Southern Baptist Mistake

August 15, 2006

After 2 months reflection by many pastors, it is increasingly clear that the Southern Baptist Convention has made a serious mistake at its convention in Greensboro.

This has nothing to do with elections of officers, mission board controversy or alcohol.  This has to do with what it means to be a church, what it means to be a Christian and the accountability that pastors will give to God.

When a question was raised about the propriety of allowing those who are able to attend church, but who never do to remain members of our churches, the answer was given that this was in order to keep the names as "prospects".  Presumably, the intention is that our prior contact with them gives us an excuse for contacting them personally.

Meanwhile, mortality continues on, and pastors have certainly died since the convention, and will continue to, as we are all eventually called home.  And when we do, according to Hebrews 13, we pastors will give an account to God for the souls in our care.  Who are they?  They are the members of our churches.  At this point, I’m to give account currently for 536.

For me to allow my local congregation to continue on, with people in membership regularly forsaking assembling together is to be in sin, to lead my congregation into sin, confuse what it means to be a member, and confuse what it means to be a Christian.  Any one of these topics could be treated at length.  I simply want to reflect for a moment on how we’re serving these "prospects", non-attending members.

All of them will die, many of them without returning to church.  Some of those will be our brothers and sisters in Christ who were in sin.  I fear that many of them will not have been our brothers and sisters in Christ, and so they will slip into a Christ-less eternity, face a good and just God while they are still pleading their own merits for salvation, and fall under God’s deserved penalty forever.  We could have helped them, like the man in I Cor. 5 who was caught in sin (and may have repented II Cor. 2?), or like the man in Gal. 6:1.  But we didn’t. 

Instead, we met their actions of disobedience with continued formal approval.  They remained members.  We continued to teach them that church membership was their own private business, not the business of the congregation.  We continued to meet their absence with our silence. 

Do you know who opposes this practice of Southern Baptist Churches?  God in Hebrews 10.  Our Southern Baptist forbears who knew what it meant to be a Christian, and a church member, and who suffered for it.  No messenger to a Southern Baptist Convention a century or so ago could have conceived of such an action (or inaction).  Current Southern Baptist church planters oppose us in this.   As Ed Stetzer and David Putnam have recently written, “Any church with a membership twice its attendance is not and cannot be living up to its responsibilities to care for, nurture, watch over, and disciple its church members.” [Ed Stetzer and David Putnam, Breaking the Missional Code (2006), p. 150].

Of course there are hypocrites in the church, but they shouldn’t be there with our approval.  We should ourselves be constant repenters and trusters in Christ.  We should not aid unrepenting sinners in their own delusions of being saved. 

How could such an answer have been given?  I’m sure in well meaning sincerity.  But how could it have been soberly accepted by thousands of messengers?  I can only conclude that it must have been due in part to our cheapened understanding of conversion, debased practices of evangelism, worldly attitudes about being "judgmental" and an addiction–a drunkeness, if you will–to numbers.  I don’t think it came about by careful reflection on the Bible’s teaching on what it means to be born again, to be made a new creation, to consider the fruit of the Spirit in contrast to the works of the flesh.  We were not thinking of II Peter 1.  We not calling people to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith, as Paul urged the Corinthians.  We have not with a sober love called them "sinners" in need of repentance; we have called them "members" and assured them that they are saved.  Or we’ve called them "prospects."

Friends, "prospects" are in the phone book, in our family, in our neighborhood, at work.  Church members are not "prospects".  Church members are supposed to be our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Church members are our exhibit A of what it means to be a Christian.  They are the walking advertisements for the gospel our congregation preaches.  Church members are supposed to be saved from God’s wrath against them.  If they give no evidence of it, we’re playing a high stakes game here with the souls of those we claim to love.

Church members are not prospects.  Church members are not prospects.