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Dockery: Spiritual issues at heart of debate over ‘total membership’ statistic

EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘Membership’ has been a hot topic of discussion leading up to the SBC annual meeting. Although it has been raised during past conventions, the issue of ‘regenerate membership’ was elevated in part by the release of the most recent Annual Church Profile report that showed a drop in ‘total membership’ for the first time in ten years. Baptist Press asked two leading Southern Baptist figures to address these two membership issues separately. David Dockery, president of Union University, shares theological insights on ‘regenerate membership,’ and Cliff Tharp, LifeWay’s coordinator of the Annual Church Profile, offers a statistical view of ‘total membership.’

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–A church membership roll that runs two to three times the number of people actually involved is a symptom of a much-deeper problem — one that strikes at the heart of what it means to be a Baptist church and a follower of Jesus, says David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

As Southern Baptists gather for their annual meeting in Indianapolis June 10-11, three resolutions have been proposed that call for Southern Baptist churches to address the sometimes-great disparity between the number of members they claim and how many members are actually born-again disciples of Jesus Christ. The debate sometimes focuses on a “total membership” number that has a legitimate statistical value, while the real issue has more to do with who should be accepted into church membership, what expectations should be held up for members and what to do about members who aren’t engaged in Jesus’ mission in the world, Dockery says.

Over the course of nearly six decades, Southern Baptists have allowed their priorities to gradually shift from Christian faithfulness and spiritual maturity to numerical growth and programmatic efficiency, Dockery said.

“Not that a concern for numerical growth or efficiency is wrong in any way at all,” Dockery said. “It was probably quite unintentional at first, but slowly, almost unconsciously, a greater disparity has developed between our reported total membership and the actual number of active and participating members in our churches.

“The result is that we developed two categories that are foreign to the New Testament: non-resident members (those who held membership in the church, but have moved away from the meeting place of the church) and inactive members (those who are on the membership rolls who no longer attend the congregation with any sense of regularity).”

Without ignoring the importance of numerical growth or efficiency, Southern Baptists “need to refocus on what it means to be a Baptist church, what it means to be a member of a Baptist church, along with the importance of faithfulness and maturation of church members,” Dockery said.

While there are some reasons for non-attenders to be kept on a church membership list, those situations ought to be the exception, not the rule, Dockery said. Too many churches don’t keep up with people who stop attending to find out why and see if they can be re-engaged in the life of the church.

“If a person does not attend a church over a certain period of time, then the church has the responsibility to find ways to make contact with that person to ascertain the reasons for the prolonged absence,” Dockery said. “If the absence is for health reasons, then the church should find ways to minister to those people, especially if they are home-bound. If the absenteeism is the result of spiritual lethargy, then hopefully there can be ways of initiating discipleship opportunities.”

If the non-attendance continues apart from some legitimate reason -– and if there are no ongoing indicators of spiritual life -– keeping someone’s name on the church roll is unhealthy for everyone involved, Dockery added.

“It seems to me that we are doing harm to the person and to the church by allowing them to stay on the roll,” he said. “One thing worse than people being lost in their sins is lost people who think they are saved because their names are on a church roll.”

That problem runs deeper than just having non-attenders on the membership rolls, Dockery said. A church isn’t plateaued in membership and falling off in baptisms because of people who no longer attend.

“We need to think afresh about what it means to be a covenant member of a Baptist congregation,” he said. “We need to think about the importance of faithfulness and maturation of church members. Helping people understand the Gospel, helping guide them to faith in Christ and leading them to become church members is paramount, but helping them understand the biblical expectations of faithful Christ-followers in covenant with one another is also extremely important.”

Engaging non-attenders about involvement in church life and challenging attenders to “walk in a manner worthy” of God’s call on their lives (Ephesians 4:1) would make a great improvement in the spiritual health of a church, Dockery said, but attention also needs to be given to people who want to join the church.

“We need to rediscover the importance of what it means to be a faithful, covenant member of a local Baptist congregation,” Dockery said. “We need to reflect again on the biblical teaching about the new birth and discipleship and develop new member orientation processes for those who desire to join our churches.

“We need to highlight the foundational matters of church membership,” Dockery added. “We need a fresh understanding of the Gospel; the relationship of saving faith to sanctification, maturation and spiritual faithfulness must be recaptured. Beyond this, we also must recover the New Testament’s teaching on church discipline.”

Dockery said the writings of John Hammett, James Leo Garrett, Stan Norman and Greg Wills offer excellent guidance on those matters. He also pointed to Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Hunter Street Baptist Church in Hoover, Ala., and Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., as examples of churches that address these issues in healthy, although different, ways.

“These churches are all attempting to implement a Baptist doctrine of regenerate church membership in a way that is applicable for their context in the world of the 21st century,” Dockery said. “We need to turn once again to the New Testament to ask important questions as we seek to live faithfully before God as individuals, as local congregations, as associations, as state conventions and as a national convention.”

Among the questions Southern Baptists should be asking, according to Dockery:

— What does the New Testament say about regeneration, baptism, Christian commitment and church membership?

— What does our Baptist heritage say about church membership?

— How are we presenting the Gospel message?

— Have we allowed numerical growth and efficiency concerns, perhaps unknowingly and unconsciously, to become higher priorities for us than questions of faithfulness to the New Testament and to our Baptist heritage?

— How do we receive and orient new members?

— What is the relationship of the public invitation to baptism and the church membership?

— What role should the regular practice of the Lord’s Supper play in our covenant commitments?

— How do we encourage discipleship and spiritual maturation?

Dockery affirms the call for repentance expressed by one of the resolutions proposed for the annual meeting.

“We need to repent of our lack of concern for biblical faithfulness in our concern and care for church members,” he said. “We need to repent of the way the way we often allow people to join local churches without stressing the covenantal aspect of membership. We need to repent of the fact that we have largely neglected any aspect of church discipline that would have helped us begin to address some of these matters.”

Implementing a call for renewed attention to regenerate church membership at the local church level isn’t a simple matter, however, Dockery noted.

“State and national conventions only report the numbers reported to them by the local churches,” Dockery said. “Given the autonomy of local churches, it is hard to have a uniform way of implementing this call.

“We need to ask questions about how we count members and report them as churches, as associations, as state conventions and as a national convention, but these questions must begin at the local church level,” he said. “We want simultaneously to affirm the Baptist doctrine of regenerate church membership and the Baptist doctrine of the autonomy of the local congregation.”

The discussion about regenerate church membership is timely, but solutions for the problems won’t be quick in coming, Dockery added.

“I think that some resolution regarding regenerate church membership will be passed at this year’s convention,” he said. “It may be several years before we can begin to work out the implications of the rediscovery of this important doctrine. But the concern for such a resolution seems timely to me and to many others.”
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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  • Mark Kelly