What do you look for when admitting new members?

We’ve had a number of applications for baptism and membership lately (in our church, these are one and the same, the former only being waived if you’ve already done it elsewhere). Whenever people apply to be baptised or welcomed into membership, our church has a four-fold process. It runs this way:

  1. Interview with a church member
    • An ordinary church member is appointed to meet with the person requesting baptism. Only with a recommendation from this member will we progress to step 2.
  2. Interview with the elders
    • Two of the church elders will conduct a follow up interview based on the recommendation of the church member. Only with a recommendation from the elders will we progress to step 3.
  3. Announcement to the church membership
    • We announce to the church members’ that the individual(s) has applied for baptism/membership and that they now have a recommendation from one church member and two elders (or, it only occurs to me as I write, three witnesses; which seems accidentally biblical). We give the church a minimum of two weeks to go and speak with this individual about their application. We expect members to approach step 4 informed or on the understanding they will accept the recommendations at face value. We ask for any issues or concerns to be raised before step 4.
  4. Vote by the church membership
    • Finally, with everyone given the opportunity to conduct their own investigations to satisfy themselves, we ask the members to vote on the application for baptism/membership. A vote in favour will lead to the person being baptised/welcomed into membership at the next available opportunity.

The reason we follow this process is several-fold. First, we believe that it is the church – not the pastor alone, or just the elders, but the church – who holds the keys to the kingdom. It is, therefore, the church’s responsibility to welcome and remove people from membership. As such, we believe the entire church needs to be involved.

Second, we believe the church – to take Mark Dever’s helpful explanation – is an ‘assurance of salvation cooperative’. In other words, the church is affirming and denying belief. it is therefore important for the church at large to know exactly who they are voting for and what grounds they are doing so.

Third, we believe that only believers should be admitted to the local church; we do not believe the new covenant is a mixed one and the membership of your church ought to reflect the covenant to which we say we belong as far as is possible. These steps are, therefore, a safeguard for the church and for the individual. It is an opportunity to find out whether this person really is a believer and, if not, to save the church the damage of admitting them wrongly and to save the person the damage of being comforted and assured of salvation in their unbelief.

So, give all that, the question that follows is: what are we actually looking for in all those interviews? When we dispatch a member to speak with an applicant, what are we hoping they will ask? What do we want them to determine? What are the elders hoping to hear? What are we actually asking the church to vote on in practice?

Fundamentally, we are looking for evidence of genuine conversion. I have often said, I think the requirement for entrance to our local church is incredibly low. That is why we are certain that we ought not to admit people who cannot meet it. And it is surprising how few who claim to be believers seem able, despite the bar hardly being high.

So, what do we mean by ‘evidence of genuine conversion’? We judge that by two basic criteria:

  1. A credible testimony
  2. A basic understanding of the gospel

It is our view that if you have not grasped the essence of the gospel, you have cannot yet have come to Christ. Similarly, if your testimony is so incredible that it cannot possibly be believed, that would raise some serious doubts about your salvation too. But assuming you have a credible testimony and a basic understanding of the gospel, we would happily commend you to the church.

So, what is a credible testimony? It is not a story that has to be 100% convincing. It is not a story in which every minor detail ties in. We are not conducting a murder investigation, after all. We are looking for a credible testimony. Taken at face value, is the story of how you came to faith at all believable.

What is a basic understanding of the gospel? There isn’t a form of words we are looking for. Rather, we are looking for an understanding of the problem of sin, that Christ is the only solution to that problem and a belief that by his death we are made right with God. We would want to see some understanding of personal acceptance of these things. This can happen in a single sentence, it might happen through drawn out Q&A, but these are the things that we want to hear.

In my view, those two criteria are a very low bar. A believable story and a basic understanding of the gospel. It is amazing how many people who claim to believe in Christ and his gospel cannot hit this. But that is precisely why we have the process that we do. To help those who haven’t grasped the gospel to come to understand it and to assure those who have that they, as far as we can tell, belong to Jesus and may join with his people.