(Thirteenth in a series.)

My own sin and repentance alongside the reform of Rosedale Presbyterian Church are central subjects of this series, but the path each chapter of the story takes will include other parts of our life together there in the dairyland of Wisconsin. The timeline won’t be perfect. Some chapters later in this series will go back and recount things that happened prior to previous chapters.

That said, two years after ordination and taking up the call to serve Rosedale’s yoked parish, our session set about cleaning up our membership rolls.

Since everything today is subjective and deeply personal, particularly “spirituality” and “religion,” it hardly seems fair to put numbers to work in understanding the health or disease of any congregation.

  • “So what if there are only seven people in Sunday corporate worship. Don’t those seven souls matter?”
  • “So what if the congregation is all elderly people? Don’t elderly people matter?”
  • “So what if the congregation hasn’t had an adult baptism in twenty years? Shouldn’t we be just as thankful for infant baptisms as we are for adult baptisms?”
  • “Well yeah, our last seventeen pastors have stayed in our pulpit an average of one year, but that doesn’t mean we’re a pastor-killing church. Maybe our next pastor will stay seventeen years himself or herself? You can’t make generalizations about our church based on seventeen pastors. Maybe the eighteenth will love us? Numbers aren’t everything. Churches and their souls are more than numbers!”

In fact, though, church statistics can reveal otherwise avoided or neglected truths.

In the second church I served, it never occurred to me to chart the names of members of each year’s Nominating Committee going back ten or fifteen years. Then, a few weeks prior to my resignation, I went into the church files and did the numbers. What a revelation. One unremarkable family had either the husband, the wife, the daughter, or the daughter’s husband as a member of this committee of eight or so, choosing the deacons and elders year after year.

The past twenty years or so, I’ve become increasingly interested in that discipline called “economics.” It’s seemed to have escaped some of the more awful declines in truly critical thinking the other departments in the humanities have embraced, and it’s my suspicion this is, at least partly, due to economists letting the numbers have their say. One recent summary of the history of the discipline celebrated the primacy of empirical research in its pursuit of truth. Our Lord did something like the numbers when He warned the disciples, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26).

Back to Rosedale. One numerical fact distinguishing mainline from Evangelical churches back in the eighties was the ratio of membership to average worship attendance. Evangelical churches tended to have worship attendance significantly higher than their membership whereas it was common for mainline churches to have worship attendance somewhere between a quarter and half their membership. (Back then, Evangelical churches hadn’t yet given up membership vows and discipline, trying to ape the awesomely successful parachurch organizations.)

The membership rolls of both Rosedale and First Presbyterian churches were laden with Christmas and Easter Christians. The only other times you saw these folk were funerals and weddings, and that was just the way things were.

Soon after moving into the parish manse next door to First Presbyterian, I was playing with the kids in the yard when a baby blue Camaro pulled into the driveway. There was a young blonde in the passenger seat, a scruffy dude behind the wheel, and a pair of large velvet dice hanging from the rearview mirror. They stopped and the passenger window went down, so I walked over and leaned down to ask if I could help them?

The driver sized me up, then said, “Are you the reverend?”

“Yup, I’m the pastor,” I answered.

“Me and the girlfriend is fixing to get married and want to know if you’d do the wedding?” Turned out she was the daughter of one of our Christmas and Easter members, so I was her pastor. She’d told her boyfriend “the reverend” would do their wedding.

As time went on, my conscience began to bother me about these souls. The first year, I was opening the mail at the beginning of January and found an envelope from a woman I’d never heard of who had carefully written on the outside of the envelope, “Membership Dues.” The check inside the envelope was the price of her continuing to be a member in good standing of First Presbyterian Church.

If I asked the session of First Pres. to begin to visit their inactive members for the purpose of raising the matter of those members’ absence from worship, it seemed unlikely they would approve. Visiting friends and neighbors in a village of 1,500 in order to remind them of their membership vows was almost as much a violation of the social contract as asking someone, “Are you a Christian?”

Still, it’s interesting that around that time I’d been reading through the session minutes going back a century, and I’d found the record of a disciplinary case in which, somewhere around 1915, a man had been excommunicated because he’d not been faithfully “attending the Lord’s Supper.” Across the intervening years, the meaning of membership vows had changed.

Rosedale was a different church, though. It had brought in a lay witness mission years earlier and that gospel preaching was still bearing fruit. So I had hope as I brought up the membership roll with the elders, asking if we couldn’t start visiting our inactive members?

The elders proved to be in agreement that it was our duty to visit these souls formally associated with our flock, and thus the work began.

(Thirteenth in a series.)

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