Al Jackson, one of the men I esteem highly in the SBC has written about unregenerate church membership in the May-June 2011 IX Marks e-Journal. In particular, he spells out the consequences for meaningless membership. Quoting Vance Havner, he says that “we are many but we are not much.” Jackson writes:
The Southern Baptist Convention is most likely far smaller than what we report. And our membership rolls most likely contain a multitude of unregenerate individuals. Our Baptist forefathers would view our present condition with shock and horror.
What are the consequences of such meaningless membership?
It Gives a False Assurance of Salvation to Multitudes
It is common for a man or woman to join a Southern Baptist church, but then to stop participating in worship and fellowship—sometimes for decades. Yet when the church says or does nothing, the individual continues to believe he or she is saved. This is the case because of our refusal to obey God in the matter of discipline.
We often say that we love inactive members too much to discipline them. Actually, our lack of discipline reveals our lack of love for these people who give little or no evidence of the new birth. Many such people are under the just condemnation of a holy God. This is the greatest and most grievous consequence of allowing them to maintain church membership without church involvement.
It Harms Our Gospel Witness
Hypocrisy within our churches is common, and Southern Baptist churches almost universally fail to practice church discipline. As a result, Christ’s bride is stained and soiled when she should be progressing toward radiance, holiness, and blamelessness.
Church history professor Tom Nettles has said that “holiness should pave the way for evangelism.” In other words, the holy lives of a congregation should undergird its gospel witness. Those who proclaim the gospel of God’s saving grace in Christ Jesus should be able to point to an assembly of believers who are new creations in Christ.
It Makes for Some Ugly Business Meetings
The typical Southern Baptist congregational meeting is characterized by routine motions and decisions. However, occasionally, when the Spirit begins to move in God-glorifying ways, unregenerate church members who haven’t been seen for years suddenly appear at business meetings. The result is not pretty. God-glorifying initiatives are halted, and godly pastors are often voted out. The occasions on which this has happened are too numerous to count.
It Hinders our Missionary Efforts
Yes, it is true that we have the largest number of missionaries worldwide of any American denomination. Our 5,000 International Mission Board missionaries span the globe. Yet this translates to one missionary for every nine Southern Baptist churches. In light of the Bible’s clear teaching on missions, is it unrealistic to think that every church should have a least one missionary serving internationally? More than 30,000 Southern Baptist churches have no missionary from their ranks. How can this be? Where is the passion to declare God’s glory among the nations?