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The Next Big Southern Baptist Debate: Purging the Membership Rolls

Shrinking numbers may get even smaller – and that’s good news for many Baptists.

I was wrong. The election of Johnny Hunt as president of the Southern Baptist Convention did not actually generate much analysis in the Baptist blogosphere. Instead, almost all the discussion is about a resolution on church membership numbers.

Numbers were a key theme of the meeting this year, and none were good news:

  • 9,500: Expected number of "messengers" (delegates) at the convention.
  • 7,200: Actual number of messengers.
  • 419,342: Baptisms in Southern Baptist churches in 1999.
  • 345,941: Baptisms in 2007.
  • 5.5%: Drop in baptisms between 2007 and 2006.
  • 3: The number of consecutive years in which baptism numbers have dropped in the SBC.
  • 22: Number of years that outgoing president Frank Page says it will take, given current trends, for the SBC to lose half its churches (from about 44,000 to 20,000).
  • 39,326: Drop in membership Southern Baptist Convention between 2006 and 2007.
  • 10: Years since the last drop in membership.
  • 2: Number of years SBC membership has declined since 1926.
  • 16,266,920: Members in 2007.
  • 6,148,868: Southern Baptist members who in 2007 attended a primary worship service of their church in a typical week.

Those final two statistics really drove the resolution "On Regenerate Church Membership and Church Member Restoration."

The resolution, which calls for churches to "maintain accurate membership rolls" and exercise church discipline "even if such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported," was submitted in two previous years but failed in both cases.

Critics had earlier argued that purging the membership rolls could hurt evangelism - after all, if there are "unregenerate" people in the pews, they're the ones who most need to hear the gospel. Other critics complained that such a resolution would violate the fundamental Baptist value of the autonomy of local churches.

But this year the convention passed the resolution by an overwhelming margin.

There was some debate over an amendment to the resolution calling for churches "to repent of the failure among us to live up to our professed commitment to regenerate church membership." The resolutions committee had opposed such wording.

"We felt it was not proper to ask our entire convention to repent when there are many godly, conscientious pastors ? that are actually exercising this stewardship from the Lord of their flocks and of their fellowships," committee chairman Darrell Orman explained.

But Tom Ascol, the main force behind the resolution, said every one needed to repent.

"If we need to repent over anything in the Southern Baptist Convention, it is true that we need to repent over how we have failed in maintaining biblical standards in the membership of our churches," he said.

After all, pastors reporting only "regenerate" membership probably still refer to the Southern Baptist Convention as having 16.2 million members, even though those pastors probably know that number is inflated.

Union University president of David Dockery, whose speech at the convention is largely credited with giving the resolution a boost, told The Tennessean that the SBC would likely lose a million members once the membership rolls were cleaned up.

But the number may be much higher than that. Millions of members (about 7 million, according to one site) are "non-resident," meaning they do not live near the church that calls them a member. Millions more are completely inactive, and still more attend only occasionally.

Convention speakers repeatedly spoke of that phenomenon as a scandal. "We are not even winning our own sons and daughters like we should," North Carolina's Al Gilbert said in his Wednesday sermon. "We have incredible numbers of people on our rolls that are inactive and probably lost."

To see the looming battle in SBC churches, put those two sentences together. Saying its time to purge the rolls of inactive members or of those who have moved away is one thing. But actually taking Bobby Smith's name off after he moves away for college and stops attending church might not be welcome news to Bobby's parents.

(Another potential battle is financial: Distribution of Cooperative Program funds are partly based on churches' membership numbers. Rigorous accuracy may be costly.)

Johnny Hunt, the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, supported the resolution but said he was wary of its implementation. "There are two ways to deal with it," he told The Tennessean:

Some would say, "Clean up the rolls. If they're not going to come, take them off." And then what you have to deal with is we are living in a generation [with different views on commitments]. I probably minister to 10,000 people every 30 days; they're just not there every week. USA Today did a story not long ago and a person said if they go once a month, they feel they're active. I would not say they are, but I have to give them credit that in their heart, that's where they feel they are. I would like to see them more committed, but we work on that. We try to call them; we try to write those who are not coming. But I think what we are saying with regenerate church membership is we need to do a better job, and who would not agree? ?

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

The problem, says Dockery, is that churches are letting many goats think they're sheep: "One thing worse than people being lost in their sins is lost people who think they are saved because their names are on a church roll."

The resolution is nonbinding. Churches can keep reporting their membership numbers as they always have. But the gauntlet has been thrown. Answering the challenge won't be easy. A commenter on Ascol's blog notes the problem at one church: "[T]he constitution requires a 75 percent vote to remove someone from the roll (outside of death or transfer to another church) and only 50 percent-plus-one to remove a pastor."

(Note: An earlier version of this blog post indicated that the resolution passed "nearly unanimously." Several observers have since said it passed overwhelmingly, but that there were many votes against it.)

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