Tom Ascol began blogging in the summer of 2005, and one of the first things he began talking about was the need for integrity in church membership (for example, see here, here, here, here, here, and here). During this time, he drafted the first resolution regarding a call to regenerate church membership which was sent to the resolutions committee for consideration at the 2006 Annual Meeting in Greensboro (also see here). Unfortunately, It never made it out of the committee, and when asked why that was the case, the chairman said that inactive church members are the best prospects for evangelism (don’t ask me to explain that line of thinking–even Mark Dever had to chime in). Nevertheless, Tom again submitted his resolution on integrity in church membership in 2007 (San Antonio), and again it failed to make it out of the committee (also see here and here). This time the excuse was that it infringed upon the autonomy of local churches.
It is now three years later, and this year there are last least three resolutions regarding regenerate church membership being sent to the resolutions committee. Tom’s resolution again has been submitted with one addition and an update on the statistics, and his resolution has gained considerable support already (I encourage you to support this resolution should you be inclined to do so). What is different this year is that Malcolm Yarnell, together with Bart Barber, has submitted another, similar and yet distinctly different, resolution on regenerate church membership. While I appreciate the efforts and agree with what is written, I feel that it is important to make the case as to why I can NOT support this resolution, and why you should not either. Let’s begin.
1. The Yarnell/Barber resolution denies the woeful state of affairs that has brought us to this point. In neglecting to mention the current state of membership according to the Annual Church Profiles (ACP), they do not provide the rationale for even bringing this resolution about. Not addressing and owning up to the failures of our past will not help us to pursue regenerate church membership in the future. The history we are seeking to make simply will not happen unless we are accountable for the history that we have made.
2. The Yarnell/Barber resolution dismisses the call to repentance for our unfaithfulness to the gospel and unhealthiness of our churches. Apparently, Yarnell does not believe that we have lost our focus on the gospel (see comments), and the call to repentance is simply unnecessary. However, after the gauntlet was dropped last week that the SBC is in decline, many Southern Baptists have joined in the call to repent and reorient ourselves around the gospel. Simply put, the first word of the gospel (repent) should be the first word of the resolution, and a refusal to issue a call to repentance is tantamount to a refusal to call our churches back to gospel faithfulness. Fundamentally, the issue is the gospel, and our repentance in humbly returning to regenerate church membership is but one expression that we are seeking to refocus our efforts in our churches to return to the gospel. If there is no call to repent, there can be no response to return.
3. Closely related to reason #2, all those who endorse this resolution on regenerate church membership do so at no cost to themselves. So you sign on to a resolution upholding regenerate church membership–what does that mean? Is that the end-all-be-all? HOWEVER, if there is a call to repentance, humility, and return to gospel faithfulness, then it can be understood that everyone signing on to endorse the resolution would themselves commit to repentance in the practice of their own local church respectively. Yet, as the Yarnell/Barber resolution stands, the endorsements represent only a theoretical agreement with regenerate church membership.
4. Again, in concert with my previous reasons, the Yarnell/Barber resolution offers no call to taking practical steps to the practice of regenerate church membership. There is no action plan other than to pass this resolution. Some have expressed concern that they just want the discussion to be over, as it is an embarrassment and sore spot in the SBC. If the resolution is passed, and that in and of itself is the goal, then we have utterly failed. We would be better off having another failed resolution than one that is passed but with no action plan. If the discussion ends with no repentance, no change, no returning to gospel faithfulness, then all this will end up as political grandstanding and an even greater embarrassment.
5. The Yarnell/Barber resolution is being submitted by individuals whose churches themselves do not practice regenerate church membership. Methinks that if you are going to make a resolution on an issue, then it would be incumbent upon you to be resolved yourself before making the call to others. During the years 2000-2006, both churches (that is, Yarnell’s home church and the church where Barber pastors) averaged 30% of their total membership in attendance on any given Sunday (31% for Yarnell, 30% for Barber). That means 7 out of 10 who have joined in covenant membership are regularly breaking the covenant by not attending regularly in worship (much less participate in Sunday School). During those same years, Yarnell’s home church added 1,067 via baptism and “other additions” while seeing an attendance growth of only 22. Doing the math, you will find that the attendance growth represents only 2% of the total additions during the same seven years (in other words, for every 100 that joined the church in this period, only 2 are accounted for in attendance). Barber’s situation is slightly better, adding 331 via baptism and “other additions” with an attendance growth of 50 (coming to a percentage of 16%). Now, I don’t want to sound harsh, but can we really take a resolution on regenerate church membership seriously when the leaders proposing this resolution reflect more of the problem instead of a solution? I will leave that for you to ponder.
6. During recent weeks, this resolution was attempted to be reconciled with Tom’s resolution. When Tom offered his suggestions, they were not accepted. Prior to this, however, a large swath of denominational elites were in an email exchange, to the exclusion of the very person who is most responsible for bring this emphasis about in recent history. The fact that so many of these higher-ups would be jumping on the bandwagon late in the game begs one to wonder whether this is a matter of political expediency or a matter we are willing to take real action. Where was everyone in 2006? In 2007? I am not accusing Yarnell and Barber for hijacking the issue, but the fact that they have produced a soft-ball version without reference to the gospel, prescriptive steps, or a call to denominational humility forces me to question the purpose and end goal of such a resolution.
7. The prevalence of unregenerate church members reflect unhealthy churches. If we want to see the SBC grow, we need healthy churches. To get there, we must first own up to where we have been (honesty). We must then accept the fact that this is something that has happened under our watch (humility) and seek to bring about change. Perhaps the reason why repentance and humility is not considered in the Yarnell/Barber resolution is because we are pointing the finger in our own face. Are we willing to call even the most heralded denominational leaders and pastors to repentance for the sake of healthy, biblical congregations? As we continue to experience numerical decline, nominal Christianity, and disappearance of our Baptist identity, are we going to continue to deny the state of affairs that we have brought about? The vision brought about by Ascol’s resolution seeks to bring a change of course, and I do not see that in this resolution.
8. Lastly, there are those of you who have been issuing the call for a “Gospel Resurgence” in the SBC and have found this resolution worthy of your approval. Allow me to offer a caution here. If we separate the issue of regenerate church membership from the recovery of gospel faithfulness, we are only offering a band-aid cure to a much deeper problem. The gospel will not “surge” out of churches where less than 30% bear any evidence that it is “the power of God unto salvation.” The Yarnell/Barber resolution at best assumes we have no need to return to gospel faithfulness and at worst undermines it. Regenerate church membership begins with “regenerate”–and if we do not get the gospel right in our churches, we cannot expect to get church membership right either.
These are eight reasons why I cannot support the Barber/Yarnell resolution on regenerate church membership. Many have expressed their support, and I do not fault them for doing so. But let it be known that, while indeed there are some similarities in these two resolutions, there are marked and substantial differences in them as well–differences such that preclude my support and perhaps yours as well.
One of my biggest concerns is not who gets the credit for what resolution passes or whatever; we can have all the big names, websites, and amen corners to cheer on these resolutions, but if they end on the floor of Indy and not on the floor of our churches, then we have utterly failed. If we continue long after this in our denominational pride and business-as-usual mentality, then we have missed the whole point of this discussion to begin with. In the weeks leading up to Indy, things will be heating up as usual, and sides will be taken on issues. It is my hope and prayer that we will not play politics with our churches, pander to political pressure, or compromise on our commitment to be gospel-centered churches. Nowhere is the gospel more evidently seen in our churches than in the members who have “called upon the name of the Lord.”
And may they all say, “When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.”