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Cutting its membership roll, church experiences growth

UNION, Mo. (BP)–One Baptist pastor has a unique plan for church growth. First, cut your church’s membership by about two-thirds. Then, make sure the members who are left are committed to being a healthy worshiping community.
The way churches handle their membership rolls bothered Kenneth Parker. “I’ve been a Southern Baptist most of my life,” he said, “and it’s always been an issue with me.” He especially noticed the disproportionate ratio of membership and attendance when he became senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Union, Mo., in 1995.
“The local newspaper interviewed me and asked me about how many members we had,” he said. “I said, ‘Around 1,200,’ but I quickly added, ‘But that’s not an accurate measurement of who we are as a church.’ I felt silly, and it really seemed a compromise in integrity to even state that we had around 1,200 members. We didn’t even have 275 in worship on most Sunday mornings!”
Parker began thinking about the problem, but he was at a loss to figure out how to get most members to show up regularly. About 400 of them didn’t even live in the Union area.
“By the fall of 1996, I again approached the subject — only this time I had a plan,” Parker said. “I wanted to find out who really wanted to remain an active part of the church membership.”
Parker read about a membership covenant used by Saddleback Valley Community Church in southern California. The innovative congregation has the largest average Sunday morning attendance of any Southern Baptist church. “It seemed like a good outline of what church membership should include,” Parker said. “It may seem like ‘great expectations,’ but the New Testament church had some expectations of early Christians, didn’t they?”
Parker presented the membership covenant idea to the Union church’s constitution and bylaws committee. “We decided we would present the membership covenant with a form letter and ask the people to sign the covenant if they wanted to maintain membership in our church,” he said. The document, to be renewed yearly, would replace the old church covenant.
Parker said the concept met with general approval in the church body, though a few people were opposed. “‘We’ve never done it like that before’ was what a lot of people said,” Parker explained. Others thought he was trying to transplant California-style ideas to the Midwest.
Voting overwhelmingly nevertheless to adopt the membership covenant, the Union church started a new member education class to promote involvement in church life.
After the plan was implemented in 1997, the church’s total membership dropped from more than 1,200 to 333. The membership is now over 350.
Church growth expert John Vaughan, director of the Center for the Study of Growing Churches and publisher of Church Growth Today newsletter, said many county seat-type First Baptist churches have a unique situation. “A lot of people are functionally holding membership in two churches,” Vaughan said. Often, when people move to a town such as Union, they join such a church because it is the largest church in town. It is the most obvious choice for them, even though they may come from another denominational background.
“Usually, an SBC church will write to another SBC church and tell them” when a person moves his or her membership from a church such as Union, Vaughan said. But when people move away to a city with many large churches, they may return to their own denomination. The small-town Baptist church might never be notified that the people who moved are no longer members. Thus, they stay on the roll as “non-resident” members.
Churches of other denominations often aren’t so shy about purging membership rolls, Vaughan pointed out. “There are congregations that will make contact with you if you are absent for 30 days, and then in 60 days you will get a letter, and after 90 days you will be removed from the membership rolls.”
Often, it takes an obituary announcement for many Southern Baptist churches to remove a member who has not attended in many years.
“I don’t think that is a put-down to Baptists,” said Vaughan, a member of First Baptist Church, Bolivar, Mo. “I think we feel a sense of accountability to anyone who’s on our roll.”
He affirmed the Union church’s solution. “The priesthood of the believer is just like the priesthood of the congregation. There is no one way to grow a church. This is really to the church’s credit that they looked at the situation, made some hard decisions and moved on with their ministry.”
Union’s average Sunday morning worship attendance has grown from 230 in 1995 to 330 for the last quarter of 1997. Average Sunday school attendance increased from 167 to 191 over the same period. The church baptized 28 people last year.
“I realize people can manipulate statistics to prove whatever their point is, but these are actual numbers, not ‘ministerially speaking,’ ” Parker said. “It’s obvious to see that the majority of our members do in fact attend at least morning worship service, and that is very gratifying to me.”
Even more gratifying are the intangible benefits of the plan — church members supporting each other and seeking to reach the Union community for Christ. “Our people sense the commitment they’ve made to God and to each other.”
Parker said he would advise other pastors to count the cost before proceeding with such a change, but he is glad he did.
“I can say with integrity and no added explanation that I pastor a church with a membership of 351. Who knows? They might all show up this Sunday!”

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  • Rob Marus