One of the highlights of my year is teaching the membership class to prospective members. Typically we offer the class during three different months and it lasts 4-weeks each. During this time, I find great value in interacting with the new members who are pursuing membership in our church. I likewise enjoy teaching on the doctrine of the church and explaining the importance of a proper ecclesiology. Not only do I find value in it, but I believe the prospective members do as well. This class provides value to our whole church.
Guard the Front Door
In the church culture that I grew up in, joining the local church was not that difficult. It was more difficult to join a little league baseball team than it was to become a member in the local church. That was true among many Southern Baptist churches. Typically families would walk to the front of the church at the conclusion of the service when the pastor would give a formal invitation and invite people to come for counseling or membership. It was common to see families or individuals walk to the front, answer a few questions, and be presented as members immediately.
The membership class works in a different way to go beyond a casual introduction to a more formal introduction that provides a proper context of the prospect’s background, spiritual condition, testimony of conversion, and life dynamics before becoming an actual member of the church. This is not a pragmatic method and it may seem strange to guard the front door of the church, but it’s a needful practice that prevents people from joining who could be potentially dangerous to the church.
Although the church should be open to anyone, there are exceptions. For instance, unconverted people are not welcome to join our church. Church membership is reserved for Christians and you don’t become a follower of Jesus by joining the church. Secondly, prospects who are not in good standing in their local church should not be welcomed into membership. Finally, people who come from different theological and ecclesiological backgrounds may need to be evaluated more intensely before welcoming them into the life of the church. All of this is for the health and unity of the church.
Introduction to the Church’s Beliefs and Practices
During the 4-week class, we take time to teach what we believe and how our church operates. The class is broken down as follows:
- Christianity 101
- The Church 201
- Distinctive Marks 301
- Becoming Productive Members 401
We always begin with a proper explanation of the gospel and this allows unbelievers to hear the good news of Jesus Christ at the beginning. On several occasions, I’ve had people go through the class and dropout after the first or second week when they realize that they aren’t a true Christian.
The class moves on to explain very specific distinctive marks of our church’s doctrine and ecclesiology that may overlap with other Baptist churches and will likewise be distinct from other churches in our community. We want prospects to understand how our church is served by a plurality of deacons and led by a plurality of pastors and this may not be something that some people are accustomed to and it’s good for them to hear it in the beginning.
Expectations and Responsibilities
The class ends with a focus on what is expected of members who come into the life of our church. We expect members to be productive and healthy as they contribute in ministry and promote unity among the church family. During the final class, we discuss spiritual gifts and how they are to be used in the life of the local church for the glory of God.
Finally, at the end of the process, each prospective member or family will meet with one of our pastors for an interview where they talk privately on a date set aside on the calendar for that particular meeting. During the conversation, the prospective member will be asked to share his or her testimony of conversion and to provide a simple definition of the gospel. We also provide an opportunity for the prospects to ask questions to the pastors regarding anything from the class or things pertaining to the life of the church.
In the end, the membership class provides a more healthy way of entrance into the local church. It is not fail proof—as I’ve had people lie their way through the new membership class, but it does provide a much more difficult process for deceptive people who have some motivation in joining the local church. In the end, I believe the new membership class is valuable for the prospective member, the pastoral staff, and the local church as a whole. We want new members and the church to understand the shared responsibility of membership from the very beginning.