I recently asked my Southern Baptist brother how many people they averaged in worship. He didn’t know. They only count Sunday school attendance in his church. His reply was, “We count the people we can count on.”
Membership is an important talking point. Whether the discussion is the decline in membership, the commitment of members, or cleaning of the church rolls, everyone seems to have an opinion. Does membership matter?
Paragraphs 216 and following in the Book of Discipline give clear, Biblical direction on the nurture and accountability of church members. Did you know that every church should have a membership audit every year? The church is called to keep up with its people. This requires an investment of time, energy, and money, but it is an investment in the people we disciple. If we do not keep up with members of our churches, what does that say about us? Some churches invest more time and money into their coffee service on Sundays than they do trying to regain inactive members. I believe there is something in the New Testament about the shepherd giving up his cup of joe to seek the sheep that was lost. Churches have a responsibility to their members.
Members also have a responsibility to the church. Members should uphold the vows made when they joined. How do we respond when members are no longer committed to their vows? Paragraph 228 outlines how we are called to regain members who are negligent of their vows or who are “regularly absent from worship” (228.b.1). It reads:
“If a professing member residing in the community is negligent of the vows or is regularly absent from the worship of the church without valid reason, the pastor and the membership secretary shall report that member’s name to the church council, which shall do all in its power to reenlist the member in the active fellowship of the church. . . If the member does not comply with any of the available alternatives over a period of two years, the member’s name may be removed.”
Many local churches never engage in this process. Pastors and local church leaders feel their time and energy is better spent on reaching new members, not trying to regain inactive members. Because of this, many churches see their membership numbers increase over the years while their worship attendance remains stagnant. Churches stay with the ninety-nine and let the one disappear through the back door. It is deemed an acceptable loss and an inevitable reality.
Some denominational leaders act as if it is anathema to remove anyone by charge conference action. Some leaders tell churches not to take members off the rolls until new members can replace them. Some pastors and local churches feel denominational leaders are more concerned about the net gain at the end of the year than about the church practicing accountability.
If the Bible teaches accountability and the Discipline outlines a process of accountability, why do we stringently resist engaging in this process of discipleship? Christ calls us to keep up with our people, to minister to them, to pray for them, to disciple them, and yes, to hold them accountable to the vows they made at their membership. Holding members accountable to their vows of membership is just as important in the formation of disciples as our activities in evangelism, stewardship, and education.
Finally, for those who take people off your roll to help decrease your apportionments; don’t waste your time. It is entirely imprudent and probably won’t net enough money to pay for your coffee service. If we engage in this process for any other reason than the reclamation of human souls, we are misguided.