Declining member attendance requires credible church discipline

In this video, Thom Rainer gives 6 reasons why church members are attending less frequently. Do watch it, it is quite helpful:

I agree with Thom that we don’t just have to accept this statistic of falling membership attendance as if there is nothing we can do about it. But I was also struck by the fact that he didn’t mention, at any point, the importance of church discipline.

If you run a membership class – and you really should – you will have outlined from the front door your expectation of members. Here, for example, you can read what our core expectations are of those joining our church. We expect six core things from our members:

  1. Attend regularly
  2. Prioritise communion
  3. Attend members’ meetings
  4. Pray regularly
  5. Give consistently
  6. Serve joyfully

Interestingly, most of these things become very hard indeed if we do not commit to #1. They all become much easier if we do. Communion, for example, takes place each week in the middle of our meeting. Our members’ meetings, generally, take place after our weekly gathering. We hold a prayer meeting before our weekly gathering and also include a time of open prayer within the meeting itself. We have a box on the wall of our main meeting room for people to put tithes and gifts in. There is also plenty to do each week in the service of others. Simply turning up on a Sunday will help you to fulfil most of these obligations.

That is why, for us, we take attendance very seriously. If somebody is not regularly attending – or, more precisely, is regularly missing – we consider it a breach of the membership covenant into which they entered. They will not simply be missing a service – though that is happening too and is a problem of itself for their own spiritual growth – they will also be failing to fulfil at least four of the six duties we consider essential to church membership.

That does not mean we simply wring our hands and wonder what to do. We are very quick to give a copy of our church membership document even to those who have only been coming for a couple of weeks to the church. We want people to know what we are about from the front door so that they can determine whether ours is a place to which they can credibly commit. When people approach us for membership, and likewise when we approach those who have been with us for some time, we take them through membership classes outlining their responsibilities in the church, what we expect of them and what they can expect of the church in return. We are also very clear on the importance of church discipline, both how and why we practise it.

What this means is that we have very clear grounds on which to bring a member under church discipline. If somebody is frequently neglecting their responsibilities to the church, we consider it a breach of covenant. Not only that, but it confuses those we are trying to reach with the gospel. It is, therefore, a matter of church discipline. Though such discipline would begin a private conversation with the individual concerned, if their non-attendance continues, they are ultimately removed from membership as one who has broken covenant, who does not wish to obey those commands of the Lord that can only be kept in a covenant relationship as a church member and whose testimony the church can simply no longer affirm.

Being upfront about membership from the front door – both its privileges and responsibilities – means that we have far fewer people seeking to join the church who take their membership responsibilities lightly. Likewise, church members know that they will not simply be permitted to remain in membership in perpetuity if they do not abide by their commitment to the church and the promises they made before the Lord when they joined. It means we do not have a drop in members not attending because we remove from membership those who would consistently trample over the promises they made when they joined the church.

Whilst I think Thom outlines many of the reasons church member attendance has been falling – and he does note they are not necessarily good reasons, just reasons – we can minimise the problem by being clear about expectations from the front door, holding people to them and enacting proper church discipline if they repeatedly neglect their responsibilities. I would suggest that if we are not willing to enact real discipline, then the measures that Thom suggests will ultimately be toothless.