John Hammett asks this painful question for most of our churches to confront: “How can regenerate church membership become a reality in a church with a membership of six hundred but an average attendance of two hundred, and where half of the four hundred absentees have been absent so long that only a few senior citizens even know who they are?”
Hammett, who is a professor of systematic theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, devotes two chapters to the dilemma of an unregenerate church membership in his book, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology.
As the opening example shows, while local churches believe in a regenerate church membership on paper as seen in their doctrinal statement, church constitution, and church covenant, in practice most churches do not take seriously ensuring a membership of born again believers.
Hammett substantiates his claim by a report from his denomination: “The largest Baptist denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, reported a total of 43,465 churches in their convention as of 2004, with a total of 16,267,494 members. But of those more than sixteen million members, only 6,024,289, or 37 percent, were on average present for the Sunday morning worship service in those churches. Certainly every church has members who are sick or traveling every weekend, but most of the more than ten million absent members are physically well and in town but choose not to gather with God’s people and remain absent for years at a time. Yet they remain members in good standing at most Baptist churches. Only God knows their hearts, but they are not living like regenerate believers.”
Hammett goes on to further indict the church with another reason the church has a low number of regenerated church members: “Moreover, the conduct of Baptist church members outside the church attendance is also alarming. Reports find almost no difference in the rate of divorce among Baptists and the culture as a whole. Many Baptists are enmeshed in alcoholism, addiction to pornography, spousal and child abuse, adultery, and virtually every other evil the world offers. One can live a life with no visible difference from the surrounding nonregenerate world and be a member in good standing of a Baptist church. Beyond coming forward at a church service and being baptized at some point in one’s life, there are no requirements for ongoing membership in most Baptist churches. Maintaining one’s membership in the Rotary or Kiwanis Club is more demanding; they require members to pay dues” (John S. Hammett. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005, 109, 110, 116).
Mark Dever expresses a kindred concern when he writes: “Sadly, it is not uncommon to find a big gap between the number of people officially on the membership rolls and the number who regularly attend. Imagine a church of three thousand members with only six hundred regularly attending. I fear that many evangelical pastors today might be more proud of their so-called membership than distressed by the large number of members not attending. According to one recent study, the typical Southern Baptist church has 233 members with only 70 attending on Sunday morning. And is our giving any better? What congregations have budgets that equal—let alone exceed—10 percent of the combined annual incomes of their members? Physical limitations can prevent attendance and financial burdens can prevent giving. But otherwise one wonders if churches are making idols out of numbers. Numerical figures can be idolized just as easily as carved figures—perhaps more easily. Yet God will assess our lives and weigh our work, I think, rather that count our numbers” (Mark Dever. What is a Healthy Church? Wheaton: Crossway, 2007, 96).
In the following posts, I would like to address this critical health issue in most of our churches.