By Bob Allen
One of the most unrecognized sins in Southern Baptist life is “tolerated non-involvement” by church members, a prominent pastor said recently in a conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, said Sept 26 that two thirds of Southern Baptists are members of churches they do not attend. While there are legitimate reasons for not being in church — like illness or military deployment — Dever said he suspects most non-attenders are perfectly able to attend worship if they desire.
“If they are able and do not attend, they should not be allowed to be a member of a Christian church,” Dever told about 1,000 pastors, students and church members at the sixth annual 9Marks conference held Sept. 26-27 on the campus in Wake Forest, N.C. “In fact they are in sin.”
Dever, founder of 9Marks, a ministry that trains leaders in nine “marks” he says characterize a healthy church, said a church can exist without a building but not without members. “A church is composed of members,” he said. “It is the people that are essential to the church.”
Dever said even professing Christians can be “self-deceived” into believing they can get along as a Lone Ranger disciple without being connected to a community of faith.
“We have to realize that our immediate assurance that we would give somebody else of their salvation based merely upon the fact that they just professed Christ may not be the most loving thing to do,” Dever said. “Do you want to know a reason not to practice spontaneous baptism? There’s a good one right there.”
“If that’s true for us as individuals, it is doubly true of our congregations,” he continued. “Joining a church is joining an assurance-of-salvation cooperative. We are to observe evidence of God’s grace in each other’s lives. We are to encourage one another. We are to correct one another when occasion requires.”
Dever said church membership is not optional for someone serious about following Christ. “Membership functions to assure us that we have truly known God’s love and that we are truly loving God in response,” he said.
Dever listed 12 suggestions for making church membership more meaningful, “kind of a 12-step recovery plan for pastors to regain meaningful membership in your church.”
1. Regularly proclaim the gospel in your preaching. “Be clear in calling for repentance and faith,” he said. “Make it clear that people who don’t give themselves in loving commitment to each other have no reason to think that they have given themselves in loving commitment to God.”
2. Have and use a congregationally agreed up on statement of faith and church covenant. “You’re showing that within membership in the congregation comes responsibility,” he said.
3. Require attendance in membership classes before admitting someone into the membership of a congregation. “Let them know before they join what expectations others will have of them and what they in turn can expect from the congregation.”
4. Require an interview after they have been through the membership classes but before they have been recommended to the congregation for membership. Dever said it was once common for Baptist churches to examine a candidate’s profession of faith prior to membership.
“Our church really hadn’t done that much throughout the 20th century,” he said. “When I first brought up the practice, some people thought it strange, like it’s not something they ever heard of and really didn’t seem like a good thing to do.”
The problem was solved when he found a membership application from 1895 listing the same kind of questions he was proposing be asked of potential members. He copied it in the church bulletin, pointing out “I’m just doing what our great-great-grandparents did.”
5. Stop baptizing and admitting children into formal church membership. Dever said the question is not whether a 5-year-old or 10-year-old “can savingly confess Christ.”
“Of course they can,” he said. The question for the church is whether its members have the capacity to make an informed, lifelong commitment to follow Christ. “The large number of nominal Christians and rebaptisms in Southern Baptist churches seem to answer that we have gotten something badly wrong in the 20th century,” he said.
6. Realize that admission into church membership is an act of the congregation. “Somehow the congregation needs to be taught that it must act to admit someone into membership, and that apart from death it must act to release someone from church membership,” Dever said.
7. Publish a membership directory and update it regularly. Dever said he is constantly updating contact information for church members, and a new directory comes out a couple of times a month.
8. Give active pastoral oversight to the members. “Try to make sure that every member is in regular conversation with some elder or some mature Christian in the congregation,” Dever said. “Take initiative in trying to know what is going on in members’ lives.”
9. Work to create “a culture of discipling” in the church. “Rather than basically relying on programs of small groups and shared interests, encourage members to deliberately give themselves in love to each other,” he said. “Help them to understand their welfare is the business of their brothers and sisters.”
10. Limit some activities, events and areas of service to just members. “A biblical practice of church membership is going to require some discussions that are both church-wide but are only the church” he said.
Dever said in his church, with the exception of small groups for evangelism, “we have small groups that are just for our members.”
“Our members are free, themselves, to arrange Bible studies with anybody they want to whenever they want to,” he explained. “That’s their own business, but the ones that we take responsibility for … we have only members in those small groups.”
11. Only after membership is recovered consider reviving the practice of corrective church discipline, including excommunication or exclusion.
“Too many pastors attempt to recover meaningful church membership by first recovering the practice of corrective church discipline,” Dever said. “Don’t do that. That is a rough way to try to make your membership meaningful.”
“You first have to take steps to recover a positive understanding and experience of membership, where it becomes normal for people to know the truth about each other’s lives,” he said. “Once that becomes normal, well then it would begin to seem strange if you weren’t speaking to each other if somebody is regularly committing adultery. Then the lack of church discipline would begin to seem strange.”
12. Recover “the grandness of God’s plan.” Dever said at his church, they pray by name for God’s blessings upon other evangelical churches in the community. “It makes it clear that we are not just about Capitol Hill Baptist Church,” he said. “We are about the Lord Jesus Christ in every community that loves and worships him.”
Dever’s model has critics. Some compare such high-commitment membership expectations to a cult. Last year a blogger named Todd Wilhelm reported that after a falling out with his pastor at a 9Marks church in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, it took more than six months to have his name taken off the membership roll.
Others warn that the popularity of the New Calvinism movement at SBC seminaries can cause problems if such methods are not thoroughly vetted in search-committee interviews before a new pastor tries to bring change to a traditional church.