The social media outrage patrol turned its attention last week to a small church in Central Kentucky that had sent out letters to a large number of inactive members stating their removal from the membership roll. Once the Lexington Herald Leader got ahold of it, the headline became an over-sensationalized "Kentucky Church Kicks Out Members Over Common Transgressions." The article itself was a lesson in bad theology and sloppy reporting, which was called out by Hershael York of Buck Run Baptist in Frankfort.
Here's one of the realities of our denominational tribe in the Southern Baptist Convention: we have ridiculously inflated membership rolls. Take a look at this infograph from the SBC website which shows the number of members on our rolls vs. our average weekly attendance.
In any given Sunday, an average of nearly 10 million people who claim membership in an SBC church are absent. If we take into consideration a fairly conservative estimate that our weekly attendance is roughly 75% of our active membership (factor in vacation, kids sports, sickness, travel, work, and other factors that occasionally hamper church attendance) we're left with an "Active Membership" of roughly 7 million. Not even half.
We can discuss the causes of this another time, but what many of us in ministry are finding is that our church records are horribly inaccurate. We have members on our rolls who have moved away, who we've lost contact with, and in some cases who are already dead. What Cave City Church did was nothing more than update its roll sheet to accurately reflect its current involvement.
A lot has been said about those who are homebound or unable to attend because of illness or nursing home situations. If they have been removed from membership, then Cave City has an obligation to restore that. Our members who are homebound or unable to attend still are part of the family. Hopefully the leadership at Cave City is working to make sure those who have been removed have been removed for the right reasons.
That said, I defend what Cave City Baptist Church did. They're getting blasted for it, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. Here are my 4 reasons why what they did was right.
Faithful Church Membership is Biblical - When we read Hebrews 10:24-25 we see that there is an expectation for corporate attendance because the exception are those who "neglect to meet together." In Acts 2:42-47 we see the regular (daily) gathering of Jesus' followers for worship, ministry, prayer, fellowship, the Lord's Supper, and pastoral care. Matt Chandler from Village Church has a great essay from 9Marks about the biblical argument for church membership. And Thabiti Anyabwile has a book on what a healthy church member looks like.
Pastors Have a Responsibility for Their Flock - One day I'll have to stand before the Lord and answer for how I as a pastor cared for those God has given to me. How do we know for whom we will give an account? Biblical church membership. Hebrews 13:7 talks about the hope for leaders to have joy about them as they lead and care for those entrusted to them. The only way to recognize the parameters of who is and who isn't part of the flock is through membership.
Church Membership is a Covenant Relationship - When we join a church, we're not just slapping our name on a list or being able to use the gym for free. We're joining together with a people for encouragement, love, fellowship, instruction, and edifying. Sometimes that edifying takes the form of correction, where our mistakes and shortcomings are lovingly handled through the teaching of the Word and the work of God's people. Sadly, so many people (and churches) treat membership without the level of covenant commitment it requires.
Restorative Church Discipline is Biblical, and Good - Whenever we see stories like this or others where people are "excommunicated" from a church, we immediately throw up our guard and get mad and say things like "Jesus would never be ok with this!" Well... He was. And He told us how to do it. Matthew 18 gives us a plan for restorative church discipline. It's important to emphasize the restorative part. It's not punitive. It's not being mean. It's restorative. It's restorative of the relationship between the person to God--if there has been unrepentant sin that has fractured the relationship between that person and God, the process of confrontation and repentance is healing. It's restorative of the relationship between that person and God's people. We were never meant to exist in a bubble, the people of God has always been a communal or corporate identity. So when we pledge our membership to a church, we're part of a body, or a family, and most powerfully the Bride of Christ. What a rich picture of joy. When someone falls away through sin or through constant inactivity, the body isn't whole. That's where the restorative process comes in, which ultimately leads to the removal of someone from what we would consider the membership roll. It's not to punish, it's to leave open the door for restoration.
The tough part of all this is that for all we know, Cave City and its leadership are trying to do the right thing by cleaning up their records. It's the honest thing to do. We can't keep reporting these giant inflated membership numbers that are inaccurate. Let's pray that good comes from this, and that for some who received that letter it spurs them to love Cave City Baptist Church, come back into fellowship, and see the mission of God expand from there.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.