FIRST-PERSON: Is church membership too easy?
JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)--When was the last time your church denied membership to an aisle-walker? If Thom S. Rainer’s research is correct, the answer to that question may be related significantly to your church’s effectiveness in evangelism.
Noting the disturbing evidences of a decline in evangelism within the Southern Baptist Convention since the onset of the conservative resurgence in 1979, Rainer -- who serves as dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth -- certainly has given us reason for pause.
Under the headline “A Resurgence Not Yet Realized: Evangelistic Effectiveness in the Southern Baptist Convention Since 1979,” Rainer traces statistical data related to evangelism in the SBC from 1950 to 2003. Within the scope of his research, a particular eye is focused on the SBC’s evangelistic effectiveness since 1979. His disconcerting conclusion -- published in the latest issue of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology -- is that the right turn in our convention “has not resulted in a greater evangelistic effectiveness in the denomination.”
Looking back over the last 25 years, members of the Southern Baptist Convention have much for which to be thankful. As Rainer points out, the six seminaries are faithfully led by those with conservative theologies. The denomination’s engagement with the culture is evident as clear statements of biblical values are regularly proclaimed.
Statistics from the International Mission Board indicate Southern Baptists’ obvious and aggressive involvement in international missions. The Southern Baptist Convention has made an incalculable difference throughout the world since being founded in 1845, and the Conservative Resurgence has resulted in greater commitments to doctrinal fidelity, cultural engagement and international missions.
Evangelism, though, is a different story. As is obvious by the numbers in Rainer’s article, the theological shift within the convention has not yet been realized in the area of evangelism. Looking at baptismal numbers, church membership and baptismal ratios (the number of church members per baptism), one sees the “numerical realities of evangelistic stagnation within the denomination.” With a burgeoning 16,315,050 people on churches' membership rolls in 2003, we still are seeing about the same number of people baptized as were baptized in 1950 when we were only 7,079,889 strong. The truth is that on average, it is taking more Southern Baptists to win one person to Christ than it ever has.
After showing that the state of affairs would be worse if we went the way of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Rainer then suggests six hypotheses concerning the evangelistic struggles of the SBC and five proposals for recapturing the denomination’s evangelistic heritage. All are worthy of reflection and should receive focused consideration.
But most troubling to us should be his hypothesis that “the churches of the SBC are not evangelistic because they have many unregenerate members.” While only seven paragraphs are dedicated to this premise, they serve as perhaps the weightiest and most dispiriting section of the entire article. According to a survey of those who were church members prior to becoming Christians, results indicate that many current SBC church members may in fact not even be saved. I immediately thought about how our mega churches may not be as mega as we think they are. I then wondered if those like J.L. Dagg, J.P. Boyce and John Broadus were turning over in their graves at the thought of unregenerate church membership among us.
While I do not serve as pastor of a church, a decade of ministry among university students at a Christian college has impressed upon me that people always seem to rise to the lowest level of expectation. Could it be that SBC churches are not as evangelistically effective as we would like because we are sacrificing our ecclesiological integrity by softening requirements for church membership? SBC churches proclaim a commitment to regenerate church membership, but practices often belie such professions.
One of the easier organizations to join is a Baptist church. Not much is required. Walk down an aisle, gently grasp the pastor’s hand, nod affirmatively at his leading questions, correctly fill out the card on the clipboard, stand before the congregation and listen to their “Amen” as the pastor asks if they are “glad you have come today.” As one who once was a church member before becoming a Christian, I am aware that it is quite possible to join some churches without being a follower of Christ.
After moving into a new house and misplacing my Blockbuster membership card this spring, I went to rent a movie and was required to get a new card. The long and short of the matter is that Blockbuster may require more information and have higher expectations of its members than does the Baptist church down the street.
Rainer’s sobering assertion is that “if our research approximates eternal realities, nearly one-half of all church members may not be Christians.” The conclusion is not hard to draw -- an unbelieving church cannot be an evangelistic church, and some would question whether a church half-full of unbelievers is even a church in the first place.
If we want to affect the evangelism that is done when members walk out the church doors, we might consider providing attention to how people walk through those same doors into church membership. Before we rejoice with those who have “come to Christ” at a particular service, perhaps we should take the time to confirm that they indeed understand the nature and implications of coming to Christ.
Such an approach will take more time and will require a personal and relational approach. Understanding the Apostle Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “not be hasty in the laying on of hands,” (1 Timothy 5:22) perhaps we should practice more discernment in granting membership to those who come forward. Otherwise, there very well may be some who stand before the judgment seat of Christ wrongly thinking they were saved because a Southern Baptist Church indiscriminately granted them baptism and church membership. Knowing that teachers incur a stricter judgment than others, (James 3:1) church leaders should be careful not to affirm a person’s salvation by quickly baptizing them and unquestioningly welcoming them into the fold.
If Rainer is right and unregenerate church membership is a contributing factor to our evangelistic struggles, we should take heed and ensure that those in our churches are indeed in Christ before we challenge them to share Christ. Nothing less than the Gospel of Christ and the potential salvation of millions are at stake.
Todd Brady is minister to the university at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.