A step toward recovering church unity, discipline, and joy

Billy Graham has been credited with the often-repeated claim that 50 percent of our church members are not even redeemed. Quietly, we know he’s understated the problem. Churches over 20 years old have a hard time fielding half their membership at any one time. A third or better never show up. The more optimistic among us are suggesting that the half to two-thirds we occasionally see are all Christians. And yet you’d have to stay home yourself to continue in that delusion.

How did it come to this? Millions of words have been written or spoken in an effort to come to one answer to that question. It stems from the way we witness, preach, teach, and disciple so the problem is a total one and requires a total answer. Practically though, there is a choke point through which all members must pass. It is also the point at which we make meaningful church discipline possible. Further, any possibility that the church will be unified is decided at this same time?the receiving of new church members.

Clearly this is not a new problem. Older churches have been accumulating members for over a generation and yet don’t know many of them. Part of our losing touch may have to do with success. The small churches of earlier centuries were located in communities that didn’t change much. The hundred or so members of your church would be your neighbors, your cousins, your city councilmen?people known to you for the whole of your life. If your doctor was absent from church for a few weeks, you’d mention it when you had your check up. If your milkman was acting the fool on Friday nights, his Sunday School teacher saw or heard of it and was positioned to encourage him toward spiritual maturity. It was harder to lose track of people in smaller, less transient settings. That’s changed and so must our way of evaluating new members.

Our mission boards have had to go on record defining the nature of baptism for missionary candidates largely because our churches have taken too much for granted for decades. The cooperative work of Southern Baptists will sooner or later reflect the trends present within our churches. Missionary work around the world will flourish or flounder depending on how we conduct our ministries at home.

There is, as one pastor put it, a “King James” procedure that involves responding to an invitation to become a church member by baptism or, for Christians from churches of like faith and order, by letter or statement. Overwhelmingly, this has been my experience of joining a new church. It assumes that the church sending a member actually does and believes the same things as the receiving church to an acceptable degree. That assumption was always dubious and is more so in this ecumenical age.

Some say that denominations only divide and thus the differences between Lutherans, Baptists, and Methodists can be easily overlooked by those who are wise enough to see. These sanguine brothers are actually cousins to those who think Jews, Christians, and Muslims are the same because we are “children of Abraham.” The differences are significant, not imaginary. The differences in the way Christian denominations work are usually indicative of how they each interpret Scripture. If Southern Baptists believe we are conducting our church life according to our best understanding of biblical truth, it is a problem for us to casually mix in new members whose understanding of biblical truth is greatly less or different than our own.

As you can see in our special article on the subject, churches have found new ways to ascertain the truth about the spiritual lives of new member candidates. When we hear that 80 to 90 percent of new members actually come back to church after this more rigorous assimilation process, it’s clear that a little effort accomplishes a lot here.

There is variety in the way churches have updated their procedures. Some are based on small new member classes, others assimilate new members through personal mentoring. One church a friend is considering uses a new member application and a personal interview before even considering accepting a new member. What they have in common is increased thoroughness.

I’d hate to have to address the reality many of our churches (including my own) face today. They have hundreds of members who don’t participate or show any sign that they are in fellowship with the body of Christ. How would a pastor initiate a discipline (not rejection) program in the face of years of relative inactivity on the part of the church? You also have the classic scenario wherein a controversial business meeting is attended by a hundred people the pastor has never met. They’re members in good standing who show up every few years to elect or fire the pastor. While I can’t see many pastors eager to address the problems of the past, it is easy to see the advantages of thoroughly examining new members.

Unity?This misused term is not an absolute. We are not unified for unity’s sake; we are unified around something important we hold in common. In this context, we must agree regarding the truth of the gospel and how we should live it out in fellowship with a local church. Trust and transparency are only possible if we believe other church members are oper

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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