It was the second Sunday morning service I had ever preached as the lead pastor. I had been sent out with a small team of people to replant what was once a thriving First Baptist Church. Over the years it had dwindled, closed its doors, and gave away its property to the church I had been serving while in seminary. At the end of Sunday’s service, I happily announced that we would be offering a six-week membership class if anyone of our visitors would like to officially join our new church plant’s membership. I had worked diligently in the months previous to create a membership class that would help us to better shepherd potential members to understand and join our church body, but I had no idea just how essential this membership class would become for our fellowship.
On this second weekend as a lead pastor, I found myself for the first time on the receiving end of a very angry woman in the church parking lot. I don’t know that I will ever forget the petrified look of a teenage parking lot greeter as this elderly woman angrily yelled about what she had just heard. As I approached, she exclaimed in her shock, “A membership class! Why do I have to take a membership class?!” She had never seen such a thing. In her experience, church membership protocol required only a walk down the aisle and verbal consent to being a Christian. This is a valid question that I think we should take very seriously.
At that moment, I offered what I thought to be a fine explanation for the benefits of a membership class. I explained briefly many of the points you will find in this article and in return, the elderly woman provided her argument for why she should not have to submit herself to such a class. With confidence and deep emotion, she exclaimed, “I have been baptized three times and you’re telling me I have got to take a class to be a member of this church?!” With that, she peeled out of our parking lot never to visit our fellowship again. In hindsight, what if our church had no standard for membership on that Sunday morning? What if membership protocol was simply that the potential member walk down the aisle and give verbal consent of being a Christian? This woman would have been stamped as an official representative of our church. She would have had a vote in important matters of church life. She would have been eligible for teaching in the children’s ministry as well as a host of other official serving opportunities. She would have entered into our fellowship with no understanding of what baptism is or what the church is and she would have done so with the same spirit of divisiveness she was putting on display in the parking lot that day. While I do hope that one day she returns and humbly submits to this requirement, I believe that I, as well as our church, were protected that day. While a membership class is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, there are many Biblical and practical principles that lead me to believe it is the best practice for our modern day churches.
Love for the Church
Jesus tells his disciples to “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves” (Matt. 7:15). Paul tells the Ephesian pastors, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:28-30). Paul also warns the Corinthians that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). In other words, one corrupted church member will corrupt the whole church. How do we practically abide by these Biblical principles as church leaders in a world where Jehovah witnesses, Mormons, prosperity gospel teachers, and post-modernists may all claim to “believe in Jesus” yet mean totally different things? In this world of syncretism, I believe that one of the best practices for church leadership in their efforts to “pay careful attention to the flock” is to establish a membership class in which potential members must be confronted with the essential doctrines and practices of the church before committing themselves to church membership.
Love for the Community
As we will see more clearly in this membership class, the great purpose of the church is to display God’s glory for the world to see. Church membership is the church’s stamp of approval for an individual who officially represents both the local church and the founder of the church, Jesus Christ, to the surrounding world. Jesus says that his followers should let their light shine before others, so that they may see their good works and give glory to the Father (Matt. 5:18). Peter urges the churches in Asia to keep their conduct so honorable that the world would see their good deeds and have nothing evil to speak against them (1 Pt. 2:12). Meaningful membership, where church members must complete a class and officially commit to a local body of believers, draws a dividing line between those who officially represent the church and those who do not. A pure and healthy church membership allows for a more powerful display of the Christian gospel to the surrounding community!
Love for the Individual
One of the first young men to go through the membership class came to our church desiring to join. He was a shy young man who had found great community and deep relationships with many of our church members. They were all church members and it simply seemed natural that he join as well. He had openly claimed to be a Christian since visiting our church, but in the first week of our membership class, we began to unpack the glorious truths of the Christian gospel. In the end, he was asked to go home and write out his testimony of coming to faith in this Jesus, but after hearing the gospel clearly he confessed that he had never truly put saving faith in Jesus. The Holy Spirit of God radically regenerated his heart that day and he went on to complete the membership class and was baptized into our church.
It is an unfortunate reality in modern day United States, that many morally “good” people simply assume themselves to be Christian since they are not affiliated with any other religions. They are not atheists, and perhaps they are most familiar with Christianity. Many others may have been to an emotionally charged worship service as a pre-teen or teenager at which they repeated a prayer and shed some tears, but they never truly grasped the gospel and went on to live a rather godless life. In 2 Corinthians 2:5, Paul charges the church to, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” A gospel-centered membership class provides a safe context for this type of testing. Far be it from us to foster an environment where false assurance runs rampant in our unconverted church members because we were unwilling to watch the flock of God closely.
Love for Christ and His Great Commission
Jesus Christ left us with this great commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). If this commission is our goal we must seek to not only evangelize the lost but to intentionally and actively teach church members all that Jesus commanded. One might argue that six one hour membership classes are too much of a commitment, but this argument comes from a consumeristic me-centered church culture that worships sports, entertainment, and comfort more than the Lord Jesus Christ. To be a faithful member of God’s people requires growing commitment, sacrifice, and obedience. A membership class is a wonderful and practical tool that helps equip us for such a task.
But How Does It Work Practically?
A membership class sounds like a great idea, but how in the world do we implement such a thing? We learned rather quickly that large class formats would be difficult to maintain. How do you keep attendance for a 6-week class and make sure that everyone is able to hear each session? How does someone make up a week if they have to miss? It got hectic quick, but we found a much better way forward.
All of our church members are called to make disciples and all of our members have been through the 6-week material. Rather than having 6-week classes led by a pastor, we have written a curriculum in such a way that any church member can lead someone else through the material in a one-on-one relationship. It is a fill-in-the-blank study with weekly challenges and an appendix in the back with the answers to each blank. Church members are encouraged to partner with potential members and go through the material at their own pace according to their own schedules. When a potential member finishes the material they have a final meeting with one of our pastors where they share their testimony of salvation, their understanding of the Gospel, and any questions they may have. This system has worked like a dream in our fellowship. It teaches our members how to make disciples, builds deep relationships within our congregation, and provides a way for new believers or seekers to learn the basics of the faith in one-on-one relationships. While this may slow down your membership process, it will increase the spiritual health of the members you are bringing into your church family which will lead to healthy church growth as those church members go on to make disciples in their sphere’s of influence.
Pastors may want to write their own curriculum and come up with their own system, but if you are interested in Joining Together our 6-week membership class, you can find it by clicking here. Much of the material in this article comes from the preface to the curriculum. There are many things we are intentional about in our local churches from welcome teams, to worship services, to child-care, but may we be all the more intentional in how we shepherd people into the membership with Christ’s body.
By His Grace & For His Glory,
Pastor Brandon Langley,
St. Rose Community Church