Two years after I moved to Chattanooga I received an email from a former student at a church I served in Hoover, Alabama (www.gvbc.org). A student wanted me to fill out a recommendation on his behalf to serve as a counselor at a Christian camp in California (www.jhranch.com). This isn’t an unusual request. I probably fill out recommendations, questionaires or write letters of commendation for individuals ten to fifteen times per year. Every time the request for information desired is rather auspicious, generally giving the prospective employer, professor or scholarship committee a rather vague notion of who the candidate is as a person.

But this particular request was actually quite invasive. JH Ranch wanted to know specific, detailed information about this student, imparticular, they wanted to know as much information as I was willing to divulge about this individual’s Christian character and walk with Jesus. Perhaps you’ve never had to write a letter of recommendation or fill out an extensive questionaire about someone, but let me say up front that there is nasty temptation to put the candidate in the most positive light possible. It is possible to present a candidate who stands, not on the merits of his/her qualifications, but a candidate whose substance is literally a facade of smoke and mirrors. After all, do I really want to be the one responsible for keeping someone from employment or landing the scholarship that will secure entrance into their dream college?

JH Ranch wanted to know if I thought this individual had a genuine relationship with Jesus. They wanted to know if I thought this individual possessed godly character. They wanted to know what I knew about this individual’s spiritual disciplines. In essence, they wanted to know how much I knew about this person’s heart. So I did the only thing that was appropriate. I told them the truth. I told them that I had not really been around this person for the past two years while they were at college, so I didn’t know much about their walk with Jesus. I told them that as this individual’s student pastor, this individual was playful, encouraging and sincere, but they I didn’t see real depth in their maturity or great desire in their pursuit of Jesus. They were faithful in attendance, but I did sometimes wonder how zealously they would pursue Jesus when they went away to college. Basically, I said enough that I was convinced, if JH Ranch was looking for a spiritually-minded person, they wouldn’t hire this applicant and I would be the reason why.

I thought about this this weekend as I read the following in our church bulletin about how a person can become a member of our church: By letter. If you are a member in good standing of another Baptist church, you may transfer your letter of membership. Let me begin by qualifying this. I am not bashing allowing people to join our church or any other SBC church by letter. But I am left with a nagging question: What does it mean to be a member in good standing of another Baptist church?

Sadly, I am afraid it means very little. The Southern Baptist Convention claims more than 16.3 million members, and while 60% of SBC’ers claim to attend church weekly or almost weekly (surely that is an inflated statistic; http://www.namb.net/site/apps/nl/newsletter3.asp?c=9qKILUOzEpH&b=1594363&rsCount=21&recordcount=3&page=3), reports from our local SBC churches indicate that 30% of less of its membership role attend regularly. Take the church were I serve for example. We have a membership role of 1001 members, yet we consistently average about 350 attendees on a weekly basis. Assuming that 20-25 people attending on a given Sunday are visitors, this means that 32% of our membership role attends regularly. 676 of our “members” are unaccounted for on any given Sunday. Factor in our shut-ins who are unable to attend, and there are an estimated 600+ people who claim membership at Concord who are invisible week in and week out.

This makes me wonder: if one of the 600+ members gets the crazy notion to go back to church, but for whatever reason feels uncomfortable returning to the faith family they’ve basically abandoned for the past ____ years, and they visit a sister Southern Baptist church and decide to join, can they join as a member in good standing? Does it really mean so little in most SBC churches that you can be a member in good standing and rarely, if ever, attend the church where you are a member? And what does that really even mean? And would most pastors and leaders know how to articulate the criteria for meaningful membership? And doesn’t all of this really reveal a crisis of epic proportions in our identity as baptistic Jesus followers?

I am thankful that, at Concord, we are taking positive steps to insure, as much as it depends on us, that incoming members are regenerate and intend to really engage and connect with other members at Concord for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom here in East Brainerd. Every prospective member must participate in an interview with our Pastor before they can join. The purpsose of the interview is to discern whether or not an individual has a biblical understanding of the Gospel, tell them about Concord, and then help answer any questions about how this potential member “fits” into this faith family. This gives us an opportunity to learn a little bit about this indivdual’s character and giftedness.

This is a serious process because once we become an individual’s pastor, we bear the responsibility of “keeping watch over (their) souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb 13:17). Which leads me to my primary concern. When sister Baptist churches request a letter for membership by a current member (whether active or inactive), why do we grant letters with such lack of serious thought, evaluation and consideration? Why is it that when an inactive member leaves our church, we never take the time to inform their new church family that this individual hasn’t been around and we have no way of giving any kind of accurate account for their current relationship with Jesus? Why is it that all it takes to be a member in good standing a most Baptist churches is a clean criminal record (in most cases) and an occasional appearance on Easter and Christmas?

Too often we treat membership, whether incoming or departing, like a letter of recommendation that is a mere formality to the process and isn’t really intended to serve any meritorous purpose in their inclusion or exclusion for membership. This is tragic and has become a malignant cancer to the biblical health of our churches. And like all cancers, if you are serious about living, we can’t neglect its growth. We must deal with it, and deal with it soon. We need to repent for not taking inclusion in the body of Christ more seriously. After all, when a person joins the local church, is that church doing anything less than affirming that they believe this person to be one of Jesus’ sons and daughters? We also need to repent for not taking exclusion from Jesus’ church more seriously. Make no mistake. We are at a crisis, and we cannot ignore it anymore, lest we lose the right to be taken seriously when we speak God’s words in this world.

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