A few years back, I heard about a church that had grown concerned about their bloated membership. After years of lackadaisical accounting, the number had become unwieldy, even disingenuous. Their “official” membership tallied more than twice the average attendance—doubtlessly inflated by the dead, the derelict and the well-intentioned-but-never-there.
This discrepancy obscured the church’s identity.
So they came up with an idea: Let’s just zero out the membership and, over the course of time, let those who are still around re-up their commitment and re-join the church.
This approach, they thought, would slay two giants with one smooth stone: First, it would enable the church to reach out to everyone on their list and hopefully reanimate for some the desire to gather with God and God’s people. Second, they’d finally know the souls over which they were to keep watch, the individuals for whom they would one day be held accountable.
So over the course of a few months, they reached out to everyone and let them know of a date in the future when all who were willing would re-dedicate their spiritual oversight to this specific church. For many, this was a no-brainer; they’d never stopped attending. For others, God used the correspondence to pry them out of their apathy and into the pew.
But for some, the letters were returned to sender (or were ignored), the emails bounced (or were ignored), and the pleas for reunion fell on deaf ears, if they fell on any ears at all.
And so, before long, their covenant with this church was deleted with a keystroke.
THE GOOD NEWS
Though full of good intentions, I submit that what happened at the church above is pastoral malpractice. It flips Jesus’ “Lost Sheep” parable in Matthew 18 upside-down: “If a man has 100 sheep, and 99 of them have come back, does he not stay with the 99 and leave the one alone?”
It’s good to have a more accurate membership roll. But it’s best to pursue these non-attenders toward a specific end: removal if they’re attending another gospel-preaching church, restoration if they’re happy to return, and excommunication if they’re either unwilling to attend church anywhere or unable to be found.
In fact, I want to up the ante a bit: pursuing longstanding non-attenders—I don’t mean inconsistent attenders, but those who have been wholly absent for several months or even years—and excommunicating those they can’t find is a mark of a healthy church. Of course such pursuits can be done poorly and with a heavy hand. But this abuse should make us cautious and careful, not convinced the better choice is to do nothing.
This practice is entirely in accord with the Bible’s teaching on what a church is, what a pastor is, and what biblical love is. Even if the non-attender has no idea any pursuit or eventual discipline is happening, the church’s act appropriately warns those who are present about the dangers of pursuing the Christian life outside a local church.
With feathers sufficiently ruffled, let me provide a biblical rationale.
Text #1: Matthew 18:10–35
It’s crucial to understand the context of Jesus’ foundational teaching on church discipline in Matthew 18:15–20. As one pastor put it, “In the Bible, church discipline is a rescue operation.”
What precedes this bulk of teaching is the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus wants to put us in the sandals of a shepherd with 100 sheep in order to illustrate God’s pursuing love for his people. And yet, the parable raises a question: What do we do if a stubborn sheep refuses to come back?
The answer to this question comes in the next block of teaching: We pursue him, and if he persists in his departure, then we cast him out, treating him like a pagan and a tax collector. In other words, our relationship to the departing sheep essentially changes.
Excommunicating someone who has completely stopped attending is, in effect, giving them what they’ve asked for. It’s letting go of the rope they’re trying to pull out of our hands. It’s not forcing them to remain bound when they don’t want to be. At the same time, it’s also refusing to let them force us to declare them a “Christian in good standing” when, in good conscience, we don’t feel like we can.