What Should Church Councils Do About Members Who Disappear?

How many categories of members do we have in the Christian Reformed Church? What should councils do about members who disappear?

The CRC has two categories: baptized members and confessing members. Baptized members have been baptized as infants or as adults or at any age. Confessing members have professed their faith in Jesus Christ and affirmed the confessions of the CRC. Confessing members were also  called “communicant members” until 2011, when we disconnected partaking of communion with making profession of faith. Now all baptized members, under the supervision of their elders, are welcome to participate at the table in age- and ability-appropriate ways.

What about members who don’t participate in the sacrament, or worship, or anything else? Aren’t inactive members a third category? No, inactive members are baptized or confessing members who for one year have not made faithful use of the means of grace, especially the hearing of the Word and the Lord’s Supper, unless there are extenuating circumstances that make it impossible, like military service, nursing home residence, missionary service, or being away at school.

If members move away or stop attending for longer than two years and claim to have a new church but don’t transfer, their memberships can be lapsed, which is a technical term essentially meaning they are removed from the membership rolls of the church. But lapsing should never be used to avoid following up on people who slip away from the church. Sometimes elders discover lists of members who have not been around for years and become eager to go on a cleaning spree to “clean up the rolls.” This can be needed, but faithful, loving discipling all along would be preferable. The elders should always think first of the people involved and be very reluctant to lapse members who might then lose their official connection to the church of Jesus Christ and have their last experience with the church be a negative one. Better to reach out to them occasionally and give the Spirit time to work in their lives. Treat them with great patience, love and care—the way you would want the church to deal with your children if they were inactive members. And make these missing members of the church a matter of your prayers.

About the Author

Rev. Kathy Smith is senior associate director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, adjunct professor of church polity at Calvin Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin University. She is a member of First CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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