With its 16.2 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. But on any given Sunday, most Southern Baptists are missing in action. According to statistics released by the SBC in April, the average worship attendance in the convention is 6.15 million—10 million shy of the membership total. That is a problem, says Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida. Ascol believes that Southern Baptist churches have sinned by maintaining inaccurate membership rolls, and by tolerating inactive members.

Ascol was one of the most vocal supporters of a resolution favoring regenerate church membership that was approved at the convention's annual meeting in June. Regenerate church members have accepted Christ, been baptized, and are active in a local congregation. Proponents said that too many church members failed to meet that description. Ascol also successfully pushed for an amendment that calls on congregations "to repent of any failure among us to live up to our professed commitment to regenerate church membership and any failure to obey Jesus Christ in the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members." He said the resolution is the first step toward restoring church discipline. It's the next step—actually deciding who will be removed from membership—that will test the SBC's resolve to discipline.

Members of the convention's resolution committee opposed Ascol's amendment. Jeff Moore, pastor of First Baptist Church in Altus, Oklahoma, pointed out that many churches, such as his, already have accurate rolls.

"When I arrived we had 7,000 members," he said. "That was ridiculous." So Moore's church trimmed off 3,000 members from its list. Many of them had either moved away or passed away, he said.

Darrell Orman, pastor of First Baptist Church in Stuart, Florida, and chair of the convention's resolution committee, doubted that the resolution would lead to widespread purging of church rolls. "No one can tell Southern Baptists what to do," he said.

In response, Ascol said, "That's a sad reality. Even Jesus can't tell some Southern Baptists what to do."

Ascol pointed to a manual on church discipline by 19th-century Baptist theologian John Dagg.

"Dagg said that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it," Ascol said. "If he is right, that means that there are many congregations in the Southern Baptist Convention that are no longer churches."

Newly elected SBC president Johnny Hunt agreed that Southern Baptists have to do a better job of reaching out to members who have fallen away. But he cautioned against full-scale purging of the membership rolls. for one thing, he said, few church members are in worship every single Sunday. First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Georgia, where Hunt is pastor, averages 6,800 in Sunday attendance. But over the course of a month, he added, about 10,000 of the church's 16,500 members will attend at least one service.

"We have to be very careful," he said. "If you try to take this to the lowest common denominator, before too long, you'll find the pastors and the church leadership trying to separate the sheep from the goats, and only Jesus and the angels he assigned can do that."

Related Elsewhere:

Ted Olsen posted an analysis of the debate over membership rolls and the SBC presidential election.

Our other coverage of the convention includes "Southern Baptists Elect President, Dismiss Abuse Database."

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