As I write this, I am just about to head out to do some baptismal and membership classes with a bunch of lads. It is a joy to have people asking about coming into the church for membership. It also provides me with another opportunity to share, but also think through, our process for welcoming new members.
In our church, thoughts about membership are rarely far away. Whilst in some places, membership is essentially psychological inasmuch as it doesn’t actually entitle you to anything. For many, communion, service and even attending almost all the meetings of the church (sometimes even members’ meetings themselves) are all open already. Not so for us. If you aren’t in membership, you can’t take communion with us, you cannot serve in any of the ministries of the church and you have no involvement in members’ meetings. It doesn’t take long for people to realise there are things that aren’t open to them outside of membership and, therefore, it doesn’t take much for people to want to enquire about it. The reminder is always there.
When somebody does put their hand up and say they wish to join, our process is set in motion. The first thing to do is have an interview with a couple of elders. We like to have two of us there so that a recommendation really is coming from the elders, rather than one bloke. The aim of this interview is to hear the testimony of faith and get some clarity about their conversion. We also hope to hear some (usually fairly simple, but nonetheless clear) understanding of some gospel essentials. Should we hear something along the lines that this person was not a Christian, but now trusts in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin and they know they have eternal life because of him, we would be glad to recommend this person to the church.
Assuming that is what we hear, the next step is to recommend the candidate to the church. We usually do this on a Sunday morning, but may do it in a members’ meeting if there is one scheduled nearby. The church are informed that the person has been interviewed by the elders and they are commending this person’s testimony of faith to the church. The members’ are then given two or three weeks to have their own conversations with the candidate to satisfy themselves that this person is a genuine believer.
Following the two or three weeks, a members’ meeting is set. If there is a General Members’ Meeting upcoming, we would vote on the application for membership there. If there is no one scheduled imminently, we call a Special Members’ Meeting after a Sunday service with one item: does the church accept this application for membership. The motion must be accepted by over half the voting membership in order to be accepted.
If the person has yet to be baptised, a date will be set for doing that. The candidate will then be accepted into membership on the day of their baptism. If they have previously been baptised, they will be welcomed into membership at the next Sunday service where they will also be welcome to join in the Lord’s Supper.
Alongside all of this, usually concurrently, we also conduct some classes. If applicants have not been baptised, we ensure they have a baptismal class. This is usually a single session explaining more fully what baptism is and what is going on when they get baptised. Further to this – whether the person is baptised or not – we hold some membership classes. We have a pretty fulsome membership booklet that explains what membership is, why we believe it is biblical, how it operates in our church, key expectations on members and that kind of thing. This also includes our doctrinal bases and distinctives so that people are fully informed of what they are joining.. Those things are rarely a surprise as those looking to join in membership have usually been coming a little while and know what we’re about. We take all prospective members through this booklet over the course of a few sessions.
Some of this may sound like it takes ages, but they often run concurrently. We also don’t often conduct the membership sessions with a week between each session, but might do sessions across a few days (depending on availability). But the whole process can be turned around in as little as a couple of weeks. The thing that necessarily makes things longer is the membership having an opportunity to go and hear somebody’s testimony for themselves. Given that we believe it is a church decision to welcome members into the church, it is important we give people due time to satisfy themselves so that their vote is meaningful. Some will decide to trust the elders’ recommendation but the final decision, in the end, lies with the members and due time must be given to them to speak with the candidate. This is an additional check on the application.
The reason for all this, of course, is not just for the sake of the church. As a church that believes in (as far as we’re able) having a regenerate membership, it is also to the benefit of the individual themselves. The purpose is to act – as Mark Dever helpfully puts it – as an assurance of salvation cooperative. A person can easily fool themselves. It’s not that hard to fool one other person either and pastors are in no way immune. But it is much harder to convince 30, 40, 50 or more people that you’re a genuine believer when they see how you live, they hear your profession, they have questions of their own. If the entire church membership affirm your testimony, that brings great assurance that your faith is genuine. Your testimony rings true and the change in your life bear out what you claim to believe. This process is intended to strengthen the faith of those who go through it and to clarify for the church where those who are not able to be welcomed as yet truly stand and can best be helped.