It is always said when people join your church and then, after some time, simply drift away. I wish the parable of the sower weren’t true, but Jesus wasn’t giving us an agricultural lesson about the most effective ways to plant crops. It is never easy, but it is nevertheless a reality that we have to contend with: some who join us will not go on with us.
If we follow the parable of the sower, most of the people we will deal with – who appear to go on for some time – will not be the stony path people. Such people never join with God’s people to begin with. The two types of people we must contend with who fall away are those who face some persecution or suffering and fall away and those who – though continuing to profess belief in Christ – simply produce no fruit and show no evidence of the Spirit at work in their lives.
In both cases, the truth is that the presenting issue (though exceptions exist) will usually be seen in a slow and increasingly frequent dropping off. Some of those without any roots may be hit by some form of suffering and drop off a cliff without warning. But far more common is the professing but unfruitful slowly but surely drifting away. There is no sudden departure, no specific point that led them away, just a creeping drift away, an increasing sense that anything and everything else is more important. If challenged, the person will no doubt still profess belief, still insist they love Jesus, but won’t take kindly to it being pointed out (no matter how gently) that there doesn’t seem to be any such evidence to support their claim.
The question is, what are we to do with such people? Their one in four missing leads, slowly but inexorably, to one in four being present. Their one in four present drifts further and further until there are people in the church who, it turns out, aren’t entirely sure who the person we’re talking about even is. They may show up periodically, every now and then, but it is clear their heart is not in it and their attendance is dependent on someone either contacting them and encouraging them to come or otherwise just based on their evident sense they had nothing better on.
It seems to me there are only a handful of options available to us when faced with these things, all of which we may want to employ at some point if matters persist. It also bears saying these things are particularly pertinent for those of us who believe in regenerate church membership. Those who evidence either in profession or action that they are not genuine believers must be addressed as such. So, in no particular order, here is what we might do.
The first port of call must be to follow up with the person. We need to know whether they have been away for legitimate reasons or not (I won’t go into here what those potential legit reasons may be). We need to know if there has been a real and genuine impediment to their joining with us or whether it is nothing more than a choice not to come. Is it a matter beyond their control or is it really just a reflection of their heart for the local church? Unless we try and speak with the person, we will not know.
At some point, it is worth asking directly whether the person actually wants to remain in membership of the church. If they say they don’t want to be a member any more, you are free to go to the church and tell them this person has no desire to remain in fellowship. If they say they do want to remain in membership, if you have undertaken membership classes and you have a membership booklet or something (and I would encourage you to have these things) you can refer back to these things. These are the things to which you agreed when you became a member. If you want to continue in membership, these are the duties and responsibilities expected of you. If they are serious about remaining in membership, I would expect to see some positive response and a sense in which they will seek to take those responsibilities seriously going forward.
The most basic thing we can do for a person is pray for them. After all, it will not be our clever argument or insistent cajoling that will bring anyone back into the fold. In the end, it is a work of the Spirit in that person’s heart. Unless the Spirit moves them to return, unless Jesus bids them come, they ain’t coming. The best way we can care for them is to pray that the Lord arrests their heart, their affections, and moves them to obey Jesus and love his church.
Don’t Operate Alone
Wisdom suggests that handling these sorts of issues alone is not clever. Before deciding what to do and how to approach the matter, speak to your elders. Talk together about the best course of action and determine, collectively, what you should do. It may even be, eventually, you need to go before the whole church. Whatever steps you take, make sure you are not making lone decisions based on whatever seems good to you. It is far too easy to brush off your ‘I reckon’, even if you are the pastor, and far harder to shrug off the collective, considered view of the eldership or the collective will of the entire church.
Remove the person from membership
In the end, regardless of their ongoing profession or their affirmation that they will take up their responsibilities, if there is no actual change and the person persists in not fulfiling their membership obligations, they should be removed from membership.
Some might consider it harsh to do this. Some might think it inappropriate to remove someone who doesn’t turn up. But in the end, it doesn’t do the person any favours to let them continue professing faith when the church as a whole sees no evidence of that faith in practice. We are, essentially, comforting someone in a profession that appears false. Nor does it do the church any favours, suggesting to them that the responsibilities Jesus gives to the church are unimportant matters that can be ignored or brushed off. Nor does it help the unbelievers in our community, who will be confused both by who the genuine believers are and what Jesus expects of any of them. In the end, membership is our way of drawing a line around the church and the world and we need to be careful that we don’t include those who – by all external evidence we have available – ought not to be included.