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Pastor says churches losing those they win

NORFOLK, Va. (BP)–Southern Baptists have great vision and aspirations for winning the world to Christ, but they are losing members because of poor follow-up, a widely known pastor asserts in a new book.

John Powers, pastor of First Baptist Church, Norfolk, Va., said Southern Baptists “fund missions well through the Cooperative Program, and we have a good heritage and tradition of personal evangelism. What we don’t do so well is follow up with the people that we win. We could conserve the results of evangelism better than we are by discipling people and closing the back door through which church members leave.”

Powers said he was motivated to write “Redefining Church Membership, From Myth to Ministry” out of “a deep passion and love for the local church and from seeing just how far off base we are growing. We have got to stop the slide. If we don’t we will die incrementally and we will die in influence.”

Published by LifeWay Press, an imprint of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, Powers’ new book deals with myths of church membership accepted and perpetuated both by members and church leaders. Among those are: the church is a volunteer organization; members must be manipulated into ministry; expectations cannot be placed on members; discipleship and evangelism are separate issues; church programs take precedence over a church’s purpose; the “eighty-twenty” rule is the norm; and belonging to a local church is not important.

“Effective ministry within the local church demands proper assimilation of people,” Powers writes. “It is my personal opinion that the typical church member is mishandled. As a result of our mishandling, many believers are forfeited and forgotten.”

Powers maintains churches should have as a goal “to produce fruitful believers with biblical behavior.”

Many churches, he maintains, are “the product of an ineffective, incomplete process. We are not finishing what we start. We are beginning well, but we need to be finishing better than we are.

“We assume if someone joins our church from another Southern Baptist church that they have been discipled” he continued. “We assume they know how their spiritual gifts are to be used in ministry and how to live. Because I perceive we are losing some of our Baptist moorings, I also feel the eclecticism is affecting our churches. We have people from other backgrounds joining Southern Baptist churches, and if we don’t disciple them, we’re losing identity a little at a time. Strong personalities who join may not feel being Southern Baptist is important. It is a subtly dangerous thing.

“Also, we have shied away from churchmanship,” he said. “Being a church member is an honor and a privilege, paired with accountability and responsibility.”

Powers said he believes “cultural Christianity” — behavior based on conditioning rather than discipling — becomes “almost as authoritative in the minds of people as the Word of God.”

The first step churches must take, he said, is repentance.

“You don’t have to read many pages in the book of Acts to see how far we’ve gone,” he observed. “We need to reclaim a vision for the local church. It might behoove us to study Acts and some of the Pauline letters to see what they had that we don’t have.”

Powers maintains that being absent from church is not always a matter of location but of mentality. “Some stop going on the inside,” he reflected. “Some walk out with their feet; some walk out with their hearts.”

The problem, he said, is “we don’t have a ministry that’s exciting. The Gospel has become boring to some people. We’ve lost the joy of salvation. Who wants to give their lives to that? Membership remains under-challenged. We create the system that’s unexciting, uninviting, non-inclusive and then we wonder why people aren’t involved. We create the environment and then criticize and berate those who don’t participate. They respond based on our low expectations, but they aren’t responding to biblical ideals.

“People don’t want to be around mediocrity,” he said. “They don’t aspire to that.

“We need to reclaim a vision for membership. What does it mean to be a member? Be unapologetic, and call people to meet that expectation,” he said. “It is the difference between being a championship team and a mediocre team. We have championship possibilities, but we’re putting out mediocre effort. But this is not a game. This is for keeps.”

“Redefining Church Membership” prepares churches to use “The BodyLife Journey, Guiding Believers into Ministry,” also by John Powers. The BodyLife Journey is an intentional discipling process that includes new-believer and new-member orientation, gifts and relational style discovery and identification of ministry opportunities, based on giftedness. Both are available from LifeWay by calling 1-800-458-2772 or online at www.lifeway.com.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JOHN POWERS.

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  • Charles Willis