Some people like to spread it across several sessions; others prefer one longer event. Some like to take a lead; others prefer to centre more on the other person. Some rely on booklets and handouts, others prefer to improvise and respond to things as they go. Some prefer one-on-one while others like a few more people involved. I am of course talking about membership interviews and classes.
I don’t think there is any biblically mandated way to do them. In fact (whisper it), the Bible doesn’t insist that you do them at all. But as a matter of prudence, and considering what will serve people most helpfully and protect the church best, I can’t see a good reason for churches not to hold membership classes.
I don’t think membership classes have to be onerous. In our church, we tend to combine the membership class and the (first) membership interview with the elders. We sometimes do these things separately, but that is usually a time consideration which is typically prompted by needing translation which naturally takes double the time. This can make for a lengthy session, but it needn’t be like that.
A typical interview will consist of hearing the person’s testimony of how they became a believer and hearing the answer to the question what is the gospel? That section can take 5-minutes inasmuch as somebody can tell the key details of their story and clearly convey the gospel in a really short time. We aren’t looking for the world’s greatest theological treatise. We are essentially wanting to hear that this person wasn’t a believer and now they are (however that happened) and that they have come to believe Jesus Christ died for their sin personally and that, believing in him, they now have life in his name. That can take whatever form of words it may, but some version of it is essentially what we are seeking.
For some people, that simple profession can be quick and easy. They clearly understand the gospel, their story is credible and they are clearly aware of what it is to be a believer. For other people, it’s not that they don’t understand the gospel but that they are working in a second, third or fourth language and come from a different culture. Other times, people say things in their answer to these questions that raises different questions that need to be probed about their understanding of what sin actually is, or who Jesus is or other such things. Different ways of asking the same question, and allowances for translation, culture and fledgling faith that struggles to express itself all need to be made. Of course, the longer somebody takes, the more time you spend asking the same questions in different ways without clarity, the more questions that pop up that need pressing into to clarify understanding leads us closer to the belief this person doesn’t really grasp these things. But we want to give people every opportunity.
So, some interviews can be extremely quick while others are very long. But in all cases we are looking for a simple profession, a credible story and evidence of gospel understanding. Given this is such a low bar for even the newest of believers, we feel justified in not welcoming in those who cannot hit it.
In cases of very short interview – where the story and profession are clear and straightforward and understanding of the gospel is evident – we usually hold our membership class in the same sitting. If we spend 5 or 10 minutes discussing a simple story, we may spend the next hour and 45 minutes speaking into the realities, expectations and privileges of church membership. When that initial interview has taken much longer, if we do conclude the person is genuinely converted, we would probably save the membership class for another day.
Our usual practice with the membership class is to give the person a copy of our membership booklet ahead of time. It lays out our understanding of what the church is, what membership is, how it functions and what is expected. It also includes our doctrinal basis as a church, our doctrinal distinctive and the eldership teaching position on various matters. We expect that booklet to be read before our meeting. It provides the basis for our discussion.
Our conversation is then very much centred on the questions of the other person. We already know they are a believer who understands the gospel. We have given them our membership booklet outlining what the church believes and how things function. This is their opportunity to raise any points of concern, differences of view or potential issues they perceive. If there are lots of questions, this might take a while. If there aren’t many questions, things are (as you’d expect) a bit quicker.
We will usually highlight key expectations. We will summarise what the key things are that the church expects and what the person will receive by joining. We will often highlight some key things that we think may be matters to think about and that can be issues for some. We try to make sure that there are no surprises for anybody entering into church membership.
Of course, the final decision on membership lies with the church. Two of the elders may conduct an interview and report back to the other elders. The elders may commend the person to the church. But when we have done so, we give the church members themselves time to speak with the person and satisfy themselves about their testimony and understanding of the gospel. A church members’ meeting is called so that the church can vote to welcome this person into membership. It is not a nod and a wink from the pastor, or a couple of elders, but a whole church decision in the end.
You may of course do things differently. And that is okay. Our way is not the way. But we have found it pays to have credible processes for welcoming people into membership and it helps to set expectations from the front end so that everyone knows what they are getting into. Most importantly, it provides good protection for the church at large and – so far as one is able – seeks to ensure your members are, indeed, regenerate (with processes available to you should you find they are not later on).