3. Don’t be territorial.
I’ve often heard that excommunicating non-attending members is spiritually abusive, that it’s evidence of a territorial ungodliness and a lust for market control. This is perhaps true in some cases, but not necessarily so.
In fact, a charge like this simply won’t stick to churches and pastors that are known for their big-heartedness. So, regularly send members to help other churches. Share your pulpit. Plant churches without your particular branding or ecclesiological imprimatur. Pray for other churches publicly. Don’t be a denominational shill. Build cooperative friendships across racial and theological lines.
4. Forget good intentions; depend on specific policies and processes.
As Don Carson once said, “No one drifts toward holiness.” Similarly, no church drifts toward health. This is why we need extra-biblical structures and processes that attempt to reflect and enact biblical teaching.
Membership classes, lists of members, a defined length of absence before someone is pursued—none of this is in the Bible. Instead, they’re attempts to distill the wisdom of the Bible into prudential processes.
It doesn’t matter how much you care about this in your heart of hearts if there aren’t any practices to back your conviction up. In pastoral ministry, there will always be something more pressing than, “Reach out to Member X whom we haven’t seen in six months.”
These issues are categorically non-urgent, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. So think through policies and best practices that will aid in this endeavor. Modify them to fit your context, and trust the Lord will bless your preparation.
5. Teach on the derivative authority of the church.
Your church and its members have real, God-given authority, which means we must exercise it soberly and carefully. Passages like Matthew 18:15–20 and 1 Corinthians 5 are clear: The decisions we make when we gather mean something.
But we must never forget: Our authority, though derived from the Lord, is not analogous to his. To miss this is to make the mistake of the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, when we teach on the church’s authority, we must stress that it’s real, but it’s also derivative and limited and errant.
Perhaps that member you can’t find and haven’t heard from moved last-minute and, as we all do, forgot to tell anyone. Perhaps they’re gladly serving in another church across the country. I’d guess these situations will be the minority, but they will happen, which is why we must constantly teach both ourselves and our people that an excommunication for non-attendance is not a declaration that Member X has been cut off from the Lord. It’s simply a declaration that, despite our best efforts, we don’t know where he or she is, and therefore must withdraw our affirmation.
I’ve never met a growing and mature Christian who doesn’t regularly attend a gospel-preaching church.
On the other hand, I’ve met dozens and dozens of professing Christians who never (or sparingly) attend church. Their lives are an experiment in spiritual subsistence farming. They’re not living in open immorality, but their confidence in their own profession of faith wavers by the day, as their last time regularly in communion with God and under the preaching of the Word floats further and further away. They’d probably never admit it, but they’re becoming incredulous even at themselves.
I suppose I could have said this earlier, but I used to be a member of the church I mentioned at the beginning. Years later, I remain deeply grateful for it, as God saved me there and discipled me under its faithful ministry.
And yet, I struggle not to be frustrated. As I type this, so many faces flicker in my mind, faces of friends who attended church with me. We went to youth group together, to summer camp together, to accountability group together. We were young and mischievous and stupid, but we were also trying to become serious, mindful and genuine Christians.
Then college came, and our lives meandered. Some went here; others went there; still others went nowhere. Sure, they started at one church, and then another, and then another. But after a while, their erratic commitment became non-commitment, and their non-commitment became lethargy, and their lethargy became paralysis, and their paralysis eventually started to look like death—that flicker of mindfulness snuffed out through well-intentioned inattention. As the years have passed, I wish I’d said more about this to them.
Once upon a time, all these friends’ names were on a list that said they’d spend eternity with Jesus. More than a decade later, this fact might seem incidental, detached from any substantive evidence, dismissible on a technicality or the statute of limitations.
But that’s wrong. Every name was written down on purpose—the result of a sober-minded decision that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the Living God, their Lord and Savior. This decision preceded a baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I don’t know if any of these guys got a letter or an email, and if they did I don’t know if they ignored it. But I do know what happened next: Their covenant was deleted with a keystroke.
Oh, how I wish someone had warned them what that meant.