NASHVILLE (BP) -- Nine out of 10 churches in America are declining or growing at a pace slower than their communities, often limping along as members drift out the proverbial back door. So what can leaders do to stop the exodus?
Thom S. Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, sees this as a symptom of an underlying problem in many churches.
The decline stems from their members having lost the biblical understanding of what it means to be part of the body of Christ, said Rainer, author of a new book, "I Am a Church Member." People often join churches expecting to be served, fed and cared for, he said.
"Many times, probably more than we would like to believe, a church member leaves a local body because he or she has a sense of entitlement rather than a servant mentality."
Rainer's book addresses without apology what is expected of those who join a body of believers. It is an expansion of a 500-word declaration about church membership he posted to his daily blog in 2012 which sparked an exceptional response and started a conversation about the attitudes and responsibilities of church members. It also exposed a gap in current church membership studies and resources.
Rainer said he wrote the initial blog post after noting an increase in church conflict in some of his research, with over half of the issues dealing with church members arguing over their personal preferences.
"God did not give us local churches to become country clubs where membership means we have privileges and perks," Rainer writes. "He placed us in churches to serve, to care for others, to pray for leaders, to learn, to teach, to give, and, in some cases, to die for the sake of the Gospel. The time to get this right is now."
Church members are tempted to blame secular culture, national politics or church leaders for the plateaued and declining status of churches in North America and declining evangelical influence in the culture, Rainer writes in the book; instead, they should "look in the mirror."
"If outside forces and culture were the reasons behind declining and non-influential churches, we would likely have no churches today," Rainer said. "The greatest periods of growth, particularly the first-century growth, took place in adversarial cultures.
"We are not hindered by external forces," Rainer said. "We are hindered by our own lack of commitment and selflessness."
Rainer reminds believers that church membership carries both privilege and responsibility. When a person's attitude is consistently biblical and healthy, such matters as giving and serving will fall into place more naturally.
I Am a Church Member offers basic commitments for the body of believers in a local setting -- being a functioning and unifying church member; letting go of personal preferences and desires; praying for church leaders; leading family members to be healthy church members; and treasuring church membership. Each of the book's six chapters concludes with a pledge and questions for further study. The book can be used as a gift for new members or as a resource for church membership classes. Books can be purchased in bulk with 20 to a carton.
"This book is a must read if you want your members to understand what it means to be committed to a local church," said Michael Catt, senior pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. "I encourage church leaders to read it and then buy copies for potential and new members. It will impact church health and help close the back door."
Rainer said he prays the book contributes to the conversation about biblical attitudes toward church membership. "I am even bold enough to pray that God will use it to change hearts from self-serving to serving," he said. "As the church gets healthier, it will have a greater impact on its community and the world."
I Am a Church Member was released May 1 by the B&H Publishing Group, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Carol Pipes is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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