Monday, July 10, 2006

Toward Reforming Membership Practices

For the past couple of weeks, we have been thinking together about some reasons for pursuing a regenerate church membership. We've discussed in brief how regenerate membership benefits the corporate church family, encourages the pastor, prepares individual members for heaven, protects and clarifies the gospel for non-Christians. These were attempts at making a positive statement for prayerfully working to ensure that members we take into the local church family evidence repentance from sin and faith in Christ.

But the question remains: how do we get from here to there? How do we avoid the wrong kind of growth while pursuing a church whose membership is comprised of Believers? I would like to end this series of posts with a few ideas for reforming our membership practices. Much more about these ideas could be said and has (see The Deliberate Church, particulary chapters 4 and 5).

1. Preach the gospel. Okay, that seems basic enough. But, we should work diligently to be sure that all of our expositions contain clear declarations of the Good News. We should work to apply the gospel to our own hearts in our sermon preparations, to apply it to our people, and make direct appeals to any non-Christians in our assembly to repent from sin and turn toward God through faith in Christ. Let's be sure that we take every appropriate opportunity afforded by the texts we preach to point the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

2. Preach church membership. In addition to preaching the gospel, we should also remember that many of our people have heard little if any teaching about the importance of church membership. Far too many Christians have a low view of the church, seeing her as an optional "club" to be joined only when their personal, designer needs are satisfied. Let's teach them that membership in the local church is essential. Remind them that many things that are clear in Scripture would clearly make no sense if church membership was not actively practiced in the early church (for example, church leadership, church discipline, caring for widows and the poor in the number, etc.). Use the "one another" passages to press home the need for a genuine commitment to know and be known by a local body of believers, to share their lives through active membership.

3. Require completion of membership classes. Many people can and do join churches without much more than walking down front or signing a church card. Not surprisingly, failure to clarify what commitments membership entails results in disagreements, misunderstandings, and confusion. Use membership classes to cover the basics in your church. At our church, we require completion of a six week course that covers the church's statement of faith, church covenant, church history, the SBC, reasons for joining a church, and particular "nuts and bolts" for our local congregation (elders, deacons, baptism policy, etc.). Prospective members are required to complete the class before they can request a membership interview, but they are not obligated to join once completing the class. What we're after are "informed consumers" (I hate the phrase) who commit to the church understanding who we are and how we live.

4. Require membership interviews with church leaders (pastors/elders). Following completion of the membership classes, prospective members who decide to join must then request a membership interview with a pastor/elder. In the membership interview, we want to discern whether a person understands the gospel and whether they have a credible conversion story that commends the gospel. We use the interview as another oportunity to make sure they understood things from the membership classes and answer any of their questions. And lastly, we talk with them about ways they can become involved in the life of the church (small groups, 1-on-1 discipleship, etc.).

5. Make sure the prospective member both understands the gospel and gives a credible account of saving faith in Jesus Christ. During the membership interview, we ask people to share their testimony and we ask them to recount the gospel in 60 seconds or less (Einstein once said, "If you can't explain a thing simply, you don't understand it well enough"). We want to hear prospective members articulate God--Man--Christ--Response in some coherent fashion. We're not judging eloquence here, but clarity. Does the person understand that God is holy and will not suffer sin to go unpunished, that man is a sinner in danger of the wrath of God, that Jesus Christ is the God-man that has died in the place of sinners who respond to the invitation of the gospel with repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? If a person seems unclear on the gospel after some clarifying questions if necessary, we suggest that they meet with another member or pastor to do a six-week evangelistic Bible study called Christianity Explained. If after this study we're satisfied with the person's understanding of the gospel, then we forward their application to the elders for review and recommendation to the congregation for membership at an upcoming members' meeting.

6. Establish higher expectations for prospective members. The other thing we stress to prospective members during the membership interview are five "expectations" for all members: (1) regular attendance at Sunday morning and Sunday evening gatherings; (2) give regularly to the work of the ministry; (3) attend special meetings; (4) participate in the Lord's supper and baptism observances; and (5) pray regularly for the church and other members (one page per day through the membership directory).

7. Have prospective members sign your church's covenant and statement of faith. This is good practice for a number of reasons. The very act of signing is associated with commitment, and most people want to be sure they know what the documents entail before signing (DC is full of lawyers!). Also, a signed "agreement" to uphold the doctrine and practice of the church tends to help a tad in legal disputes from time to time.

8. Require the congregation to vote on each prospective members' application for membership. At our church's members' meetings, we present to the congregation each applicant for membership with a brief summary of the applicant's testimony (usually the high point of the meeting). Potential members are voted on individually. The congregational vote indicates a church-wide commitment to care for each individual to join and is a regular reminder of the covenant we pledge to uphold.

9. Restore the practice of loving church discipline. Ninety-five percent of church discipline is formative; it occurs as our lives are shaped by the preaching and application of God's word to our lives. The remainder, corrective church discipline, occurs when a member must be removed from the membership with the hopes of producing repentance and restoration (Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5).

Suggestions 1-7 aim at creating a well-taught, meaningful membership. Apart from creating deeper fellowship among the members (hospitality, mutual care, discipleship relationships, etc.), loving church discipline lies outside the reach of the congregation. And, these are just some ideas from one church's experience and practice. Please feel free to add others.

The Lord will return for a pure, radiant bride. Our feeble efforts at cultivating a regenerate membership, like conversion itself, depends on the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. Without discernment, love, grace, and patience... the work of watching for the souls entrusted to our care will be frustrated and fruitess.

I pray that the faithful efforts of pastors everywhere would meet with much God-wrought fruit for His glory.


samurai said...

I recently listened to Mr. Anyabwile's sermon given at CLC on July 2nd. Powerful. I have also recently found this blog site.

I am not sure how much of this is 'directed' at the lay-leader or general church member - but I wanted to say thanks and let you know I give thanks to God.

Much to delve into. Much to think about and learn - and grow. Thank you for sharing.

anonintx said...

Thank you so much, especially for item #1. I am currently looking for a church in the area where I recently moved. You would not believe how many churches do not give the gospel during their services on Sunday. I am not talking about an altar call, but exalting Christ's person and work and carefully explaining for the benefit of both Christian and non-Christian what the cross means. Many do not do so, either in the sermon or during the music or at any time during the service. Or, they give a truncated version which leaves people confused. The guest speaker at the church I visited last Sunday spoke on the Lord's desire to reach the nations. But during the entire sermon he never told us what God wanted to reach the nations with! Now of course he probably figured the Christians present would understand he meant the gospel. But, being new, I was not sure that's what he meant (I don't know that much about this church except that the info on their website seems orthodox). Unbelievers in the service would not know. And the ironic thing is that even if someone from "the nations" had been present, they would not necessarily know what he was referring to either!! After the service they had some people who are going on short term missions trips this summer come up for prayer. I wanted to stand up and shout at them to give the Gospel in their church! Do we really think that those who need to hear the Gospel are all overseas? Why doesn't it occur to us that the people sitting in our pews need the Gospel too!

Rev. R. D. Bernard said...

I have been pastoring a church for five years now and find your comments very refreshing. The issues that you mention are right on target. The Church must be "the Church" as distinguished from the world. I share some of my insights/sermons at Keep up the good work.

Rev. R. D. Bernard