CT has a story about the struggle within the Southern Baptist Convention to begin reporting real membership numbers. The reported number has long been 16.5 million. The real number of folks who actually show up is about 6.5 million. To put this in perspective, the largest Presbyterian body in North America, the mainline PCUSA is about 2 million. I’ve been told that the LCMS is about 3 million. Oddly, I’m told that the PCA has the opposite problem. The reported membership number is about 300,000 but a significant percentage of PCA congregations either send no funds to the PCA or report no membership figures (or both). So the PCA may actually be closer to 400,000 but who knows with certainty? Why Presbyterian congregations would belong to a denomination and refuse to support it financially or refuse to report membership statistics is beyond me.
What’s significant about this question is not really how large the SBC really is. What matters is the way folks approach the size of their congregations, how that becomes an important part of their identity, and how we think about and relate to church discipline. Every pastor and consistory (session) has to face this. Some folks just walk away from church and disappear. Do we keep reporting those people as members? No. There are different views as to how to deal with such a case (discipline or erasure) but something should be done.
Why don’t we do it? Sometimes nothing happens because of inertia. It’s just easier to do nothing. Sometimes nothing happens because there is resistance. “You can’t discipline/erase that family why they….” (fill in the blank). This is a classic “Christ and culture” moment. The church is being told that we cannot follow Christ because it the culture (in this case relationships or getting along) is more important.
Some of this might also be about power. I notice that the new president of the SBC was urging caution. It’s like when a senator becomes president. When he was a senator he was all for the checks and balances of the three co-equal branches. When he becomes president, well, he has to defend the prerogatives of the office. Cardinals may be conciliarists but when they are popes? Not so much. Who wants to be president of the SBC when it goes from 16.5 million to 6.5 million? Not on my watch baby! Let some other schmuck purge the rolls. If you’re president of 16.5 million Southern Baptists you’re more likely to show up on Larry King than if you’re president of 6.5 million Southern Baptists. I’m not alleging anything here but just exploring the psychology of the process.
No body likes church discipline. It’s an unpleasant business. Anyone who takes pleasure in church discipline probably has a problem and don’t give me any pious nonsense about how “I always take pleasure in serving the Lord.” No one enjoys sitting across from a wayward member (if one can find him) and warning him that he is about to be suspended from the table or worse. No one enjoys that kind of conflict. It’s a form of spiritual warfare. If we remove member x, then p or q might happen. Yes, it might. So what? Whose church is it anyway? Did you establish the church? Did you redeem the church? No.
Officers (pastors and elders) must be willing to do it and members must be willing to let it be done. When we joined the church we agreed to submit to discipline. Those membership vows weren’t meant to be theory. “But the pastor is a sinner!” So? By whom did you think discipline was going to be administered, an angel?
The church belongs to Jesus. He instituted forms for discipline. We’re never going to be perfect in this life and we’re never going to get it right all the time, but discipline is one of the marks of the church. It’s a form of self-denial (mortification). Let us die to self, to numbers, and live to Christ who bought the church with his blood.