Meaningful membership

dever1-1024x682How can I lead my church toward meaningful membership?

(This material has been adapted from Mark Dever’s chapter “Regaining Meaningful Church Membership” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, ed. Thomas White, and Malcomb B. Yarnell, III, pages 57-60)

Proclaim the gospel. Preach about God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness, Christ’s substitutionary atonement and resurrection, and our need to repent of our sins and trust in him. And make it clear that those who are not committed to one another in love have no reason to think that they have committed to God in love (1 John 4:20-21).
Use a statement of faith and church covenant. Require members to affirm a statement of faith (what a church believes) and a church covenant (how members will live together).

Require a membership class. Help prospective members know what will be expected of them, and what they can expect from the church. Use this opportunity to teach through the statement of faith and the church covenant, the importance of membership, and the practical nuts and bolts of how your church works.

Require an interview with an elder or pastor. In the interview ask the individual to share the gospel and provide an account of their conversion and their discipleship since then. This also provides an opportunity to get to know new people and ask questions in a comfortable environment.

Stop baptizing children. A young child can certainly become a Christian. But a church can’t necessarily discern whether or not a child has become a Christian. Children should be given the opportunity to mature and have occasion to resist the pull of the world. So don’t create confusion by baptizing those whose professions of faith the church cannot reliably assess.

Require congregational approval of new members. Admission into and exclusion from church membership is an act of the congregation (this is an implication of 2 Cor. 2:6). So lead your church to explicitly affirm every member the church receives in and sees off.
Regularly publish an accurate membership directory. Encourage the members to use this as a prayer list.

Give pastoral oversight to members. Try to make sure that every member is in regular conversation with an elder or a mature Christian in the congregation. Take initiative in getting to know what’s going on in the members’ lives.

Cultivate a culture of discipleship. Encourage younger Christians to become disciples of older, more mature Christians. Encourage more mature Christians to take less mature Christians under their wing. Encourage every member of the church to be in multiple spiritually beneficial relationships.

Limit certain activities and areas of service to members. Churches should consider the possibility of restricting its business meetings, public service, and small groups (except for evangelistic ones) to members only.

Revive the practice of corrective discipline. Once you have established a culture of meaningful membership, begin to lead your congregation to excommunicate those who persist in serious unrepentant sin.

The Importance of an Inquirer’s Class

inquirersArticle by Nick Batzig – original source I started one within the first six months. On average we have had two Inquirer classes a year (here is the audio of several installations–in no distinct order–of one such class). Our elders have determined that attending this class is a prerequisite for membership in our local church. I have taught approximately 10 inquirer’s classes over the years. We have vacillated as to the duration of the class. Depending on the current schedule and needs in our church, we either have a 12 week, 10 week or 8 week class. Additionally, we have held the class on either Sunday mornings or on Wednesday nights. One year, due to scheduling, we held the class on several Saturdays. I have progressively realized the importance of such a class. While there has been some changed regarding course material to accommodate our current situation, the content has largely stayed the same. What has happened over the years is that I have become more and more convinced of the benefits of having an Inquirer/New Member class. Consider the following rationale for such a class:

1. It serves the congregation. While it may not seem like the goal of an Inquirer/New Member Class, making it a prerequisite for local church membership can help protect the church from division by discouraging those who might be discontent or cause schismatic harm to the local church. One of the membership vows that men and women take in PCA churches is that they promise to “study the peace and purity of the church;” another has to do with their willingness to “submit to the government and discipline of the church.” When we work through our doctrinal positions in an Inquirer’s class, we hit on such things as “expectations of church members,” “the doctrines of grace” (i.e. Calvinism) and the basic “tenets of Presbyterianism.” I have typically found that those who are strongly opposed to any or all of these teachings (or who are simply divisively argumentative) often will not finish the Inquirer’s class once they hear them taught. This is sometimes a blessing in disguise to the church–as it may protect the congregation from divisive individuals and forseen schisms.

2. It serves those coming for membership. An Inquirer’s class can also serves as a protection for those who might not be a good fit for a particular local church in its current state. For instance, not everyone is cut out for membership in a church plant. I learned that the hard way in the early years of planting. While we must certainly discourage church hopping–and the idea that there is a perfect church situation–we must recognize that sometimes one local church might be better suited to the needs of an individual or family than another. An Inquirer’s class can help this process along in such a way as to benefit those who may–for any number of legitimate reasons–make the final decision not to go forward in joining a particular local church.

On the other hand, an Inquirer’s class can be an enormous benefit to those coming for membership. It can help them learn the various aspects of biblical and local church membership. When expectations of local church members are clearly articulated, those who might not have thought about the biblical requirements for regular Lord’s Day worship, giving and service may begin to do so for the first time in the life. Furthermore, it can serve as a rich time of instruction in the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrines of grace, the doctrine of the sacraments, the doctrine of church discipline, etc. An Inquirer’s class can be a great discipleship tool. How many have become convinced of the doctrines of grace by sitting through a careful consideration of them in an Inquirer’s class! We often forget that many who are coming for membership have never been taught these foundational truths.

Additionally, there is a very real sense in which the members of the church are being instructed to hold the leadership accountable to sound teaching. If an elder decides to teach something that is out of accord with Scripture or our doctrinal standards, members (together with elders) become part of the checks and balances appointed by God. The members of the local church are responsible to test what the minsters teach in the church against the doctrinal standards that they learn about in the Inquirer’s class.

3. It serves the leadership. One of the benefits of an Inquirer’s class is that it gives the leadership the opportunity to better get to know the ecclesiastical backgrounds of the men and women coming for membership. Even if I have had individuals or families into my home, when they come for an Inquirer’s class, they almost always share things that they have been taught by other ministers in other churches. Pastors can better assess where people are spiritually by what they share in an Inquirer’s class. The same is true with regard to the gifts of those coming for membership. I have on many occassions been informed by one of the people in the Inquirer’s class about their own gifts in music, service, etc.–as well as of the gifts of their spouses and children. For some reason, people are more apt to share that sort of information in that setting.

The other way in which an Inquirer’s class can benefit the leadership of the church is that the pastors/elders get the chance to clearly communicate expectations regarding worship attendance, giving, service and submission to discipline. This becomes exceedingly useful when an individual or family in the church begins to become delinquent in any of those areas. I have, on quite a number of occassions, had to remind those we sought to shepherd about what they were taught in these classes and about the vows that they willingly took after the class was through.

Unbaptized Children And New-Covenant Promises?

Topic: Baptism & Church Membership: How Do My Unbaptized Children Relate to the New-Covenant Promises?

Interview by John Piper

Audio Transcript

Ian in Greensboro, as I have explored Reformed theology over the past couple of years, I have learned quite a bit more about the practices of infant baptism and believer’s baptism and why genuine Christians differ theologically. While I am an advocate of believer’s baptism, one accusation I have found troubling is that because we Baptists don’t consider our unconverted children as official participants in the new covenant, we are therefore treating them like pagan children, excluded from the covenant community. As a Baptist, how do you respond to this charge? And further, how should (yet) unsaved children of believers be viewed by the church?”

Piper11Before I say something positive about the way we should view our children — “we” meaning we Baptists — let’s make sure that we realize that both Baptists and Reformed paedobaptists — and I am not talking here about those who believe in baptismal regeneration, but just those who are Reformed paedobaptists or others who don’t believe in baptismal new birth — we all have the same basic problem in how to think about our children. And the difference lies in terminology.

They may not like it when I say this, but I’ll say it anyway. In order for Reformed paedobaptists — those who baptize babies — to say that children are members of the covenant community, they must define covenant community so as not to necessarily mean only the elect, called, regenerate, heaven-bound saints. They have to define covenant community so as to allow for the possibility in that covenant community members who are not elect, not born again.

Now, it is just as impossible, therefore, for a paedobaptist parent to be sure that his child is elect as it is for a Baptist parent. Paedobaptists may feel better about themselves by labeling the child a covenant member, but those children have no better standing before God than the children of Baptists, which brings me now to say something positive about what really does make a difference, not labels, but does make a difference in how children stand before God in both groups.

I can imagine a paedobaptist parent feeling good that his child is a member of the covenant with God, but at the same time neglecting to pray for the child, neglecting to feed the child morning, noon, and night on the Word of God, neglecting to model before the child the joy of the Lord. In other words, there is no necessary correlation between calling a child a covenant member and giving a child what the child needs to become a covenant member, a true covenant member, to be born again. And I can imagine a Baptist parent who does not see his child as a covenant member, but pours out his heart to God every day for his child, pours into the child — morning, noon, and night — the Word of God, exults with joy in the Lord before the child and, thus, the Baptist provides gloriously for what the child really needs in order to become a true covenant member.

So, how do we Baptists really think about our children? That is the basic question. Let me make two negative statements that we use about our children and then five positive ones of which we need feel no shame. First, the negative ones:

1) We do not assume that our children are born again until they make a credible profession of faith. We base that on 1 Peter 1:23, that the new birth is through the Word of God.

2) We do not formalize their union with Christ and his people by membership in the church until that credible profession of faith is publicly signified by baptism.

So those are the two “We do not’s,” the negatives.

Here are the five positive statements.

1) We view them as gifts of God, blessings of God, to be loved and served (Psalm 127:3).

2) We view them as responsibilities that we have been given by God to bring up in the teaching and discipline of the Lord. That is, we are to lavish them with the Word of God and with love and with wisdom morning, noon, and night.

3) We view them as objects of daily mercies in prayer in the hope that God would exercise his saving sovereign grace in their lives.

4) We view them as little ones before whom God has charged us to rejoice so that they can see what it is like to taste that the Lord is good.

5) Finally, we view them as little pilgrims in hope on the way to faith, woven into the fabric of relationships in the family and the church. And we have nothing to be ashamed of in this relationship with our children. It is every bit as hopeful for a good outcome of eternal covenant membership as any other way of viewing children.

A Credible Profession of Faith

church-membershipIn an article entitled “Helpful Questions for Discerning a Credible Profession of Faith” Jeffery Smith writes:

Ebenezer Morris was a powerful preacher in Wales, little known about today. He lived and preached during times of great revivals there and went home to be with the Lord at the age of 56 on Monday, August 15th, 1825. There’s a whole chapter devoted to his life in Volume Two of The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, (reprint 1897, trans. John Aaron 2008 [Carlise, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2008]).

A couple of days before his death two young preachers came to him seeking his advice. What he told them included a very important caution. Before I quote it let me explain that the term “seiat” was the Welsh term for a Welsh Calvinist society meeting. These were organized societies of converts gathered for prayer, teaching and mutual exhortation. They were really, in essence, local churches, operating outside of the established Anglican church of the time. Morris told these two young preachers:

“If you two are allowed to live long then no doubt you will see a period for religion when hardly any new convert joins the seiat. At that time, do not drag unexercised men into the church but wait for God, and seek him, who in his own good time will succeed the work. God gave a promise to Abraham of a son, but Sarai felt the time was long and despaired that she would ever have the privilege of becoming a mother, and so she gave Hagar to Abraham, and Ishmael was born. He was not the son of the promise and this brought much sorrow to Sarai afterwards. So also, you must wait for God’s promise, and not go after the flesh, unto the children of the promise are found for the Church.”

This is very wise counsel, counsel much needed by many of us who are pastors. It speaks to the necessity of requiring a credible profession of faith before receiving a person into the membership of the church. In our church we have what we call a membership interview with any one asking to become member, as do many of you. Below I give a sample list of suggested questions that can be helpful in charitably discerning the credibility of a person’s profession insofar as we are able and required to do so as men who cannot see the heart. In fact, we have actually sometimes given these questions to younger converts and asked them to take them home and write out brief answers to bring back to us in a subsequent meeting. I’m not suggesting that all of these questions should be asked in a membership interview or that all, or any, of them should be handed out to take home to write out answers. I just mention these to give some ideas of the kinds of questions that might be asked. Good, carefully thought out, questions can go a long way in helping us discern where a person is and in guarding the church from the danger Ebenezer Morris spoke of in the quote above. Perhaps, pastors reading this blog might find these helpful. Some of these have been picked up from the suggestions of others. In cases where we actually hand out a document with these questions for a person to take home, at the top is the following introductory paragraph:

Please take the time to think carefully over these questions and answer them in your own words. These are not trick questions so don’t be nervous or worried. We simply desire to know about your understanding of the gospel and what God has done and is doing in your life and to encourage you to think about these things. This will also help facilitate profitable interaction in our membership interview.

Here are the questions that follow:

Are you a sinner? What makes a person a sinner?

Have you ever felt that you deserve God’s wrath and punishment because of your sins? If so why do you think that?

Besides outward sins what are some sins in your heart that you’ve been guilty of that God has shown you?

When Jesus died on the cross what was he doing that has to do with the salvation of sinners?

Can God just forgive sinners or was it necessary for Christ to die on the cross for God to do that? If so why was it necessary?

Are there any good works that you have done that you believe make it right for God to receive you as his child and take you to heaven? If not what are you trusting in for acceptance with God?

What are some verses of scripture that give you hope and comfort when you think about your sins and your relationship to God?

Do you ever pray and read your bible? If so how often?

What are some ways God has changed, or is changing, your attitudes and behavior?

What are some things God has been teaching you lately?

Do you desire, with God’s help, to follow and obey Christ in everything with no exceptions?

When God convicts you that you have sinned in some way what do you do?

Are there any problems you have in your relationship to any of the members of the church?

Do you ever get anything out of the sermons? If so could you give an example of a sermon, or of something in a sermon, lately that has helped you? If so how did it help you?

The New Testament on Church Membership

Hour 1: Returning to guest host on this Dividing Line broadcast I was able to walk through numerous New Testament texts which only make sense in the light of formal Church membership.

Hour 2: Having previously established that formal Church Membership is a biblical mandate and requirement, I then discussed what it entails as God’s intended blessing for disciples of Christ.

Hour 3: The Guardrail of the Creeds: While never rising to the same authority as sacred Scripture (which alone is the word of God), the ancient creeds and confessions of the Church have served the people of God through the ages as concise and precise summaries of what the Bible teaches on very vital matters. These include, amongst others, the doctrine of God, the person and work of Christ, how a man is justified in God’s sight as well as the doctrine of last things (eschatology). On this Dividing Line, I taught on the practical value of the ancient Creeds and Confessions of the Church.