Ok. Honestly, it really doesn't matter to me that much (to a certain extent) if you don't have the word Baptist in your particular church. I just want to know if the ideology of what it means to be Baptist (which I see as synonymous with Biblical obviously) is actually still in your local church.
One of the crucial marks of what it means to be Baptist is we believe the local church, so far as we are able to discern, is made up of regenerate members. Baptists believe in regenerate church membership.
I don't want to oversimplify the issue, but in many Southern Baptist Churches today (a denomination of which I am happily a part of, albeit burdened by the state of our churches), it's very easy to 'get in', and very hard to 'get out.' For example, any 4-year old who can say 'yes' to the right questions, can get baptized in many churches. And that same 4-year old can grow up, have 3 wives, become an alcoholic, not attend any service for 5 decades, die, and still have the phrase 'member of First Baptist ______' on his obituary. It's easy to get in, and hard to get out.
As we consider revitalization (or reformation or whatever word you'd like to use) in our established churches today, I think one of the things vital for us to consider is that we need to flip the script. It's time to put Baptist back in the church. We can't accept the implicit mantra of 'easy in' and 'hard out' present in so many of our churches. It's time for it to be hard to get in, and easy to get out.
Here are three ways for us to do this:
1. Baptism -
I mentioned the 4-year old example above. This is because in the SBC "the preschool age group saw a 96 percent increase [in baptisms] from 1974 to 2010" (source). Thankfully, that trend tapered off a little from 2005-2010, but I still think it's a major issue. Can a 4-year old be born again? Absolutely! They are just as dead in their trespasses and sins as a 94 year old. It takes the same sovereign regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in either case.
But, how do we as a local church discern whether or not a 4 year old is really a Believer? Are we supposed to just take someone's word for it that they are a Believer, and if so, Baptize them? I really believe this is what a lot of churches think. Like, the one unpardonable sin in the church is to question the validity of someone's profession of faith. And yet, Jesus gave to the local church the keys to the Kingdom! (Matthew 16:19).
Not that we should mimic everything in the few centuries post the New Testament, but some churches in that era would catechize people up to 3 years before admitting them to the Baptismal waters! Why? They wanted to make sure the church consisted of regenerate members.
It's time we make it harder to join a church by bringing Baptist back.
No, I don't mean that we add things to the gospel! I don't mean that we go beyond Scripture to make people jump through hoops that Jesus never intended for the church. But, I do think we must stop letting every person that walks down and aisle and says they are a Christian to enter the baptistery the next week. Especially in a culture like ours where what it means to be a Christian has been watered down (no baptistery pun intended) the last few decades. We need to recover the biblical teaching of conversion and then make that connection with Baptism. Let's do all we can to only Baptize converts. Seriously. Let's do all we can to only baptize converts!
I'm not saying every church must have a membership class, although that can be helpful, and a viable option. But I am saying each person who wants to join a church must have sufficient counsel with the Pastors of the church to ensure (as best as humbly possible and biblically faithful) that they are truly Believers. This counsel will have to consist of time with the person that exceeds a one 'afternoon' meeting. People can say all the right words and still be unconverted. We need to see people's lives and that they match up to their profession before we baptize them. Let's do all we can to only baptize people who are truly converted. Yes, I know my Paedobaptist brothers will vehemently disagree here, but at least give me the benefit of trying to press our denomination to be consistent with what we say we believe about Baptism.
2. Covenant -
You can read a lengthier defense of covenants here. Suffice it to say, true Baptists think of church membership as a covenantal relationship, and for centuries now have expressed this in formal written covenants for the church. Covenants are not meant to exceed the bounds of Scripture but they are meant to clearly define what membership in the local church is to look like in any particular era, and what is expected of church members.
In some Baptist churches a Church Covenant hangs on the wall and that's it. In others, the church covenant is missing altogether. However, it must be stated that a covenant exists in all churches. It's just that
somemany of those church covenants aren't healthy. They are nothing more than the informal agreement of "membership here means you get voted in by the church and try to come when you can but there really won't be any accountability from us to you or for you to us". Of course that's not actually written down anywhere, it's just implied.
So, in a truly Baptistic church, the idea is not "will we have a covenant or not" but "will we have a healthy church covenant or not?" While it might not be necessary to write such a covenant down, I do think it can be very helpful. Covenants show what sort of lives are expected of the members of the church. What the church's understanding of holiness is. How the church expects the membership to be accountable to one another, and to the leadership of the church.
But wait! Isn't that already in the Bible? Yes it is. But a Church Covenant sets down the parameters of how the local church interprets particular aspects of the Bible's teaching.
We haven't updated our church covenant in quite sometime, but when somebody wants to join here, one of the things I do is make sure they get a copy of our church covenant so that they can see we are trying to have a higher standard of church membership here.
We desire meaningful church membership. Of course, when you have people desiring to join your church and you walk through a church covenant with them, they may balk. They may turn and go to a church down the street. But it comes back to what we think the church is to be. And if the local church is to be comprised of regenerate members, we should expect them to act regenerate.
(A covenant sort of bridges point #1 and #3 because it both makes it 'hard' to get in and 'easy' to get out. For clarification, let's go to point #3)
3. Discipline -
In one sense, discipline ought to be happening all the time in the church. This is 'formative' discipline and takes place in the teaching of the church.
But what I mean by 'easy' to get out is corrective church discipline. I believe current Southern Baptist Church membership hovers just above 15 million today. It's hard to say how many actually are in church every Sunday, but it's been said that it's somewhere around 6 million.
Gathering with the local church is basic to Christianity. The fact that we have over 9 million people not regularly gathering with their local church in the SBC is appalling (here's a very helpful article from 2009). Here's one of the reasons a Church Covenant can be so helpful. The covenant should state (rightfully and biblically) that members are expected to regularly gather. If Jane Doe misses a week this doesn't mean you kick her out! But it does mean she is checked on. If she is persistent in missing and it's not for health or some other providential hindrance, she should be lovingly reminded by someone that she is breaking covenant with the church and being disobedient to Scripture. If she persists that 'someone' should take two or three others to encourage her to repent and come back into fellowship with the church. If she refuses to listen to them it should be told to the church. And if she refuses to listen to the church, she should be treated as a pagan and removed from the church rolls (Matthew 18:15-17).
When members of a church go against what they have 'covenanted' to do (see point #2!), it is time for church discipline. This also helps to show the purity of the church and shows how the gospel transforms a group of people into the likeness of Christ together.
We do need to be careful with church discipline and practice it according to how it is laid out for us in Scripture. It has been abused in the past. However, the issue in our churches isn't that church disciplined is being abused but that's it's completely absent. Try mentioning to someone about removing someone from the rolls and take note of their facial expression! Yet, we must be clear and bold: it ought to be much 'easier' for people to be removed from our rolls than it currently is. Baptists don't advocate for a sinless church. But we do advocate for a regenerate church. And the expectation of regenerate people is that they live a lifestyle of repentance. Believers do still sin. But when they are confronted with sin, the expectation is that of repentance.
Many churches don't practice corrective church discipline because they don't want to come across as unloving. The irony is, to not warn people of sin is the epitome of unloving. If more local Baptist churches were resolved to be serious about church discipline it would help stop the issue we have in some many areas of 'church hopping'. It was also be a great benefit to churches, individual Believers, and the Kingdom at large. No person who has his or her name on your church roll is guaranteed to keep that name there no matter what until they die. Membership should mean something. Furthermore, the issue is more sobering than that. Many who have their name on a church roll don't have it in the Lamb's book of Life. This is why regenerate church membership is so important to recover. When our church votes someone in as a member, we are saying "Yes! As far as we can tell, you are a Believer!" What a travesty that on the Day of Judgment so many will look at their respective churches and say "I thought you said I was a Christian!" For the good of people's souls, we must make it easier to remove people from fellowship with the church.
So much more could be said. But if we desire to see healthy churches in our convention, these are some steps that we are going to have to take. Whether you are a pastor, deacon, or layperson, how might the Lord have you work in your current local church to get Baptist back in it?
Currently, I'm reading through Baptist Foundations and I can't recommend it to you highly enough. We have a long history of faithful men who've gone on before us. We'd be wise to listen to them.