Response to "Celebrating the Inactive List"
by Craig Van Gelder (September / October 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 5)
Five questions are raised to further the discussion on inactive parishoners
What should congregations do with people who show up as inactives on their membership lists? Daniel L. Bohlman attempts to answer this question in his brief article, "Celebrating the Inactive List." Years of frustration trying to deal with these people leads Pastor Bohlman to conclude that these people may, in reality, be "a testimony to our belief that the church is not primarily a home for saints but a community of sinners..."
I sympathize with his desire to keep the doors open toward inactives who may be struggling on their spiritual journey. But I am not sure that the author has systemically addressed the issue of inactives. At least five questions should be asked about his thesis.
First, "What is membership?" One Trojan horse in his article concerns our understanding of "membership" in a denominational church. He appears to accept the current practice of membership as a fait accompli. But membership, as we have enfranchised it, is inherited from the practices of Constantinian Christendom within European state churches and reinforced through Enlightenment notions of social contract theory and individual rights.
The biblical witness clearly moves toward being a disciple as the baseline for participation in the Christian community. The author's discussion would be served by more attention to the historical development of membership and its current practice.
Second, "How do we understand the church?" A second Trojan horse in the article deals with an understanding of the church. The author's language suggests that the church is a placepeople "come to church"where attending a worship service constitutes being considered "active" as a member. While worship is an important function of the church, and churches do gather as communities in specific places, the church is more than either a place or a function.
Perhaps much of the problem associated with "inactives" is wrapped up in our depreciated conception of what constitutes commitment to a Christian community: some level of attendance at a worship service. There is something more fundamental that needs to be addressed in thinking through the concept of inactivesthis is the very nature of the church as a community of God's people who are reconciled both to God and to one another in living relationships.
Third, "What are the biblical foundations for addressing the issue of inactives?" In his article, the author makes a single reference to the work of the Spirit, asserts some theological convictions, and offers one biblical example to support his case. The biblical example is the parable of the lost sheep, where in his usage he actually reverses the logic of the parable to support his point.
The parable is about seeking diligently for the one that was lost, not creating space for 9 out of 10 to get lost and call this "okay" as long as they still in some way consider a congregation to be their church. The lack of bringing biblical foundations to his discussion reinforces the two points made abovenamely, that the logic of the discussion may be taking place along fault lines that lead to unnecessary and unwise conclusions.
Fourth, "How do we communicate grace while creating a climate for meaningful accountability?" This is the real question that Bohlman seems to be trying to explore. While I affirm his intent of wanting to get at this question, I find his approach less than helpful.
By framing the discussion as a contrast between his congregation with a "new church in town," he creates a polarized argument that allows him to justify ending up where he does. I cannot say whether he accurately describes this congregation's actual views, but I do find his description of this congregation as not being illustrative of numerous churches today identified as "high-commitment congregations."
"High-commitment" congregations meaningfully call people into a grace-based encounter with God and to a Christian experience that pursues discipleship as normative for all Christians. They don't demand holiness as a requirement for membership, but they do present God as a giver of grace for holy living.
Fifth, "What are the reasons why people become inactive members?" The author leaves this question unanswered for the most part. The whole discussion about inactives, it seems to me, would be served by some careful research regarding reasons why people become inactive. Such research would be a helpful starting point for bringing the biblical, theological, and historical discussion outlined above to bear on the more substantive issue of what to do about inactives.
Craig Van Gelder is professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.