Archives For Church Membership

I Am a Church MemberWe live in a day where unfortunately it is hard to find committed churchmen (and women). I am talking about disciples of Jesus who build the rhythms of their lives around the local church and her mission in the world, who see the local body as the hub of their relationships and weave their identity intricately into their covenant community, who take the term “faith family” sincerely and live out its implications in everyday life. They are church members who don’t treat life in the body as optional, participation in the mission tangential, or recognized by others as nominal. They are faithful men and women committed to loving the church for which Jesus gave His life.

Last week at TGC13, I was given a copy of a new book by Thom Rainer entitled I Am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude That Makes a Difference.” Normally when I receive free books, publishers are clearing out inventory of titles not many people are buying (unless of course you come to one of my Band of Bloggers :)). But in this case, I became particularly interested in this little 75 page book because of its title (a slow reader like myself can finish this book in two hours).

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CovenantHealthy churches have explicit pre-commitments in what they believe (confession), how they live together (covenant), and how they are governed (constitution). Of course there is more that constitutes a healthy church, but I would argue it is critical from the outset that a church make clear these commitments based on the Word of God.

I’m grateful to belong to a covenant community seeking to honor the commitments we have made to one another. As a community formed by the gospel, we seek to live together as repenters and believers. This important to remember when it comes to living out our covenant commitments because no one of us grounds our identity based on our sanctification or our ability to keep those commitments perfectly. Even the commitments themselves speak to this. For instances, God commands that we forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. That assumes that we live in such proximate intimacy that we are going to sin against one another and be offended/hurt by one another (the Bible expects this). The proper response (which the Bible expects also) is to lovingly engage the one who has hurt/offended us and seek gospel reconciliation by making peace through repentance and forgiveness. Others include bearing one another’s burdens (context is addressing a sinning brother) and loving in ways that records of wrongdoings are not upheld and hoping all things at all times is applied.

This is important to remember because we are in danger of misunderstanding grace-based church covenant and making it into a condition-binding contract. In a church contract, when the conditions are not met by other members in our church community, you feel that you are justified in leaving that congregation in pursuit of a more perfect community. The irony to such a response is that such a response is a sinful reaction that dishonors the gospel. The person may feel justified in leaving because their feelings were hurt or was sinned against, but such justification has nothing to do with living in light of our justification by faith in Christ.

How many people have left their church family because they got upset with someone and could not do Scripture tells us to do? How many people have left because their feelings were hurt, the preacher stepped on their toes, another member failed to show sympathy and concern in a moment of crisis, and so on? How many churches were started not as a new work but as a sin-laden schism because blessed peacemaking seemed beyond the reach of those harboring resentment, fear of man, and self-pity?

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Al Jackson, one of the men I esteem highly in the SBC has written about unregenerate church membership in the May-June 2011 IX Marks e-Journal.  In particular, he spells out the consequences for meaningless membership.  Quoting Vance Havner, he says that “we are many but we are not much.” Jackson writes:

The Southern Baptist Convention is most likely far smaller than what we report. And our membership rolls most likely contain a multitude of unregenerate individuals. Our Baptist forefathers would view our present condition with shock and horror.

What are the consequences of such meaningless membership?

It Gives a False Assurance of Salvation to Multitudes

It is common for a man or woman to join a Southern Baptist church, but then to stop participating in worship and fellowship—sometimes for decades. Yet when the church says or does nothing, the individual continues to believe he or she is saved. This is the case because of our refusal to obey God in the matter of discipline.

We often say that we love inactive members too much to discipline them. Actually, our lack of discipline reveals our lack of love for these people who give little or no evidence of the new birth. Many such people are under the just condemnation of a holy God. This is the greatest and most grievous consequence of allowing them to maintain church membership without church involvement.

It Harms Our Gospel Witness

Hypocrisy within our churches is common, and Southern Baptist churches almost universally fail to practice church discipline. As a result, Christ’s bride is stained and soiled when she should be progressing toward radiance, holiness, and blamelessness.

Church history professor Tom Nettles has said that “holiness should pave the way for evangelism.” In other words, the holy lives of a congregation should undergird its gospel witness. Those who proclaim the gospel of God’s saving grace in Christ Jesus should be able to point to an assembly of believers who are new creations in Christ.

It Makes for Some Ugly Business Meetings

The typical Southern Baptist congregational meeting is characterized by routine motions and decisions. However, occasionally, when the Spirit begins to move in God-glorifying ways, unregenerate church members who haven’t been seen for years suddenly appear at business meetings. The result is not pretty. God-glorifying initiatives are halted, and godly pastors are often voted out. The occasions on which this has happened are too numerous to count.

It Hinders our Missionary Efforts

Yes, it is true that we have the largest number of missionaries worldwide of any American denomination. Our 5,000 International Mission Board missionaries span the globe. Yet this translates to one missionary for every nine Southern Baptist churches. In light of the Bible’s clear teaching on missions, is it unrealistic to think that every church should have a least one missionary serving internationally? More than 30,000 Southern Baptist churches have no missionary from their ranks. How can this be? Where is the passion to declare God’s glory among the nations?

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Last week, I took up the first part of the membership process, namely the membership application and class.  Today, I want to finish up the membership process by taking up the interview and congregational vote.  It goes without saying that these processes are always being evaluated and subject to change as we look to discover how to give faithful oversight and care to the health and growth of the church.

The Membership Interview

Grace is the first church that I have attended or have been on staff with that conducts membership interviews.  For many Baptist churches, a person is accepted into membership upon filling out a membership card and being presented to the church almost immediately.  I would argue that such approaches have played a significant role in the unregenerate state of membership in the Southern Baptist Convention.  But that was not the point of this post, was it? ;)  But all jesting aside, answering the why question for interviews will play a significant role in how you do them as well.

We schedule membership interviews throughout the week, and we generally do them before/after services on Sunday or in the late afternoon/evening during the weekdays.  At least two elders are present at the interviews (although we are looking at possibly doing it with just one), which typically last an 1-1.5 hours (depending if a couple is interviewed together).  The prospective member is asked to bring with them a written version of their testimony which we add to the application (we had already received).  Our approach to the interview is conversational and somewhat informal (it is intimidating enough for most people!).  The outline of our interview typically flows in the conversation like this:

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There are four major components of what I call the “Commission Continuum”–that is the metaprocess of kingly administration from beginning to end.  Those four components are assimilation, membership, discipleship, and leadership.  I just completed the first component of the assimilation process and want to address the membership process in a couple of blogposts.

Once regular attenders have expressed desire to become members of Grace, the process looks something like this:

a.  Membership Packet (with application for membership)
b.  Membership Classes
c.  Membership Interview
d.  Congregational Vote (during Members’ Meeting)
e.  Formal Recognition at Communion Service (last Sunday night of the month)

Membership Packet

Inside the membership packet, we include the following information:

1.  Membership Application
2.  Church Purpose and Vision
3.  Church Covenant
4.  Church Confession
5.  Church Constitution

I am currently working to add our church’s core values/practices and philosophy of ministry which includes being a church planting church and interweaving gospel, community, and mission in the fabric of our identity. We ask the prospective members to read through these documents, become familiar with them, and note and questions or issues they may have with these pre-commitments.  We also make these documents available on our church website (we plan on revising/editing our constitution and updating the language of our covenant later this year).  For those of you who would like to see what our application looks like, click here.  It is a simple, one-page application that prospective members fill out and give to one of the elders who assists in setting up the membership interview.

Membership Classes

In the past, we have held our membership classes on consecutive Monday nights, devoting 2-3 hours each night to instruction, discussion, and fellowship.  However, we are looking to rework the schedule for a Friday night-Saturday noon deal where the class can be taken in one weekend.  Although we have not done this yet, here is a schedule I have worked up in recent weeks:

Friday Night

6:00-7:30 Dinner with Pastoral Team and Their Families (Grace Gathered)
7:30-9:00 Session 1 (Who we are, what we believe, core values/practices)

Saturday Morning

8:30-10:00 Session 2 (How we live and operate, systems and structures)
10:30-12:00 Session 3 (What we are doing [ministry] and where we are going [mission])
12:00-1:00 Lunch with Deacons and Grace Growth Group Leaders (Grace Scattered)

The goal behind these classes are not simply to drill them with information about the church but to give them access to the leadership and gain a sense of life in the body.  With two opportunities to share meals with the church leadership, prospective members can have everyday conversation and learn more about the day-to-day lives of those serving the church whether pastors, deacons, or small group leaders.

Those who attend the membership classes will have various degrees of exposure to church life, but it is important not to assume anything, especially the gospel.  There may some, perhaps several, who are seeking to become members of your church who are unconverted, and it is through the membership class that they learn of their need first and foremost to repent of their sin and trust in Jesus Christ.  Another important aspect of the membership classes is the informal approach that can be adopted where they feel comfortable asking questions or raising issues they have without feeling embarrassed or intimidated.  Whether newly converted or believers who have been long-time members of another church, if you are careful and intentional in the various expressions of church life, people will have questions or express curiosity as to why things are done the way they are.

In my next post, I will conclude the membership process talking about the membership interview, pastoral assessment, and congregational vote.  For those of you do membership classes, I would love to hear how you do it (format, content, how often, etc.) and in general what your membership process looks like.  Thanks for contributing to this discussion!

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