Pastors tell of ways to hold flock to higher standard
JEFFERSON CITY—Pastors who have led churches through a process of recovering a biblical church membership speak honestly of its challenges and hopefully of its cleansing effect.
“Church discipline, at its heart, is about expecting believers to walk within the context of the church in a steady and healthy manner,” said Monty Dunn, pastor, Pleasant View Baptist Church, Highlandville.
From 1997-2004, Dunn led Bethany Baptist in Sedalia through a process that resulted in 52 names being removed from the church’s membership roll. His two predecessors over a period of approximately 10 years acted similarly. Vic Borden has since moved on to pastor Red Bridge Baptist in Kansas City; Joe Braden is now pastor of First Baptist in St. Peters.
“What binds believers, churches, associations and our Convention together is not merely giving through the Cooperative Program,” Dunn said. “What binds us together is a desire to follow the Lord through faith in Christ. We are bound together by the obedience of baptism, a love for the Lord’s Table, honoring the Lord’s Day, loving the Lord’s Word, and loving the Lord’s people. We are bound together by being members of a local Southern Baptist church that is not ashamed of a confession like the Baptist Faith & Message.”
The fear of undergoing this process is that congregations will see it as an inquisition. The danger is that church leaders who do not go forth with tenderness, kindness and love may be viewed as ruthless men who are intent on a purge. But two pastors interviewed by The Pathway—Stephen Sowder of First Baptist Church, Fulton, and Doug Shivers of Boulevard Baptist Church, Springfield—have found quite the opposite to be true. They have enjoyed long tenures at their respective churches while helping their congregations work through this sometimes misunderstood action.
Sowder will complete his 16th year at First Fulton in September. Shivers is in his 13th year at Boulevard. While both men took different paths to recovering a biblical church membership, with Sowder’s being more methodological and Shivers’ being more theological, the effect has been virtually the same. First Fulton went from 1,250 on the rolls to a little more than 600; Boulevard similarly dropped from the 1,200s to the 500s.
Sowder explained that when he was only two years into his pastorate, in the summer of 1993, church members began to express concern that their church, which averaged around 300 in Sunday worship, was not portraying itself truthfully to the denomination and to the general public.
“It came from the ranks of our leadership,” Sowder said. “I did not go into a meeting and say, ‘Hey, we need to do something about this.’ What prompted it was when we were electing messengers for our association and the State Convention. We felt like we had an integrity problem (in true membership).”
Shivers, who loves to study and preach, has taken a long-term view of his congregation. Years of preaching and teaching from the Boulevard pulpit have been used to birth a consistent cleansing of the rolls. One example of how this works is that every family unit in the church is assigned to a deacon who is then asked to contact each family in some way twice each year.
“We’ve not regretted for a moment the membership reformation we began a few years ago,” Shivers said.
First Fulton took a whole year to write letters with response cards to potentially wayward members. Church leaders collected data and participated in follow-up visits. It all led up to a business meeting in the fall of 1994 in which the issue was addressed.
“Of course, it was a no-brainer,” Sowder said. “If people had died or we couldn’t contact them, we just basically erased them from the rolls.”
Those who had joined other churches were taken care of in a separate action. A potentially problematic group of around 20 names—people who joined the church with the idea that they would be members until they die, regardless of how often they attend—was also taken off the rolls, with the stipulation that the church still could be associated with those people in an obituary.
“We felt like a weight came off us,” Sowder said. “Those people weren’t a burden to us. Nobody was causing problems. It was more like in this community, we’re not showing integrity.”
Shivers said he likes to discuss membership on the front end, pointing people to the church’s membership handbook and relevant portions of the church’s covenant. He tells people that members support the ministry of the church, are involved according to their gifts, and attend a minimum of once a week. “Becoming ‘inactive’ is unacceptable,” he said.
The Boulevard Baptist pastor also encourages members who move away to join another church within one year. At the end of that year the member is contacted in the spirit of Boulevard wanting to help him or her find a new church home. They are then given one more year to succeed in that endeavor before they are finally removed from the church’s rolls.
“We do make allowances for special circumstances,” he said.
Dunn, Sowder and Shivers all agree that church membership ought to be viewed positively, not negatively. Those who are faithful to the church are ones who are corporately stating that they wish to be known as Christians; those who are removed from the rolls, while precious to God, are not ones that the pastors are focusing on as they consider what lies ahead.
“Our goal in membership is not to dismiss people and get rid of them,” Sowder said. “It’s to raise the value of what it means to be a member here at the church. We are in the process right now of clarifying what it means to be a member through our constitution and bylaws.”
Shivers said the next step in Missouri Baptists looking soberly at the concept of true biblical church membership will involve looking at something that makes people even more uncomfortable—the practice of church discipline.
“Church discipline is still so uncommon that exercising it takes considerable time,” Shivers said. “Folks have to be brought along patiently in exercising this biblical ministry.”
“The highest design of church discipline is not to remove people from the church but to keep people in the church, walking in a manner pleasing to Christ,” Dunn said. “It can be both painful and risky, but at times it is necessary if the church is to be a city on a hill spreading the fame of our great God to every nation.”
The pastors also agree that they are not to be viewed as something special for having led their churches through this process of recovering what is often lacking in Missouri Baptist church membership. They are quick to confess their struggles as men who must proceed by grace alone.
“Boulevard is not anywhere near perfect,” Shivers said. “There are very good reasons the Bible is filled with commands and exhortations regarding forgiveness, reconciliation, and maintaining unity. It is each member’s duty to protect and encourage the unity of the church.”