I recently asked Pastor David King who is a pastor in Tennessee about his church’s work of cleaning up their membership roles. Here’s the interview:
David, I heard that you recently excommunicated 500 members from your church. Can this be right?
What you heard is only partly true. We actually removed 575 members.
Okay, why? What did they do? Can you give me the story in a nutshell?
Well, it's not so much what they did but what they didn't do. The members we removed were no longer actively involved with our church. Half of them had moved away, and the other half still lived in the area but never worshiped with us.
Inactive membership is contrary to what the New Testament teaches about the life of the church, so our action in removing members was motivated fundamentally by a desire to become a more biblically-functioning church.
What biblical passages are you thinking about? And why is such inactive membership “contrary to what the New Testament teaches about the life of the church”?
The language of membership in the New Testament is metaphorical. To be a "member" is to be part of a body (1 Cor 12:27) and part of a family (Eph 2:19). Both of these images depict vital relational connections. If we saw a foot in a jar on a lab shelf or met a daughter who hasn't spoken to her parents in twenty years, we would know in both cases that something had gone wrong.
It's odd that we lack this perception when it comes to members who no longer have any involvement with the church. God doesn't mean for any of us to amputate ourselves or to run away from home and imagine that all is well. In calling us a body and a family, we can be reasonably sure that God means for us to stick pretty close to each other.
Beyond the actual metaphors of membership, biblical passages abound that, if they are to make any sense at all, necessitate active involvement with the church. It’s not just about having your name on a roll. One needs only to read the Epistles and ask the question, "Is it intended that I would carry out the instructions of these letters in isolation from the local church? Is it even possible?"
If none of that is persuasive, Hebrews 10:24-25 is still in the Bible.
So how did you actually lead the church through this meeting?
In our monthly Members Meeting, I read a recommendation that included the names of all 575 members to be excluded from membership. The recommendation was seven pages long, and we took the time to read every name on the list. It was very sobering. Our by-laws call for a ballot vote in removing members, so we voted by ballot.
What preparation work had you done before the meeting?
In one sense preparation began over nine years ago when I talked to the church about meaningful membership before they called me to be their pastor. Throughout the years I have continued to talk about what it means to be a member as the subject came up in the texts I was preaching.
Last year, due to several unfortunate events within our membership, it became clear that we shouldn't wait any longer to do the hard thing. The pastors, with the feedback and approval of the deacons and then the church, outlined a process in which we would ask every member to reaffirm his or her membership based on our church's mission, doctrine, and covenant. Sermons were preached, letters were mailed, articles were written, contact lists were published, phone calls and visits were made, time was given.
Nine months passed between the beginning of our membership focus and the Members Meeting in which we voted to remove members.
Did you encounter much resistance before or during the meeting?
I don't know whether to laugh or cry about this question. Yes, we encountered resistance all throughout this process. Despite all the teaching, there are some brothers and sisters who believe that membership is more of a right than a responsibility and that we ought not remove anyone from membership except maybe in the grossest of immoral situations. Theirs’ is a principled disagreement. Others struggled for more personal reasons, as when the list of members to be removed included adult sons and daughters and grandchildren.
The pastor really shouldn't expect to whack a hornet's nest and not get stung. Thankfully, the majority of the church shared my belief that the pain of getting stung is worthwhile if it means we become more biblically faithful.
I have two more questions for you: first, having gone through this process, what final advice would you give to church leaders about initiating this kind of process in their church?
(1) Be convinced, utterly so, that the biblical nature of membership necessitates going through a process like this. You will need this resolve.
(2) Don’t allow fear to stop you. There might be other good reasons to wait in undertaking a process like this, but fear isn’t one of them.
(3) Evaluate your church culture as carefully as possible. Anticipate the fears and objections of your people. Get in their shoes so that you can lead with precision and compassion.
(4) Once you officially start the process, don’t go so fast that people can rightly liken you to a stealth bomber, and don’t move so slowly that Lloyd-Jones could’ve finished preaching Romans by the time you’re done. Try to run at a careful but deliberate pace.
(5) Don’t be naïve in thinking that your clarity and care will convince everyone that this is the grandest idea since fifth Sunday singings.
(6) Realize that this process is one of the hardest parts of restoring meaningful membership. Happier times are ahead, once the church actually knows everybody who is a member and learns to care for each other in such a way that you never end up in this situation again. Actually, I don't know if there is a shred of truth to this sixth point, but I'm choosing to believe it anyway. Check back with me in a couple of years.
My last question, then, what encouragement would you give to church members in how they can support their leaders in this kind of work?
I wouldn't encourage church members to blindly follow their pastor(s). But if they have seen their pastor's heart for the church and the word, then love him by listening carefully to his biblical teaching on membership. Help him to lead wisely through the process by giving him thoughtful feedback.
Also, I would encourage church members to believe that conforming to God's vision for membership will serve everyone better than merely trying not to upset anybody. Just because some will struggle with a process doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do, or the wrong time to do it. Be courageous, trust the Lord, give your pastor "atta boys" as you can, remember the importance of love and humility as you make changes, and go for it!
Thanks, David. Thank you for your faithfulness in seeking to love Christ’s sheep, love the non-Christian community around your church by presenting a faithful witness, and love Christ. I pray he would bless this faithfulness, and much fruit will come from it. I also pray that some of the 575 would repent and join healthy churches.