At some time or another, most pastors wrestle with issues concerning church membership. Whether it’s the old 80/20 principle… where 20 percent of the members do 80 percent of the work and give 80 percent of the money or whether it’s trying to deal with the fact that the majority of folks on the membership roll aren’t in worship on a Sunday morning… membership issues are constantly on a pastor’s (and church staff’s) radar screen.
My own observation, and that of many of the folks that I read, is that church membership doesn’t seem to mean a great deal today. (In fact, some churches have stopped keeping up with membership. But that’s a topic for another day.) Some folks, who claim to be members of a particular church, haven’t been inside the sanctuary of that church since Jimmy Carter was in office. Furthermore, they don’t seem to be the least bit embarrassed by that. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to be something that should even be a concern. They have little problem in requesting to have their wedding at the church or to have their baby baptized… and they are quite indignant to be questioned about their relationship with the church.
I’ll never forget the first time I read these words from Thom Rainer’s book, High Expectations…
Choose a typical Sunday morning in the United States. And on this typical Sunday, let us take a hypothetical visit to a church selected at random. The church is a Christian church; it may be independent, or it may belong to a denomination. Let us stretch our imagination a bit and make ourselves visitors from first-century Jerusalem, where the first Christian church is experiencing explosive growth.
While we are amazed at the world two thousand years later and marvel at all the technological advances, we are visiting for another purpose. Our brief journey into twenty centuries of future is made to see how the church is doing after two millennia. We have chosen a church in a relatively new nation called the United States.
Before entering into the church building for worship services, we are told that the church has five hundred members. We are pleased that a typical American church has such a healthy numerical membership. Our pleasure, however, is quickly turned to despair when we enter the sanctuary. Our quick count of those present tells us that only slightly above two hundred members are worshiping together on this typical Sunday. Where, we exclaim, are the nearly three hundred who are absent?
We are further dismayed to discover that only 175 attended the time of Bible study that is called Sunday School. How could it be that only one-third of these Christians come together to study God’s Word? We had originally expected to find all 500 members present, worshiping together, studying Scripture, and doing ministry. We become physically ill to find out that less than 70 members of this typical American church are involved in ministry. We return to first-century Jerusalem with heavy hearts and a report that the future church is very unhealthy, perhaps even dying.
And then Rainer shares these words…
Indeed, the early Christians would have trouble imagining the plight of the American church today. But it comes as no shock to us two thousand years later that less is expected of church members today than civic organizations expect of their members. We have dumbed down church membership to the point that it means almost nothing! (emphasis mine)
I guess the reason why I’m feeling so concerned about this lately is because I realize that the problem is not with (or not exclusively with) these supposed “members” who essentially aren’t a part of the Body of Christ in the local assembly. I’m realizing more and more that the church at large isn’t doing such a great job communicating what genuine biblical church membership is… either before folks join or after (as a reminder). (Though some churches are doing this very well and thankfully are sharing with the rest of us.)
Membership has its privileges, as the saying used to go. However, it also has its responsibilities, requirements, expectations, etc. It seems that many churches today are so overly concerned about not “turning off” folks who come to visit, hiking their numbers as high as they can, not appearing negative, etc., that they’ve shirked their responsiblity to God and to their membership and, as dramatic as this may sound, have put souls at risk. (By the way, I’m pointing a finger and fully aware of the three fingers pointing back at me!!)
In the United Methodist Church we have a “cleaning” or “purging” process for inactive members. But that process seems fairly anemic because all a person has to say in response when they’re contacted is, “yes, I want to remain on the church role” and they stay there. They don’t have to start attending or becoming a part of the life of the church (though one would hope they are encouraged to. One would also hope that a person being asked if they wanted to remain on the membership role would awaken that person to their inactivity).
I know we always want to hold out grace and love to folks. But isn’t there such a thing as cheap grace.. and can’t that cheap grace actually be very unloving? Can’t we be in danger of saying to these folks, as Jeremiah warned us about with the false prophets of Israel, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Aren’t we misleading, at best, and lying, at worst, to these “members” about God, salvation, regeneration, holiness, discipleship, and membership… just to name a very, very few?
I’m praying much about this lately (and I covet your prayers!). I’m also reading a great deal on this matter because I believe it is so very important. I’m additionally reminded that shepherds will give an account to our heavenly Father on how we shepherded those entrusted to our care. Much repentance is required of me and I hope to start moving in a more faithful direction regarding this.
I’ve been reading Mark Dever’s “The Deliberate Church,” which is an outstanding (and very convicting) book on just this issue. I would quote from it here, but this post is already long enough. I definitely recommend it if you’re interested in exploring some of the issues I’ve raised. (Rainer’s book too)
I would love to hear from any of you who have some wisdom on this matter, any book suggestions you may have, etc. Don’t be shy!
May the Lord bless his Church as we seek greater faithfulness.
Grace and Truth,
Read Full Post »