Church Discipline and Church Growth

A call for the conscientious implementation of an intentional plan for church discipline

Wesley McDonald is pastor of the Berwick, Danville, and Northumberland Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Pennsylvania

From 1986 to 1996 the Seventh-day Adventist Church increased in worldwide membership by 83 percent. The North American Division registered a 22 percent growth, and the Pennsylvania Conference in North America increased by 12 percent.

But in the Pennsylvania Conference, three churches were an exception, growing at an astounding rate.

These three churches account for 35 percent of the total growth of the Pennsylvania Conference from 1984 to 1997. During that period they averaged better than a 300 percent increase in membership! One church grew by 469 percent, another by 400 percent, and a third by 181 percent. They increased in number by 136,128, and 105 respectively.

A comparison of the statistics of these churches with the rest of the churches in the conference revealed other interesting differences. Not only were their increases due to baptism, profession of faith, and letter of transfer higher than the average church in the conference but their losses due to apostasy, missing, and letter of transfer also appear to be higher in the statistics.

Armed with this data, I visited the pastors of these churches to see what these findings really meant. Why did their churches grow so much when the rest of the conference churches grew by an average of just seven members per church or 8.5 percent during the same 13-year period? Why were the apostasy and missing rates in the three churches so high, at 4.5 times that of the average church in Pennsylvania? Was there a relationship between their high growth and their apostasy rate? What did all this mean?

Soul stewardship

The factors involved with growth and retention of church members are many. Some of them are hard to duplicate or accurately quantify for every church in every area. Some factors are not easy to identify. Only a few factors are addressed in this report, and they are those which the statistics most clearly illustrate.

The visits with the pastors revealed that the three churches had proactive, Biblical "soul stewardship" plans which had been in place for a number of years. It showed that the plans were working. It also suggested that these plans could be implemented in principle by any church of any size.

"Did you know that your churches are at the top of the growth statistics for the entire conference for the last 13 years?" I asked the two pastors of the districts being studied. Both pastors responded that they had no idea that their churches were anything other than just your regular church. Neither pastor was aware that the growth rates in their churches were so high.

Both pastors indicated that they conducted evangelistic series every year. The head elder of the fastest growing church indicated that this year his church would be conducting two or three series of meetings. I learned from his pastor that most of the members of his churches had lower than average incomes and most of the money for evangelism came from the conference. The dollar amounts he quoted me for the crusades would in no way be considered high, especially when considering the yield in souls. Yet their soul-winning efforts were 17.6 times higher than the average church in the Pennsylvania Conference.

Dealing with apostasy

"What about membership loss?" I asked. "Not only were the baptisms and growth rates higher, but the number of persons disfellowshiped for reasons of apostasy was about 4.5 times higher than other churches. Can you tell me about this?" I asked the pastor. I wanted to know exactly how their churches dealt with members who were found to be in apostasy. The answers to that one question revealed a successful steward ship plan for souls that produced positive results for the kingdom.

All three pastors told me that just as soon as it was discovered that anyone in a church might be in some form of apostasy, the pastor and elders immediately went to the person involved to discern the circumstances. If the allegations were true, they would right then begin to work carefully with the individual. They would attempt to help the person see the importance of looking at and changing their life and again begin to live in harmony with biblical principles. About 30 percent of those visited would not have to be disfellowshiped. This process continued for an average of 6 to 12 months before a person would be dropped from the church's rolls, depending, of course, upon the particular situation. This meant that 70 percent of all found in apostasy ended up being disfellowshiped from the church after about 6 to 12 months.

"Then what happens to those who are dropped?" I asked. "Do they ever re turn to the church?" The response was, "The following 6 to 12 months are very important." During that time, the churches would respond in love to the dropped person. One of the pastors stated that every time someone was dropped from his church, he would urge his church to follow the instructions that Paul gave to the Galatians: "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:1,2). The person would be targeted for repeated visits by the leaders and members. They would especially be targeted for visits and invitations during the annual evangelistic meetings. I learned that anywhere from 50 to70 per cent of the 70 percent who were disfellowshiped were reclaimed during the first 6 to 12 months after being dropped from membership. Only a few could be reclaimed during the second year after being dropped. This means that up to 79 out of every 100 persons were re stored into harmony with the church two years or less from the time of their apostasy.

Early intervention

As may readily be seen, early intervention by the church is critical to the reclaiming process. A church with an attitude of indifference toward those who are troubled will permit them to proceed without intervention of any kind. Indifference toward such people in the church is seriously wrong. Proper church discipline is an act of love. "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him" (Lev. 19:17). "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten" (Rev. 3:19). The top three churches with the high est growth in the conference were very proactive in their love for one another. They would not allow someone to continue in sin without putting up a fight for the lives of the members they loved.

Churches indifferent toward wrongdoing in their midst will neither be effective in reclaiming erring members nor will they grow at a significant rate. Explaining why churches do not grow, Ellen White says: "The Lord does not now work to bring many souls into the truth, because of the church members who have never been converted and those who were once converted but who have backslidden. What influence would these unconsecrated members have on new converts? Would they not make of no effect the God-given message which His people are to bear?" 1

When churches are faithful in cultivating and preserving the spiritual integrity of the members whom God has already entrusted to them, they can expect that God will bless them with significant growth. Even more important is the fact that "soul stewardship" is commanded by God. "Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul" (Eze. 3:17-19). It has also been said: "If wrongs are apparent among His people, and if the servants of God pass on indifferent to them, they virtually sustain and justify the sinner, and are alike guilty and will just as surely receive the displeasure of God; for they will be made responsible for the sins of the guilty."2

Soul stewardship is not "book cleaning"

When a church gets involved in spiritual soul stewardship, including church discipline, the members and leaders need to know the difference between "soul stewardship" and "book cleaning." "Soul stewardship" involves a long-term commitment to careful, skillful, spiritual reclaiming of those slipping away, so that ideally disfellowshiping will not be necessary; but when necessary, it will be carried out consciously and conscientiously in a spirit of proactive love. "But he [the person who is moving away from God and the church] is not to be regarded as cut off from the mercy of God. Let him not be despised or neglected by his former brethren, but be treated with tenderness and compassion, as one of the lost sheep that Christ is still seeking to bring to His fold."3

"Book cleaning" is the lazy person's way out and involves nothing more than removing from membership those in error without an all-out effort to reclaim them either before or after removal. "Book cleaning" makes the church books look good but makes the church look bad where it really matters—in the estimation of God. "Soul stewardship" actually seeks to restore people and thereby makes the church look good to God and to the world. Proper church discipline and "soul stewardship" are the same thing and differ greatly from simply "cleaning up the books."

The gospel commission calls for us to "teach them to observe all things what soever I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:18-20). To simply teach all things would involve only instruction prior to baptism. "Teaching them to observe all things" involves a loving, lifelong commitment to caring that includes correction and discipline in many cases. Can a church really fulfill the gospel commission if it is not proactive in continuous, long-term, "soul stewardship"? Can a church really be the church if it has no active, ongoing, plan for reclaiming people who are in some way in the process of estranging themselves from God and His church? Why should God give us great numbers of new members if we have been unfaithful stewards with the members we already have?

It is not really possible to show God's love for struggling people without demonstrating God's abhorrence for sin. I believe that the three Pennsylvania churches illustrate, among other things, that God will bless those churches that show the full dimensions of His love. True love involves correction and discipline when necessary. When a church actually becomes God's light, then the Holy Spirit can be poured out, and many can be won.

1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1900), 6:371.

2. Ibid, 3:265, 266.

3. ————, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1898), 441.

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Wesley McDonald is pastor of the Berwick, Danville, and Northumberland Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Pennsylvania

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