Mark Dever’s recent posting in observance of the Southern Baptist’s disappointing decision to maintain the longstanding practice of allowing absent, unregenerate church members to remain in membership has hopefully not gone unnoticed, as it is difficult to reconcile the convention’s decision when evaluated against the directives of the Bible as the relate to the Body of Christ (Together for the Gospel,"Southern Baptist Mistake").
In way of background, I should note here that I grew up Southern Baptist, and remained southern Baptist throughout my young adult years. And I am thankful for that heritage. I will also mention that currently my wife and I are not currently members of an SBC church. This is not the result of a conscious decision to leave the convention as much as the reality that as we looked for a church home near our house that echoed our theology, missiology, and beliefs about worship the church that came closest to hitting that "bulls eye" turned out to be a church that was not Southern Baptist.
That said, it is a disappointing day indeed that the convention has essentially endorsed the idolotrous practice of counting among its membership those who do not care enough about God or His people to tithe, to serve, or attend church. The pastor of the church of my youth, Adrian Rogers, used to say that the FBI couldn’t find most baptists. He was only half-joking.
The Church: God’s institution, or ours?
The Bible makes it clear that the church is a divinely ordained and established institution that is comprised of believers who covenant to come together before God for corporate worship, accountability, sacraments, fellowship, and teaching, among other things. Yet it seems to be under increasing pressure to become something it was never intended to be, little more than a spiritual social club (albeit a theologically conservative social club, as opposed to the liberal country club churches I grew up hearing hearing preached against), a place where one gathers when convenient for entertainment and an inspiring sermon or talk. Look around the auditorium or parking lot of your church, and then look at the official membership numbers, and you’ll be a member of a rare church if you don’t see about a significant differential between the number of those who attend and the number of those on the rolls. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling; We Christian conservatives (and I am one) complain about the National Park Service over-reporting attendance at liberal demonstrations and gripe about MoveOn.org and other leftist organizations over-inflating their own membership rolls, then we go and do the same thing with our own attendance to try to raise our own profiles in our own political worlds. Hardly the type of thing Jesus or the Apostle Paul would condone.
Does membership matter?
The cavalier approach to membership is not a problem inherent only to the baptists. This cancer can, and does, take on more than one form. In some churches, anyone and everyone is accepted as members with little more than an affirmation that at one time they intellectually expressed faith in Christ, uttered a sincere prayer, and were baptized. In others, church membership is optional and almost unecessary, as believers and unbelievers alike share in the benefits of church membership, making it almost unecessary to actually join a church (indeed, why join at all? Joining just makes it much harder to hop somewhere else when a cooler gig with a better known band and hipper speaker comes to town). The former error is more likely to be found in traditional baptist churches, and the latter error in more contemporary versions; and again, to be fair, this is true not only of Southern Baptist churches, but of other denominations and independent fellowships as well. Yet, if we are to be true to Scripture, we must acknowledge that if members do not honor their commitment to the church, they should hardly be considered regenerate; they should be removed from church membership rolls.
Why the reluctance to limit church membership rolls to those who are active and give evidence of being regenerate?
Try as I may, I can only think of one logical reason: political power.
Unless things have changed significantly recently, the pastors who are held in highest esteem, and who generally have the most speaking invitations and thus the most influence, are those who pastor large churches. Those preachers with the most upward mobility are those who register growth in both membership and baptisms. And there is some validity to this; some of the convention’s most gifted and godly preachers are those who are boldly preaching the Word (while also maintaining integrity in their personal and financial affairs, with some disappointing exceptions recently made public in the news). And in most instances those churches will grow and thus those pastors will be in increasing demand as preachers. But one key question is that needs to be considered is this: with what are these churches growing? Are they growing with valid, New Testament converts and disciples, who have repented, undergone heart change, and been baptized as Christ instructed? Or are they growing with Pharisees who think they are saved because they once said a prayer and get warmhearted on God and Country Day, who sincerely said a prayer once but solely because they thought God would then make their business suceed and fix their love life, and not because they saw a glimpse of their depravity and desperate need for a Savior? Are they growing with people who think they can network and cut more business deals by having a big church membership on a resume, or who want to blend into the anonymity that a big church can offer and never have to actually do any work, provide any service, or study anything beyond devotionals where no one will bother them or question their chosen lifestyles? Are they growing with half-hearted, weak-willed people who can repeatedly be manipulated into walking the aisle and getting really saved and baptized every few years? No one with an oipen mind and any significant experience in conservative circles could dispute that all of these scenarios take place to varying degrees. The question the becomes, how often does this happen, and should these people remain on church rolls when they drop out? The Convention says yes. I think the Apostle Paul would say otherwise.
Let’s look at a typical case study illustration. Suppose a church goes from 1000 to 1500 in membership. What happens? Typically everyone gets all excited and trumpets the 50% growth. The church lands on the latest list of America’s fastest growing churches and the pastor hits the church growth speaker circuit. And the baptisms are added up and sent in to headquarters. The evangelist who did the revival that year gets recommended so other churches can bring him in and make their numbers as well, as if if these evangelists were selling cars and had a quota to meet to retain their job, future invitations, upward mobility, and the respect and admiration of mentors and peers.
But wait: where did those 500 come from? Are there now 1,500 active church members growing in grace and faith? Or are there really only 700 identifiable bodies now, with 800 that no one can find? Some say that doesn’t make any difference, that God is interested in numbers And He is…but He is interested in real converts and real disciples, not signed decision cards and baptisms outside of a truly repentant heart. It’s the difference between a healthy church making disciples or an unhealthy church actually in decline. Numbers alone don’t tell the tale. We’re called to preach, lead converts, teach, and make disciples, not maniplate emotions, manufacture decisions, and report resulting baptisms. Have we become the moneychangers Jesus ran out of the temple…using God’s holy sacrament of baptism as some kind of money-making indicator of our own ability to "sell" and close a convert?
Part of the problem lies in the "crazy cycle" so prevalent in fundamentalist churches of years past. The crazy cycle is started when someone walks down an aisle and is told to say a prayer, mean it in their heart, write it in their Bible, and then never doubt their salvation. And so they do. At least, until the next traveling evangelist comes to town for a revival, prophecy conference, or rally. By the time he’s finished the weekend 10% of the church has become convinced they are not saved and may be "left behind" before sundown since, after all, they haven’t been at church on Wednesday night for awhile. So they sense a need to re-re-re-dedicate or, even better, get re-baptized to make certain "their baptism is on the right side of" their newly re-re-dedicated salvation." The church reports more baptisms and the evangelists sends off his monthly newspetter with his latest baptism tally and invitations continue to pour in. Then the cycle starts over again. It’s no wonder some of these performance-based evangelists and pastors eventually burn out in flames of frustration, depression and despair.
I pray the convention will see it’s way in the future to introduce some integrity into the membership reporting process. Then Southern Baptist messengers might be better equipped to identify the true leaders of the convention…those who are gifted to preach, shepherd and disciple, rather than those who are adept at manipulation, politicking, and salesmanship. Let’s all–regardless of denominational affiliation–do away with this thinking that having those on our rolls who give no evidence of regenerationn gives us the opportunity to witness to them. Perhaps they would be better witnessed to if their church family made it clear to them that the lack of fruit in their lives is a biblical indicator that their souls are in great peril, rather than letting them cruise along blindly banking on their "membership" and "decision" for assurance of salvation.
Given that the visible Church is designed by God to consist only of those giving evidence of salvation and not those simply wishing to be a part of something spiritual, I would argue that there is no virtue in a church of 2,000 members having only 1,000 people attending and serving. It would be preferable, I believe, to have a church of 1,000 covenant members with 2,000 people attending. At least then, we would have 1,000 unchurched, unregenerate and confirmed true seekers sitting in church hearing the Gospel rather than 1,000 unchurched, unregnenerate non-seeking church members sitting at home hearing nothing.