INDIANAPOLIS – Southern Baptists overwhelmingly adopted a resolution Wednesday that urges churches to maintain accurate membership rolls and repent of any failure to do so.
The resolution on regenerate church membership would count believers who have been baptized and are born again while cleaning the rolls of inactive attendants or those may have gotten wet in baptism but have not truly professed faith in Jesus Christ.
Dr. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, praised the resolution, calling regenerate membership central to Southern Baptist identity and cautioning against what could happen if churches consider anyone in the pews as members or true born-again believers, pointing to the secularization of Europe.
"It's a great thing when Southern Baptists come back and say who we are," Mohler said just after the vote at the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting.
The resolution passed with two amendments, including one that added language of "believers-only baptism by immersion," the Lord's Supper and church discipline. A second amendment adds language that notes only 6.1 million people out of 16.2 million members attend worship service in a typical week. It also calls churches to "repent of any failure among us to live up to our professed commitment to regenerate church membership and any failure to obey Jesus Christ in practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members" and encourages "denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior's teachings on church discipline, even if such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches."
In previous years, the resolution was not enthusiastically received as it was either rejected by the messengers – representatives of local SBC churches – or not even considered for a vote. But with baptisms down for the third straight year and a membership dip in 2007 after decades of growth, Southern Baptists have overwhelmingly come out in support of regenerate membership.
"When we're not seeing people come to Christ and being baptized, something stirs in our hearts and it hurts," said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research. "People never change until the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of change. I think the pain of staying the same is getting to become a reality and now people are saying 'We're going to change.'"
Newly elected SBC president Johnny M. Hunt believes this year's annual meeting has helped them to see things as they really are.
"I think this is kind of an alarmed setting … where we see our ship sinking. We're declining," Hunt said.
But at the point of decline, more Southern Baptists are expressing optimism and sense the denomination stepping up to face the challenge.
"I am encouraged," Stetzer commented on his blog regarding what he's been witnessing at the SBC meeting this year.
And when comparing the membership trend with other mainline Protestant denominations, the pattern is not the same, some Southern Baptists say.
"We're not experiencing the hemorrhaging of other denominations that are literally losing members by the millions – United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)," Mohler noted. "I don't say that arrogantly because there's no reason to believe that if Southern Baptists are not faithful to the Gospel that we will not follow the same trajectory, but I'm confident that Southern Baptists will not."
Mohler partly attributes the hemorrhaging of members and churches in other denominations to liberal theology, which he says leads to decline and death.
Meanwhile, the SBC is aiming to refocus on the Gospel and re-emphasize the covenantal aspect of membership even if some numbers are knocked off the 16.2 million-membership roll.
"The last thing we need to worry about is the numbers in this denomination," Mohler stressed. We need to worry about the individuals, he added.