Our annual SBC meeting next week (June 9-11) will feature some notable items of business. Somewhat interesting is the fact that we have six candidates for president. It’s been a while since there was that much interest in the office but the election will actually be a small part of the week. Resolutions usually capture all the media attention because that’s where we speak to issues they understand.
Three resolutions on regenerate church membership have been submitted to the Resolutions Committee this year. Again, that is a sharper focus on this subject than we usually see. The consolidated and edited resolution from the committee, and its discussion, will be more interesting to Southern Baptists than to those watching. The idea behind the resolution is pretty important to all of our churches, though. Just having the discussion has already brought some of us under conviction. The likely passage of some resolution on the subject could be an encouragement to others as they seek to build healthy churches.
For years, we’ve joked awkwardly about the vast disparity between our membership rolls and the number of people we actually know. It’s a little embarrassing and points to years of neglect in basic matters of discipleship. This neglect is vital to our churches and may be even more important to those people we know only as numbers.
A focus on regenerate church membership will impact a large part of what churches do. Churches must more thoughtfully approach the process of receiving and assimilating members. Members who show no sign of regeneration as the months pass offer a huge discipleship challenge. Those who fall away or who fall into sin require attention aimed at discipline and reconciliation to the body; often they need to be won to Christ.
The results of such a rethinking of membership would be far-reaching as well. Church fights would be less rancorous and less frequent. The number of workers available for priority church ministries would grow. Giving would increase as more of our members understand the call to follow Jesus. Our evangelistic fervor would increase, including that of church stalwarts and staff members?lost and immature church members are especially exhausting and discouraging to those who serve the church faithfully.
Hear me clearly. I’m not suggesting that we purge rolls willy nilly. Some of the missing need a pastoral touch, others need evangelism, and a large group are just gone. Sorting the groups requires a lot of time after it becomes a priority.
Neither am I suggesting that we should go to this effort so that the Southern Baptist Convention won’t be embarrassed by our overblown 16-million member statistic. The SBC has that number because most of our churches operate with overblown statistics. The SBC can’t fix their number until we fix our own in detail. The greatest outcome of this effort would be to report that we actually have 16 million redeemed and growing Christians in Southern Baptist churches. Love it or not, the world would sure notice the impact of those people whether they knew our stats or not. Public relations is not part of this priority, it is just a nice by-product.
I believe it is just the best stewardship of the people God has entrusted to our congregations. Redeeming and reconciling people on our membership rolls could also be a part of revival for our congregations. Our lack of priority in this work looks like apathy.
Look at my church, for example. We regularly see about a fifth of our members. It’s been years since we’ve had a nasty business meeting, we struggle some with funding our ministry, and we’re often short of trained volunteers for our ministries. Still, we’re baptizing folks and there is vitality among those who participate.
A church with a good news present could be surprised by its future, though. The collapsing churches of today were vital at some point in their ministries. How’d this happen?
In many cases they didn’t minister to their own members. Workers and givers became increasingly weary; the staff may have been overwhelmed with the strange priorities of well-meaning but lost church members; and maybe the church missed the strength and giftedness of scores of their members they could not restore to a vital Christian walk. Are the desperate churches of today the merely careless churches of earlier decades?
A church like mine or yours might work hard and only close the gap between members and players by 10 or 20 percent. Having done that, we’ll look across our congregation and see the faces of newly baptized but long-time church members. I think we’ll see a family or two that was rescued from wreckage by the ministry of a church they’d nearly forgotten. These victories will encourage all of us and whet our appetite for more.
A focus on the true spiritual nature of our membership will affect our numbers, maybe negatively and later positively. The point for me is that these digits represent souls. A good number of them don’t understand something we can explain to them. All of them were brought to our doors by the Lord so that we might edify one another. Taking that stewardship more seriously will edge us toward so many of the priority results we desire but which have eluded us for a generation. I think it will please God and he will prosper such efforts.