This article provides motivation to do what God requires of us. Doug leads a church in Excelsior Springs, Missouri called Pisgah Baptist. I wish all churches with bloated rolls would follow Mt. Pisgah’s lead. May their tribe increase. Jim Elliff
Recently we reached an important milestone for our congregation. Since my arrival as Pastor of Pisgah Baptist Church nearly five years ago, I’ve formally and informally preached toward a proper understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ. So much of the Bible relates directly to our shared experience, identity, and responsibilities rather than individual issues. God communicates to His people, not to a large number of individuals that are unrelated to one another and ‘flying solo.’ In light of this preaching, we also began working through the practical implications of membership. Working with our staff, deacons, and membership review committee, we started a membership process three years ago that would ultimately bring us to an accurate picture of who Pisgah Baptist really is.
When I arrived, Pisgah had a membership of 958 people. As a result of congregational action on May 12, we are now a congregation of approximately 385 (any given month we see 324+ participate). This did not occur overnight, nor did it occur in one simple vote. The process involved a lot of discussions, meetings, contacts, investigation, and prayer.
What follows is a response to a thoughtful question asked a week following our action. When speaking with a colleague he asked, ‘What do you gain by this?’ It is not my intention to defend the need for Church Discipline or the importance of formal Church Membership, both of which are important and ought to be practiced. It is my intention however, to provide an answer to this important and thought provoking question. The following is not intended to be an exhaustive list but certainly represents some of the more important reasons for leading churches to operate with biblically responsible membership.
A church gains the following…
• A church demonstrates faithfulness to the descriptive New Testament metaphors regarding the church (we are a: flock – Jn. 10:16; temple – Eph. 2:21, 22; household – Eph. 2:19; body – Eph. 1:22-23; church – Matt. 16:18, 1 Tim. 3:15; bride – Rev. 19:7, 21:9; new humanity – Eph. 4:22-24; holy nation – 1 Pet. 2:9; royal priesthood – 1 Pet. 2:9; a chosen people – 1 Pet. 2:9; possession of God – 1 Pet. 2:9). There’s not one metaphor used by God that allows for loose, unaccountable, or independent interactions between fellow believers. It is actually impossible to reflect these truths by justifying or normalizing non-participatory membership.
• A church protects the purity of the body. We understand the protective role the Body of Christ plays as we help each other when faced with temptation, difficulty, or confusion. When a church emphasizes the importance of regular participation, it protects against the ‘drift’ that so subtly develops in the lives of individual members that, more often than not, opens the door to greater susceptibility to sin and distraction.
• A church protects the reputation of Christ, His Gospel, and His Church. When a church’s membership swells well beyond the number actually in regular participation, it invariably ends up with large numbers of people who are living lives apart from the work of Christ and reflecting the appetites, activities, and mindset of the world. This in turn negatively reflects upon the work of God when people in the community know that these ‘members’ are not different. There is no longer any obvious distinction between the Body of Christ and the world. I was disturbed by what we found in this area when we began to dig a little.
• A church becomes more effective and useful in evangelism and discipleship. ‘They’re just a bunch of hypocrites,’ is one of the most common criticisms of the church. Unfortunately, this is true of most churches if you consider that most churches have large numbers of their members living in sin and yet still claim membership. When a church takes a biblical position related to godly character and congregational participation, it sends a message to the community that it truly believes what it preaches and will not be an accomplice to ungodliness. This in turn gives greater weight to evangelistic efforts and further highlights the significance of discipleship.
• A church protects against common misunderstandings regarding the meaning and significance of membership. Unfortunately, many people have distorted views of membership. Many think membership is a reflection of their family connection. Many think in sentimental terms regarding their childhood involvement. Still others think their membership means they’re ‘good with God.’ These thoughts and many others reflect a misunderstanding of membership and the Christian life. This in part accounts for the reason it is often said that the membership roll is a great evangelistic prospect list. This should not be the case.
• A church avoids undermining the clear message of texts like Hebrews 10:23-25. A church must clearly communicate that it is sinful disobedience when a person does not regularly participate in congregational worship and ministry. To do otherwise, indicates that the church doesn’t really believe what the Bible commands.
• A church demonstrates integrity. A church simply lacks integrity when it represents itself to other congregations, denominational entities, and organizations as three, four, and sometimes six times larger than it really is. These reports are often used in statistical reports, chaplaincy placement, ministry effectiveness reports, etc. By the continued reporting of inaccurate numbers, we end up with distorted reports.
• A church shows its commitment to the value of close and interdependent relationships. We know that the Bible not only assumes but commands close, interdependent relationships between fellow believers. By not addressing the problem of non-participatory members, we send a confusing message. We say one thing and yet normalize something far different.
• A church provides a context where its members are truly encouraged and shown what it means to fulfill the ‘One Another’ passages of God’s Word. The only context where there is ongoing opportunity to fulfill these passages is the local church. One cannot regularly fulfill these expectations generally within the Church universal. This is where we discover the significance and role of the local Church.
• A church more clearly defines the context and nature of pastoral ministry and oversight. We have long forgotten that the terms pastor and pastoral are related to animal husbandry. The Bible draws often from the cultural settings of its audience to communicate important truths. When God uses shepherding terminology, He intends for us to make certain connections. It would be seen as foolish and negligent for a shepherd, who’s involved in pastoral responsibilities, to say he has a flock of 1000 but has no clue where 700 are and serves as though that’s acceptable.
• A church protects the heart, manner, and centrality of Christ-honoring worship. One of the clearest ways Christ is glorified in this wicked and decaying worked is through the worship He receives from His unified people gathered together in local congregations. Paul writes in Romans 15:5-6, ‘Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ This cannot possibly be reflected in the local church when two-thirds to three-fourths of its membership doesn’t care to even show up. But, when a church takes a biblical position regarding membership and acts upon it, it no longer has to account for the reason so few care to worship Christ with unity, passion, and thanksgiving.
Our task at Pisgah Baptist is far from completion. What we have done only serves to recognize our ongoing responsibility. Fewer members on a roll is not the ultimate point or goal. We must take care that our ministry fulfills the work of Christ in the proclamation of His Word, the building up of the Body of Christ, and the conversion of sinners. We are to remain ever vigilant in this ministry, understanding that our efforts to ‘preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ serve to undergird all we do as a church. A loving, unified, and Christ-obedient congregation will certainly see God’s work accomplished through them to His glory.
One last thing… A good question that ought to be asked as well is this…What is it that you gain by not taking biblically faithful steps in dealing with non-participatory membership?