Baptists are notorious for throwing numbers around. “There are 16.5 million Southern Baptists!” the brochure proudly exclaims. If so, where are they? If only 4 million show up for Sunday school, and estimates run as high as 8 million for worship, what makes us think we can account for all who actually belong to a Southern Baptist church?
In the context of churches affiliated with the MBC, we estimate somewhere between 550,000 to 600,000 people acknowledge their membership at one of our 1800-plus churches. That kind of information is collected from the self-reporting by the churches through the Annual Church Profile (ACP).
How does a new pastor beginning his ministry with an older church find out who the disciples are that belong to the church? A pictorial directory? A membership list? Who keeps that information accurate? Even with a list of names and contact information, what is the transformational story about each person named as a member?
For centuries, Baptists have held that authentic membership in our churches is a membership of the redeemed in covenant with one another for God’s purposes. Baptist churches are not social clubs, nor are they simply a network of disciples living in a certain geographic locale.
Baptists are distinctive in that we believe that every Baptist must be redeemed and identified with Christ through believer’s baptism, which is a public display of His life, death, and resurrection. Then, we covenant together to obey His Word and to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit as recipients of grace.
Just having our name on a local church roll is not sufficient to gain acceptability to God. Do we actually think that constitutes a person’s identity as a follower of Christ, or even as a Southern Baptist? Of course not.
However, the church culture over the past few decades has facilitated too many “contractual” professions of faith – where someone simply raises a hand, or prays a formula prayer, or walks down the aisle. We may not have produced as many devoted followers of Christ as we think we have. As a result, churches need to help people clarify whether they are actually one of the redeemed.
Another phenomenon that has taken place in American churches is the proliferation of independent, evangelical churches that do not have a formal membership. What happens when a person drops out of sight, doesn’t give, and becomes part of an evangelical congregation that doesn’t maintain any form of structured membership records?
Is there a tool to help church leaders gain an accurate assessment of the church’s membership – a tool that helps people accurately describe their faith journey and encourage some people to become less of a spectator and more of a participant in the Lord’s church, on mission with Him in this generation?
Yes. It’s called the Treasury of Testimonies. You may download it at MoBaptist.org/treasury, or you may contact my office for a printed copy. There is no copyright, so you can contextualize it to fit your church’s need. However, if you change something, please let us know so we can share it with others.
As you consult the Treasury, consider:
- Each member has the potential to influence other members to walk by faith. One important factor regarding authentic church membership is how interrelated we are to one another. This process helps us express care for each part of the body of Christ, even those on the edges.
- Every member in the church is important and has a story about the work of God’s grace in his or her life. Even wounded members have a story to tell, and so do the young and the aged. Part of the journey of faith is learning to do life with one another for the purpose of reflecting the image of the Lord to a world steeped in brokenness and strife.
- Determining who is a member needs to be a positive experience. When evaluating the authenticity of one’s church membership, people need to believe this is a positive spiritual step by congregational leaders. Some current members who are unable to attend need to believe they are affirmed and not excluded.
- Believers should be assisted with their journeys of faith. An important part of a person’s spiritual growth is articulation of his or her reception of saving faith. The record of people’s journeys is a powerful tool for sharing.
- A personalized process is essential. A form letter will not do. The mechanics must not take over the process. Instead, making the process a personal experience of helping people be authentic must be the priority.
A permanent written testimony is a powerful tool for the individual, and for church leaders. Once the testimonies of the church are collected, the church holds these records so that that, in the future, they may serve as a point of reference, especially if the individual is incapacitated.
You don’t have to think too hard to imagine a new pastor in a community needing to know vital spiritual information about a person who has died and whom the new pastor hasn’t had the opportunity to know.