Celebrating the Inactive List
by Daniel L. Bohlman
What do we do with our inactive members? One pastor sees these members as evidence of a congregation risking to live in the "messy field of grace."
Each year I collate the information for the synodical report and get a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. I know that the numbers aren't going to add up. I'm right. The number this year is 25. Wow! Twenty-five absent members (we call them absent members, rather than inactive, because we know they're activejust not at church).
Conflicting emotions pass through my body. I become a Jekyll and Hyde. I pray for them, feeling sad that they don't find the church important. Then I grow angry and say things like, "Lazy bums! And when you go to get a pimple on your butt removed, guess who you'll expect to be there to pray you through the whole thing!"
But this Jekyll-and-Hyde attitude gets me nowhere. So this year I concluded that I had to figure out what to do with this group.
Following a local ministerial meeting, I asked a Mennonite pastor how he and his church dealt with this crisis. He laughed and told me they didn't have membership lists, therefore no absent members.
"Great idea," I said to myself, until I thought about it. For, as frustrating as that list is, without it this particular group would fall through the church cracks. Not only that, but I could too easily wash my hands of them. The list was a problem, but the list was more importantly made up of people: living, breathing children of God. Getting rid of the list simply wasn't the answer.
Another pastor told me she simply took the absent members off the roles at the end of the year. Therefore, her synodical report was clean as a whistle. Yet, this method didn't seem to have much compassion in it.
So, our congregation set out to bring our absent members back. We attempted a number of programs. Some of our efforts had mild success.The one constant I found was, whenever we got someone off the list, someone else seemed more than happy to take their place. I began to think that there is an unwritten law in our church that says that list has to stay at 25!
Meanwhile, a new church began to sprout up in our community. To join, all you have to be is: holy. It is being built by a group tired of rubbing shoulders with unholy people and being connected with "spiritually corrupted institutions" at a local or national level.
With pinpoint accuracy, they speak to specific people, asking them to leave their present church and join them. None of these are people on our inactive list! The assumption can be made that this group believes that the church has been corrupted by the presence of too many sinful people. Their answer is to clean up the church by making sure only the clean enter it. Never before have our "inactives" stood out as starkly as they do now as I watched the new congregation with 50 members have 50 in attendance each Sunday.
Nevertheless, my feelings changed when I heard about their incredible, albeit unwritten litmus test they have for church membership. It lacks compassion, and it lacks outreach.
|Was it possible that our inactives were not "problems," but rather a testimony to our belief that the church is not primarily a home for saints but a community of sinners?|
An "Aha" Moment
It was at that moment that I had one of those rare "Aha!" experiences. Was it possible that our inactives were not "problems," as I had labeled them, but rather a testimony to our belief that the church is not primarily a home for saints but a community of sinners, struggling and wrestling with many things, including faith? And we were letting them wrestle in the confines of our safe, loving, and patient community.
In that light, I took a new look at our membership role, the active and the inactive, and believe it or not, I started to celebrate what we had.
Whether true or just legend, it is said that early in the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther was confronted by another Protestant leader. This individual felt that only proven Christians should be allowed to enter the church. He was concerned about who Luther was letting in.
"If a dog should happen to wander into the church on Sunday," Luther reportedly replied, "I'll preach to it, too."
That same individual pointed out that Luther had some hypocrites in his church. Luther admitted that that was no doubt true, but because he couldn't figure out who they were, he decided to let everyone stay and leave the separating to the Lord on the Last Day.
I believe that sentiment is biblical. Why, if we want all people to hear the message of salvation, would we want to shut the doors to the one place that proclaims it?
The new church in our community says, "Read our commandment list, memorize it, straighten up, fly right, or leave." A church reaching out in grace says, "Oh, there you are. We were worried about you...come on home...come on...this way...that's it...no, no...not that way...this way...that's right." Living in grace realizes that sometimes the sentence ends with "darn it."
The Membership Issue
Living by law or grace directly influences who is allowed to join the church. Sometimes people say, "All are welcome, but membership is different."
I understand what they are saying, but I find two problems with that statement. First, I find that those who don't meet the requirements for membership are really not welcome into the worship service on Sunday.
A case in point is found in a comment made by one of the leaders of the new church mentioned above, who one day commented at the local eatery, "I guess we'd let gays in, but they can't join anyway." Call me silly, but I don't think they are going to have to worry about ministering to gays and lesbians in their church with such a standard.
Second, some say, "Membership is important and people must understand the commitment involved." But at what cost? How stringent are we going to be about church membership? I live in an area where the majority of people in the community are not connected to a church. Nevertheless the principle of "home church" remains important.
When people do get a desire to go to church (I trust from the Holy Spirit), those not connected to a church may go to the Yellow Pages. Without knowing anything about the churches listed, my guess is that it overwhelms them, and most of themrather than wrestling with where to gosimply put the phone book away and roll over for another hour of sleep.
However, people who are connected, even in the loosest way possible, to a congregation will know where to go. Because the church still valiantly sends them the church newsletter, they know what time worship is as well.
I have come to the conclusion that I would rather have people come to church twice a year as "members" of our church than never come to church at all. Understand, I'm as particular as the next person. I want a tidy membership list with a high percentage attendance, but I believe God celebrates the occasional visit, so I will rejoice in it too, and will have to learn to put up with the messy end-of-the-year numbers.
Say 10 people join the church. This group's commitment seems weak, but they want to join anyway. So we welcome them. In the end only 1 of the 10 remains active. Is it worth it? To that 1 it is, and the other 9 will still call the church home (for the next 60 years!) and will visit their family now and then.
Before you say, "One out of 10 isn't very good," let's not forget Jesus' parable of the lost sheep.
I've been a pastor for 14 years now. I continue to be amazed at who has risen to leadership positions in our church. One high school studentwho rarely came to church but joined our youth program only because she wanted to go to the churchwide youth assembly in New Orleansis now a sophomore at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She has a mind that puts mine to shame and plans on going to seminary after she graduates.
Judging someone's spiritual potential is a game that the church would be better off not playing. So, let's just let everyone play and let the spiritual chips fall where they may.
Risk of Getting Used
During my internship in Glasgow, Montana, I worked at a church that was located near some railroad tracks. Because these tracks were a crossover point for north-south and east-west travel, our town attracted a lot of transients who were in need of food as they waited for their next ride.
Each day our church had at least two transients come to our church. Other churches in the community were involved in this ministry, and we eventually discovered that some of the transients were going from church to church and gathering in quite a harvest.
In response to the problem, our local ministerium set up a program, in which each transient person could go to the local store and get food, but only once.
Still, the program wasn't foolproof. On one occasion as a transient left the church office, my internship pastor said to me, "I'm pretty sure I just got taken for a ride." I asked him if that bothered him. With great wisdom he replied, "No. I find if I don't get used at least half a dozen times a year, it means my heart is growing cold and cynical."
We are going to be used at times. But, so what? The alternative to being used is to never be used, and how many times will we have to turn away people who really do need our help to achieve that? I think the answer is far too many.
Here in Argyle, we have people join our church because they want to get married in it. After the pre-marriage counseling and the wedding, we don't see some again (though others have remained part of the congregation and matured in the faith).
We have parents join to have their child baptized. Despite our continued ministry to them, we don't see them again until they have another child, or the child reaches Sunday School age. Yes, we have our Christmas-Easter members, and members who are invisible until they get ill and need prayer.
And worst of all, I sometimes get calls from funeral directors saying, "The family tells me that Joe was a member at your church." And all I can say is, "Really?"
The church is always at risk of being used. A good church is used often. When in doubt we will do the marriage and baptism, give the child a place at our Sunday School table, and marry and bury him or her. We will make sure that on the rare occasions such families do come to church, the church will be there for them. We find our presence and openness is often just what the Spirit ordered.
Is that fair to all the other members? Not necessarily, but so what? We aren't in the fair business; we're in the grace business, and sharing grace means being used at times. Ask Jesus.
I'd love to someday go through the synodical report and have my numbers work out so it would show no inactive members. How wonderful to be able to say, "Everyone at our church is just cooking with the gospel message of Jesus and doing their part in the body of Christ." But, I don't anticipate that happening any time soon.
So, my only alternative, I believe, is to write the number of inactives on the report with a flair and celebrate the fact I am part of a church that is willing to risk playing in the messy field of grace.
Daniel L. Bohlman is pastor of Argyle Lutheran Church, Argyle, Wisconsin.