An Outsider Look at Unregenerate Church Membership

Tim Brister —  September 19, 2007 — 20 Comments

One of the books we have to read in my Intro to Church Planting class is David Garrison’s Church Planting Movements: How God Is Redeeming a Lost World. While I find several things in this book troubling (regarding the CPM’s), I was surprised to find these two paragraphs in the chapter on North America (emphasis mine).

“In the 21st century, mega-churches are increasingly characterizing the North American evangelical landscape. First Baptist Churches in Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas all claim memberships larger than 20,000 as do Prestonwood Baptist Church, Second Baptist Houston, Bellevue Baptist in Cordova, Tennessee, and Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. But not all is healthy in these large mega-churches that can typically only account for one-third of their members on any given Sunday. For too many, church membership has become a spectator sport rather than a vital part of daily life.

A story is told in Kenya of a prominent pastor from the United States who visited Nairobi and was introduced to the Kenyan church leadership as ‘pastor of one of the largest churches in America, with more than 20,000 members. Each week more than 8,000 attend his preaching.’ Visibly moved, the Kenyan leader led his brothers to pray for the American pastor who could not find more than half of his church members on Sunday morning!”

This account is all too familiar when our African or Asian brothers hear about the state of the church in the West. Maybe our eyes could be opened if we saw the robust ecclesiology of churches in Zambia under the leadership of Conrad Mbewe or the high price of church membership in the underground church in China. Just the other day I heard of a church in Mississippi who had planned on hosting a conference under the theme of “Church Discipline” only later forced to cancel because not one of the over 700 pastors contacted expressed interest in attending. Those of us in the SBC need to join our Kenyan brothers in praying for our churches and specifically our pastors. Pray that they would have the courage to take a stand for the integrity of church membership. Pray that they would see that opening the back door and closing the front door could be the beginning of reformation and revival. Pray that our pastors would be willing to pay the price, however great the cost, as shepherds who would be willing to lay down their reputations and ministerial careers for the church. These are days where an outsider look at regenerate church membership should case us to take a hard, sober introspective analysis of what has largely become an unregenerate denomination. May God grant us convictions to meet the challenges and courage to steady us in the face of criticism.

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  • http://unrelatedramblings.blogspot.com Sam

    By unregenerate I assume you mean unconverted? Or is there a difference?

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Sam,

    Yes. Unregenerate = unconverted. Baptists have historically believed that the church is comprised of regenerate, baptized believers. In recent years, especially with the church growth movement, churches have adopted methods and practices that are not merely un-Baptistic but unbiblical.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com/ ChrisB

    Think we should drop people off the rolls we haven’t heard from in a while? Of course, too many like their “20,000 members” and wouldn’t want to knock 10,000 off their rolls.

  • Brandon Sandifer

    Timmy,

    You hit the nail on the head with this post. Recapturing a passion for regenerate church membership is the greatest challenge we face in the SBC. I am a recent grauduate of SBTS and have been pastoring in South Carolina for 2 months now and we are beginning a change in the process of how we accept members. The first step that we are taking is that we are requiring candidates to go through a new member’s class . We have alos begun visiting all the folks who are on our membership roll that have not been active in the church’s ministry. This has been very discouraging to me. Just this week I visited a man on our roll that has not been to our church in over 20 years and nothing has been done about it. The discouraging thing is that is the case for several other folks who are on our rolls. There is a huge battle ahead for there to be reformation, but I am taking it slowly and am going to begin by improving how we accept members. Timmy, thanks for your encouraging post to stand in the face of criticism! May God grant us the grace to stand firm!

  • Ken Richardson

    Timmy,

    I enjoy reading your blog page which I came upon through Founders web page. I would like to send emil you to share something that I would not want to post on the blog page. Would you share your email address with me?

  • Pingback: Timmy on Church Membership « Soli Deo Gloria()

  • gen-o

    I think that we should be careful in our terms and demand not only regenerate church membership but repentant church membership as well. We should differentiate between those who are unregenerate (lost) and those who are unrepentant (believers who are trapped in sin, “backsliders” to use the old KJV term). I’m sure that the roots of our (SBC) trouble in this area (which is significant and shameful) is not simply the lust for numbers but is rooted honestly in our belief in the perseverance of the saints. A purist would claim that we do not have unregenerate membership because we don’t just have folks anonymously fill out a form, we at least require baptism (John McCain not withstanding!) and a public statement of faith. Even churches that require membership classes have members who drop out. We have unrepentant members aplenty.

    While the eternal difference is significant, the net effect in this world is the same, and both instances require intervention. A close friend of mine is, I believe, a backslider, (vivid fruit of her conversion years ago) who has been trapped in open sin now for decades. She is miserable. I’ve sat next to her at church a couple of times over the past couple of years and she weeps through the services but will not turn loose. Deacons from her home church finally visited her after 20 years (!) a few years ago, not to check on her but because she is on the church roll and they were having a capital campaign to eliminate the church debt! Oh, it grieved me. She could probably have been rescued from her rebellion 35 years ago, but no one tried back then. The difference her life could have made to so many others!

    Pastoral contacts with “inactive” members are critical! But they need to be done with gentleness and a true sensitivity to the individual who is in need of that visit.

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Brandon,

    Amen!

    Ken,

    I tried emailing you with the email you provided in the form but it was returned to me. You can contact me at outpostministries[at]yahoo[dot]com.

    Gen-o,

    Would you agree that unrepentant church members need the discipline of the church? Is it not a responsibility of those who enter into covenant together by joining a local church that they hold one another up in prayer, encouragement, exhortation, and correction? There is a contemporary idea of the “carnal” Christian which says you can profess Christ and not progress in sanctification. I have a hard time finding support for that in Scripture. If conversion has taken place, God will be active in you so that as you “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” God is working in you both to will and to work according to his own good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13). Granted, our sanctification is never without disobedience and sin, and the progression is not without its jagged edges. But the point is that you are continually repenting of sin, continually growing in grace as the Holy Spirit works to conform you into the image of Christ.

  • gen-o

    Yep, that’s what I’m saying. Both groups, unregenerate and unrepentant, need the visit and the unrepentant need the discipline. We should never allow our views on the perseverance of the saints to give us a weak excuse for not confronting those who are unrepentant. If we say, “Well, at least she is saved!” we are settling for an unbiblical view of what our lives as the redeemed should be. It’s, more or less, a weird parallel to the idea that we can sin with impunity once we are saved. We need to restore loving, Biblical discipline.

    If someone had done this with my friend long ago, she would not be so entrenched today. If she had been lovingly disciplined, her life would have been much different. Maybe she would experience joy when she hears the Word instead of sorrow.

    I read an essay not long ago that claimed that the secret to revival was that we make our churches more loving and accepting. That idea omits the part of revival that is at least equally necessary: repentance. Love and acceptance without invoking the need for repentance is not Christianity. In fact, it’s not even love or acceptance. It’s blind tolerance.

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    gen-o,

    Well said. I totally agree.

  • rob

    gen-o,

  • rob

    gen-o,

    i do not know the whole story. so i may be off base. you say that if someone would have only… according to our lord, it is the responsibility of the ONE brother/sister to begin the process of Church Discipline, and to see that follows through. if we only rely on our deacons ( which should have been elders) to do everything that every believer is eqipped to do, no wonder the church is so weak.

  • http://bellsouthpwp2.net/j/a/jamesbcrigler/ Jim Crigler

    Re: “Just the other day I heard of a church in Mississippi who had planned on hosting a conference under the theme of “Church Discipline” only later forced to cancel because not one of the over 700 pastors contacted expressed interest in attending.”

    I agree with your point wholeheartedly. I don’t wish you to reveal a confidence you may have promised to anyone, but can this story be confirmed with name, location, acknowledgement, etc?

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Jim,

    Yes indeed it can. I am not sure if I can give you the specifics at this point, but I will inquire about that for you.

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