Early in February the Out of Ur blog had a post about Rick Warren's defense of membership in a local church. Those who commented largely sided against Warren on this. I often hear in person the sentiments found in those comments. Thanks again, Jonathan, for providing a thorough, biblical, popular, and winsome defense of church membership.
The publisher's description reads.... When the world speaks of "love," it often means unconditional acceptance. Many churches have adopted this mind-set in their practice of membership and discipline-if they have not done away with such structures entirely. "Yet God's love and God's gospel are different than what the world expects," writes Jonathan Leeman. They're centered in his character, which draws a clear boundary between what is holy and what is not. It's this line that the local church should represent in its member practices, because the careful exercise of such authority "is God's means for guarding the gospel, marking off a people, and thereby defining his love for the world."So how should churches receive and dismiss members? How should Christians view their submission to the church? Are there dangers in such submission? The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love responds with biblical, theological, and practical guidance-from both corporate and individual perspectives. It's a resource that will help pastors and their congregations upend worldly conceptions and recover a biblical understanding and practice of church authority.
You can now get your own copy on Amazon, so don't wait. It will be well worth your time to read.
The elders are essential to congregational care and oversight. This
should be obvious, because elders, by definition, ought to be caring
for the sheep and exercising oversight. Our elders do this in a few
First, we pray for people. We pray when called up. We seek to pray for
people when they need help. And we pray for our people at our elders
meetings and retreats.
Second, our elders oversee our growth groups. Ben is the point man, but
most of our elders--a couple elders are excused because they are
involved in our executive committee--are responsible for overseeing a
few growth groups each. This does not mean they lead a group in their
home, though they can if they want. Oversight means two things. One,
it means that the elders come to the every other month growth group
leaders training session and meet with the leaders under their care.
This is a time to trouble shoot, hear how things are going, and pray.
Two, oversight means that the members of the leaders growth group (see
previous point) are in the elder’s district (see below).
Third, we divide the church into elder districts. The district is first
of all assigned by growth groups. So if Larry oversees two leaders, Moe
and Curly, then Larry has all the members of Moe and Curly’s growth
groups in his district (man is that a rough district). The elder
district also includes members not in a growth group and regular
adherents of the church who, for whatever reason, have not joined.
These names, non-growth group members and adherents, are assigned
alphabetically. The elder is responsible to pray regularly for his
district, and he must make contact with each person in the district at
least once a year.
We do not expect the elders to personally disciple the people in their
districts or know everything going on in their lives. This is why we
have growth groups. But the elder usually has a good feel for the major
issues that have surfaced. Our elders meet twice a month. The second
meeting of the month is our normal business meeting. At this meeting we
always ask “who is in need of spiritual help and/or is not making
faithful use of the means of grace?” Follow up calls are usually
assigned based on the district someone is in. Three times a year we do
a thorough review of our districts as an entire elder board.
We are blessed to have an active and capable diaconate. At University
Reformed Church, we have deacons and deaconesses. They care for many of
the physical needs of the congregation, especially those that are long
term. So, for example, when a member of the church was diagnosed with
ALS, the diaconate helped to arrange a group of recruits to come over
on Saturdays and take Don out around town.
The diaconate is also where I turn first when people come to me with
financial problems. Often I’ll get people from in our church or outside
of our church who come to the pastor wanting physical or monetary
assistance. When this happens, I try to assess the situation, pray for
them, and then put them in contact with either the chair of our
diaconate or the on-call deacon/ess of the month.
Last, but certainly not least, the congregation cares for the
congregation. This includes meals to new moms, one-on-one mentoring,
D-groups (where our college student leaders meet in the homes of church
families), making use of the email prayer chain, free babysiting,
hospitality, and a thousand other good things that people in most
churches do for each other.
Do we have weaknesses? Absolutely. We don’t have a system in place for
making hospital calls. Historically, the church I serve has been very
young and there hasn’t been much visitation to do. But this will change
and we need a better way to do it. Likewise, only recently have we
developed funeral policies and a plan for elders to make follow-up
bereavement calls (after six months have passed). This year we added a
part time biblical counselor to our staff. His work with counseling and
training other counselors is critical. In the near future, I’d also
like to see us (me!) use the congregational prayer on Sunday morning as
a more effective means of pastoral care.
So like any church, we are a work in progress. We will never get to a
point where everyone is cared for just right and there are no more
cracks for people to fall through. But we’ve made big strides in the
past several years. I’m thankful to work with so many wonderful people
who serve the body so well, often better than I can. By God’s grace
we’ve got some things in place.
In closing, let me say I’m always surprised to learn how few churches
actually take member care seriously. You don’t have to do things just
like we do, but every church, and every elder board in particular,
needs to think and pray carefully about how, and if, they are really
caring for one another and fulfilling the responsibilities and
privileges God has given them. We are required by our denomination’s
Book of Church order to ask at our elders’ meetings, “who is in need of
spiritual care and/or not making faithful use of the means of grace?”
It’s a good policy. But I wonder how many churches in our denomination
or yours regularly ask this question. And I wonder how many churches
have any mechanism in place to know who these people are and how to
help them once they are identified.
We aren’t a model church by any means, but one of the things we’ve worked on a lot over the past five years is how we do congregational care and oversight. Even though we have a lot to learn, I thought a glimpse at how we do things might help other churches out there. Obviously, I’m not encouraging you to copy everything we do (though feel free). But maybe some of our trellis work can you help you with your vine work.It’s impossible to completely describe how we do member care because, as in any church, there is so much ministry that happens outside of an official program or avenue. There’s a whole bunch of ministry that I never hear about, which is as it should be. But in an effort to simplify and generalize, let me explain what we do under five headings.MembershipWe stress membership at our church. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is very practical. Membership helps us care for people. Without membership it is hard to know who is really a part of our church and who is passing through or just floating around. But when someone joins the church we know this person is committed to our body and we need to be committed to him.What does the membership process look like at University Reformed Church? Two or three times a year we offer a 10 week membership class. This is taught by our Associate Pastor, Ben Falconer, and other leaders he brings into the class. The class covers a lot of material, including our theology, our statement of faith, our membership covenant, our polity, our ministries, spiritual disciplines, spiritual gifts, and how to get plugged in to the church. Ben does a great job of individually asking folks to consider taking the class, whether they plan to join or not. In my experience, people will not take a membership class unless (1) they know membership actually means something, (2) membership is talked about, at least once in awhile, from the front, and (3) they are personally invited.At the end of the class everyone signs up for an elder interview. We usually meet with people in elder teams of two or three. The interviews run about 30 minutes. Some questions always get asked: How did you become a Christian? Why did you come to our church? Who is Jesus Christ? What do you believe about the Bible? What is the gospel? We try to make the interview as non-threatening as possible. Most often it is a time to get to know new people (and they their elders) and celebrate God’s grace in their lives. Sometimes, however, we need to meet with people again. We will delay their membership if we feel like they aren’t ready, but this is rare.Growth GroupsA few years ago, the elders decided to make growth groups (i.e., small groups or home groups or cell groups or whatever you call them) a central part of our church’s ministry strategy. I’m not sure of the exact figure, but I would guess around 70% of our members are in a growth group (we have about 300 members; we had 450 in worship last Sunday).Every church does small groups a little differently. Our groups, most of which meet every other week, focus on assimilation and fellowship. This isn’t to say they don’t have content or that we don’t care what they teach. We know what they are doing, but we don’t dictate what they do. Most groups work through books or books of the Bible. But we don’t look to growth groups as a main teaching ministry. Growth groups help new people find a place to belong and be known. They help people forge God-centered friendships. Growth groups are the first line of defense (and offense!) in loving one another.I already mentioned Ben, our associate pastor. He is invaluable in this whole area of member care, especially when it comes to growth groups. We tried doing a full-on growth group ministry with volunteers, but we found that even with our best volunteers driving the thing, it was hard to keep momentum going. So we put a staff person in charge of the ministry a few years ago. This was key. Ben recruits leaders, trains leaders, starts new groups, and actively plugs people into new or existing groups. Running an effective small group ministry takes constant care and attention. If you just start some groups and stand back, most of your groups will dissolve within three years. There needs to be someone responsible for keeping the ministry together and moving forward.Tomorrow: the final three headings (elders, diaconate, congregation), plus some concluding thoughts.
Thanks for alerting us to your participation in Southern's panel discussion on multi-site churches. I not only appreciate the link, but appreciated how you represented the "opposed" position and how all the men engaged one another charitably. It was a good Christian "scuffle." Which is to say, nobody got hurt and there was love for all. Thanks for modeling that, brothers.
I have to say, though, the multi-site church issue feels like it's in that category with emergent churches for me--something receiving a lot of attention and ink disproportionate to it's importance and impact. That's not to say it's altogether unimportant and having absolutely no impact; I just don't think it's huge on either score. At best, I think it's too early to tell. But what do I know? I'm not a real student of the movement.
The one issue I am troubled by in these discussions, though, is the differing approaches to the Scripture. Are we to take a regulative or normative approach? Are we to read silence as tacit approval for an innovation or a "freedom"? Or, are we to follow what is commanded, modeled, and their necessary consequences to govern our thought and practice? It seems that if we argue from silence to "freedom," we're going to be in a whole heap of trouble when it comes to pragmatic innovations. And we'll find ourselves at risk of inadvertantly untangling some knots that God in His wisdom tied.
I suppose that's an argument from and for conservatism in our approach to Scritpure and the life of the church. But it's not an argument against growth or against actively and aggressively seeking the salvation of sinners. The argument for multi-site, insofar as it hinges on calls to reach more people, makes a presumption at this point. Some seem to presume that if you're growing and you're not interested in multi-site then you just may be limiting the growth potential of the kingdom. And conversely, if you are a practitioner of multi-site you're increasing the growth potential of the kingdom. Hmm.... Maybe.... For me, jury's out on that. Sounds spurious. And it flirts with a "size equals success" error.
Al asked a wonderful question when he asked Pastor Ezzell, "What are you losing with multi-site?" I thought the pastor gave an honest and for him painful answer. He's losing contact with his people. On some level we all do at some point of appreciable size. But should we intentionally choose a strategy that increases the likelihood of that loss? Seems unwise.
Perhaps the limits of single-site, single-serivce congregational life are limits divinely appointed to ensure careful pastoral oversight. To ensure none of us actually have more sheep than we can handle by God's grace. Perhaps.
We should all want our churches to grow... to grow with new converts to the faith as rapidly as we can manage it ... and to grow increasingly deeper in spiritual maturity until we all reach the fullness of Christ. But at any cost or by any means necessary?
I am humbled by John Knight's comments to my post on special needs the other day (you can read the full response at the second website listed below). He has now alerted me to two resources that I did not know existed, both Bethlehem Baptist Church related. I pray the church of Jesus Christ not miss God-given opportunities to shepherd all His people. Check out these two websites:http://www.hopeingod.org/MinistriesSpecialNeeds.aspxwww.theworksofGod.com
Matt, I think you are correct. If the person is unable to communicate their trust in Christ, the church shouldn't take them into membership. This isn't to say they don't trust Christ, but rather simply that they can't communicate it in a credible way.The way you answer this question should depend on your understanding of church membership. So I could see a Presbyterian church taking this individual into membership since they understand these things to progress along family lines in a way that Baptists don't. But the worst thing to do is to have Baptist convictions (which would understand church membership to be for those who can make a credible profession of faith) and not have the thoughtfulness or courage of conviction to make difficult calls like this (because no one wants to be perceived as being mean to small children or the handicapped).
I took a call from an elder in a church yesterday asking about membership for one who has "special needs", who is apparently severely limited in his ability to relate and converse, to the point of an inability to convey the gospel in any meaningful way. The parents of this 30 year old man are anxious to have him received into membership. This family lives in the southern part of the U.S. and, as the elder described it, believe membership is a "right." This is one of those times where I don't want to be an elder/pastor. These situations break one's heart and cause sleepless nights -- am I doing the right thing by admitting or denying membership? At some point you have to make a decision. As difficult as it is and given the severity of the applicant's condition, I counseled the elder to view this situation as analogous to a child who was too young to communicate a credible profession of faith and therefore not grant membership. We're not saying he is not a Christian; we're simply saying it is nearly impossible for us (the church) to discern. But of course the church should extend care to him in every way possible. I was asked for counsel on this matter and don't have much more to go on then I have conveyed in this post. Can anyone give some guidelines in such a matter without getting into specifics?
I've gotten into several conversations with friends lately about which church they should join, or how they should advise their friends to evaluate a church.
I was recently reading The Top 100 Questions, by Richard Bewes (Rector, All Souls', Langham Place, London 1983-2004), and he had 4 good questions to ask yourself about the church you've been visiting:
1. Does the Bible actually get opened here?
2. Is this the kind of church you could take an uncommitted friend to?
3. Is there a recognisably New Testament feel to the church?
Here's what he meant in this question: "Is it Trinitarian in its emphasis on Father, Son and Holy Spirit as equally God? Is the saving death of Christ at its centre (I Cor. 2:2)? Do the hymns reflect this? Are baptism and the Lord's Supper . . . a proper part of the church . . . ?"
4. On the whole, are the arrows pointing outwards from the church?
In fact, these are 4 good question not just to tell your friend, but for yourself as you pray for and evaluate your own church.