best!” “Please, join my church…”

Church members and leaders can sometimes speak and act in ways that sound desperate or even arrogant. We can sometimes give the impression that our church is better than all others, and we can sometimes make it sound like we can’t survive without adding a few more members next week. Neither of these is true, and we ought to resist the temptation to think or to speak or to act either arrogantly or desperately.

Many Evangelical churches in my area of East Texas are comprised of good people, church members who want to see people trust and love Jesus and who want to see their churches grow numerically. But, often, these same church members give little thought to the ways in which their practice of church membership actually works against the spread of the gospel and the spiritual growth of disciples.

When Christians are distinct from non-Christians, then people understand what it means to convert to Christianity. When Christians know the gospel well and articulate it clearly, then the gospel is more accessible and understandable. And when Christians live holy and humbly in meaningful relationship with one another, then Christians spiritually grow.

In an effort to take membership more seriously, and at the risk of saying really basic things about the responsibilities of church membership, let me offer four suggestions to those church members who want to do their part.

First, prioritize church meetings (maybe your church calls these business meetings or members’ meetings).

In a congregational church (which describes most of the churches near me), lots of decisions are made in those meetings, and lots of information is publicized. You’ll be a better informed and more knowledgeable member if you attend these meetings regularly.

The most important decisions made by a church are about membership (who’s in and who’s out) and members’ meetings are usually the time and place to make those decisions. This is one of the basic functions of church membership in a congregational church, and these decisions exercise Christian muscles we need to strengthen in order to grow as Christians.

Make it a priority to be present at church meetings, and pay special attention to the discussion and votes concerning membership.

Second, listen to peoples’ conversion stories.

There aren’t many things I enjoy quite as much as I enjoy hearing someone tell me how they began following Jesus. I love every aspect of a good conversion story. I love to hear the humility of a broken and contrite heart. I love to hear gratitude for others who took the time to plant and water gospel-seed. I love to hear the joy of freedom in Christ, and I love to hear about God’s ongoing transformative work.

Do you want to know how I’m able to hear so many conversion stories? I ask! I say something like, “So, tell me how you first came to believe the gospel and follow Jesus…”

Don’t just ask if someone is a Christian… Ask them to tell you about how they were converted. And then listen! Listen for sorrow and grief over sin. Listen for gratitude and gospel investments. Listen for joy in Christ above all else, and listen for continued life-transformation as they’ve followed Christ ongoingly.

Let’s never get tired of hearing conversion stories, and let’s never grow weary of telling our own.

Third, expect slow growth.

Taking church membership seriously means (among other things) taking members in slowly. There’s no rush, and we’re more interested in getting to know and love a new person than we are in just making them a statistic.

If you are a church member, you should expect your elders or pastors to take time in getting to know those who want to join your church, and you should expect to make an effort yourself. This kind of intentional effort inevitably leads to slower growth of membership numbers, but churches who take membership seriously will often grow more steadily.

Take time to genuinely get to know and love others, and wait to see how God might slowly and steadily grow your church.

Fourth, love the church family God gives you.

At the end of the day, we all have to decide to be part of a church family, but God is the one who ultimately brings us together. God has put us right where He wants us, and He has done so for our good and for His glory.

We should treasure the fact that there are other Christians in the world who have decided to take responsibility for the care of our souls. Your fellow church members, and those church members God will add in the future, are God’s gifts to you. And God intends you to be a loving gift to them as well.

Look for ways you can show love for your fellow church members by serving them and helping them follow Jesus.

These four suggestions aren’t going to make your church grow fast, and they aren’t going to win any awards for creativity or innovation. But applying these four suggestions will indeed make you a better church member, they will help your church to be healthier, and they will probably make you more content with God’s provision… rather than stressed about how in the world you can get more people to “please, join my church!”

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.

What is Church Membership?

It is biblical and valuable!

What is church membership?

The topic of church membership has garnered great interest among Evangelical circles in recent years. Surely, all would agree that a discussion of the meaning and value of church membership can be rewarding in the context of any local church. And yet, it does seem that some local churches are hesitant to think critically about their own practice of church membership. This article is, in large part, a plea for local churches to think about the concept of church membership and the right practice of church membership in their specific context.

Biblical investigation, historical study, and personal introspection are all great efforts when addressing church membership and related topics. When church history agrees with Scripture, we may gain insight from the application of biblical truth in a context that is not our own.  When church history diverges from or unnecessarily exceeds the teaching of the Bible, we are better equipped to learn how we may avoid these mistakes ourselves by learning from others. Of course, the question is not ultimately, “How did people do church membership in the past?” The question is, “How should we do church membership right now?”

Church membership has lost its value.

To say that the value of church membership has diminished among the majority of Evangelical churches today is not to say that church membership is not valuable.  My statement is about the perception of many Evangelical church members, not the actual value of church membership.

It seems clear to me that many Evangelical church members (especially in the Southern Baptist Convention) perceive church membership as having little or no value whatever in their daily lives. The statistic of members to regular attendees is sufficient to illustrate the perceived lack of value among Southern Baptists. There are about 15 million members among SBC churches, but only about 33% of these can be found gathering with fellow members on any given Sunday.

If one does not think enough of church membership to worship regularly with fellow members, then one does not value church membership.

The reason I have begun by articulating the problem (namely a devaluation of church membership) is that I believe this current situation is one of our own making (speaking of Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals). I, therefore, believe that the solution is achievable by those same ones who have created the problem. We must resolve to carefully and diligently practice biblical church membership.

We have largely made church membership a consumer-driven category, much like any other social or service-oriented organization. Church leaders look for new and innovative ways to cater to the taste-preferences of their target audience, and then create organizational structures by which they seek to achieve maximum saturation of their niche market.

Many church leaders hope to draw in an ever-larger crowd by targetting and winning an audience, much like corporate marketing specialists.

All of this feeds into the self-centered idea that the customer is king and the whole organization exists at the behest of the customer. At the end of the day, church members think of the church as an institution which exists to serve the felt-needs of its members. Church members think this way because the church leaders taught them to do so by their own words and actions.

The result of this kind of practice is an appalling lack of accountability, authority, and discipling. In fact, such things are considered abhorrent to the marketing and consumer-driven structure. Accountability, authority, and discipline would undermine the foundational values of any customer-centered organizational model.

Church membership is thoroughly biblical and highly valuable.

In contrast to this modern invention of church growth techniques, the Bible actually presents a simple and God-centered structure and purpose for church membership. It seems clear to me that the purpose of church membership is articulated throughout the New Testament in the form of commitments and responsibilities.

Here are some of the commitments I find in the New Testament.

  • The individual Christian must commit to other Christians (Col. 3:12-17).
  • The individual Christian must submit to the oversight of church leadership (Heb. 13:17).
  • Pastors/elders commit themselves to the task of lovingly shepherding (leading, teaching, loving) a particular local assembly of Christians (1 Pet. 5:1-5).
  • Christians must join together for mutual support and accountability (Gal. 6:1-2).
  • Under the care and instruction of godly leaders (i.e. pastors/elders), a congregation must strive to grow in spiritual maturity and in its ability to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-16).

The biblical understanding of church membership makes clear the distinction between the people of God and the rest of the world. Those who enjoy new life in Christ are trained and corrected so that they may flourish in their new life. Those who resist the disciplines of Christian living are rebuked and held accountable for opposing the very practices that produce greater life in all who follow Christ.

In the practice of biblical church membership, Christians are distinguished from the world, and Christians grow alongside one another in grace and love.

The results of practicing biblical church membership are increasing spiritual health, progress in personal holiness, and growth in effective Christian witness to the world. The gospel of Christ, which asserts that blessed transformation is at the heart of God’s gracious plan for sinners, is made visible among congregations like these.

May God revitalize, reform, and renew Evangelical churches to reflect the purity and love which Christ said would mark His disciples in the world (Jn. 13:35).

Church Membership means more than you probably think.

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another…” (Colossians 3:11-13).

The local church is an organization unlike any other. In fact, when we really understand biblical church membership, we just might find that it is a basic longing in every human heart.

Writing to the “church” or the “body of Christ” (Col. 1:18, 24) in Colossae, Paul says “Here there is…” no distinction of ethnicity, socio-economic status, or even religious hierarchy. Rather, Christ is the tie that binds all those who love and trust Him. Our Western/American culture seems painfully aware of the natural desire we all have for true human equality, but there is a unique harmony among Christians in a healthy local church.

Furthermore, these “chosen, holy, and beloved ones of God” are called upon to patiently and compassionately and humbly “bear with one another.” Only where Christ is king, and sinners are honestly loving and submitting to Him is such a command even possible. The healthy church family unites around their common love for Christ, and they appreciate and practice meaningful membership as they bear with one another toward Christian harmony and joy.

The Southern Baptist Convention & Local Churches Must Change

As we think about our own local church (her challenges, goals, and resources), I believe it may be quite helpful to put things into perspective. We are a Southern Baptist (SBC) congregation, and we have been since 1919. We are also a rural congregation of about 110-150, depending on the Sunday. These metrics place us in the heart of the SBC.

Our church’s membership (more than double our average attendance) is numerically larger than 60% of all Southern Baptist churches (see charts and data HERE). That means we are in the top 40% of SBC churches right now. This may be one way of reminding ourselves that we are not an insignificant congregation.

However, as you may or may not know, a church’s membership roster is not always an accurate measurement of actual involvement. Our own members-to-attendance ratio (not quite 3:1 right now) is not unusual among SBC churches. In fact, churches across the SBC have been actively raising the expectation of cleaning up and maintaining more accurate membership rolls (see the 2008 resolution HERE). I have been slowly-but-intentionally doing this hard work among my congregation.

While numerical involvement is certainly not a trustworthy measurement of spiritual health, the numbers do not look good for our church or for the SBC in general. Even with our padded membership roster, the trajectory is downward.

The president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary recently wrote about the current state of affairs among the SBC (see article HERE). He pointed out that the 2015-16 Annual Church Profile (ACP) reports marked the lowest number of baptisms since 1946, the lowest number of church members since 1990, and the lowest number of people in worship service attendance since 1996.

Dr. Kelly said, “Consider it official. The SBC is in decline, and it has been so for a number of years. The typical SBC church is struggling mightily to reach people for Christ in its city, town, or community, and it is struggling mightily to keep engaged the members it already has.”

While this is no encouragement to us, it does help us to take a breath regarding our own local “struggles.” Any time there is a perceived lack of success, the right thing to do is look for the hindrance. In our case, at FBC Diana, the decrease in membership involvement and lack of membership growth is certainly influenced by some local causes, but we are foolish to ignore the broader factors.

We do face the challenges of a small-town church who is experiencing a fairly dramatic leadership swing. The pastors before me, so far as I can tell, were men who loved Christ and loved this church family; but it is clear that the gifts I have and the things I emphasize are not the same as what they did.

Our many local challenges are significant, but they are not complicated, nor are they hard to see.

We live in a community full of people who think the local church is irrelevant. Those who still have a positive view of the local church, see the church very much like they see a grocery store… “The church that provides me with the best service and produce is where I will shop, but I will spend as little as I can to get what I want.”

People who faithfully commit to serve Christ in the common bond of the Gospel and in covenant with one another are extremely rare, and I praise God for each of those in my congregation.

So, what do we do? Where do we go from here?

Do we just keep doing the same old stuff, and watch the decline continue?

I don’t plan to… not by a long shot.

Dr. Kelly, the seminary president I mentioned before, said some other stuff in his article that I think is important to note in our attempt to make a plan.

He said, “Every strategy for evangelism from the first century until today assumes the life with Jesus is different from the life without Jesus. We must live distinctively if we are to be fruitful in reaching people for Christ. There will be no growth in evangelism without a growth in Christlikeness…

I could not agree with Dr. Kelly more. He is saying that we must live like Christians – distinct from the world around us – if we are to have any opportunity to tell people that Jesus and His Gospel are life-transforming. If our lives are not transformed, then we are lying, and the people we live with know it.

Distinct living is the mark of true faith, and we must be willing to acknowledge our sentimental notions of Christianity for what they are. Jesus said, “if you love Me, you’ll obey me…” (Jn. 14:15).

Dr. Kelly also said that once we establish ourselves as distinct from the world, we should intentionally engage our friends and neighbors with the Gospel.

He said, “Southern Baptists must be intentional in seeking opportunities to have Gospel conversations with people outside the walls of the church… It takes focused attention to make and keep evangelism a priority in your own life…” He went on to say that we all should be asking ourselves, “What is my plan for evangelism, and what am I doing today to execute that plan?”

Again, I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Kelly here. He seems to understand, as I do, that the “Come and See” model of evangelism is not the way forward. We do not see many people turning away from sin and trusting in Jesus through events or by simply attending a church service with a friend. While event evangelism has its place, and your friend may be willing to attend a service with you, it is not the primary way forward in our culture today. Instead, we should employ a “Go and Share” model.

Go and Share” is personally going to meet those who are not now following Christ where they are. And, we do this all the time… They are beside us at the ball fields; their kids and grandkids play with ours; they wave at us when we drive by their yard, and sometimes they even sit at our dinner tables.

The “Going” is something we already do, but the “Sharing” probably isn’t.

What is your plan for personal evangelism? When will you move the conversation from the weather to the Gospel? If you don’t feel equipped to share the Gospel, then when will you make an effort to become equipped?

What are you waiting for?

To quickly recap the plan being proposed here (both for local churches and the SBC generally), we must (1) live holy lives of gratitude before God, as we learn to trust and obey Christ all the more; and (2) we should feel the personal responsibility to share the Gospel with those we know.

One last thing will be the key to our success as a church family: We must pray.

We must pray like we believe we really need God… like we know that we cannot do this ourselves… like we are truly desperate to see people know and love Christ.

God is still in the business of saving sinners; He still delights in giving life to dead things, and He is still the gracious God who offers His salvation to all who will love and trust Him. God is also still in the business of shaping and shepherding saved sinners; He can easily give life to our church family, and He will bless our faithfulness.

 

He may or may not cause us to grow in great number, but He will most certainly cause us to grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ… I know He will because He has promised to do it (2 Pet. 3:18; cf. Rom. 8:29).