How Long Should A Membership Process Take?
If you’re persuaded that church membership is biblical, then you must have a process for taking in new members. A church’s membership process matters not only because of what it seeks to accomplish, but because of what it communicates about the importance of church membership.
At many churches in the United States, you can visit and join in the same day. This very short process, which I’ll call “immediate assimilation,” often consists of filling out a card or coming forward at the end of a service. In some churches, the process might be finalized with a congregational vote on the spot. While surely well-intended, I believe immediate assimilation is problematic for at least three reasons.
DANGERS OF IMMEDIATE ASSIMILATION
First, immediate assimilation assumes that prospective members understand and believe the gospel.
People want to join churches for all kinds of reasons. If no one has taken the time to inquire as to whether a prospective member understands and believes the gospel, then we can’t be confident that the people we’re receiving into membership are actually believers in Jesus Christ.
If your church is congregationally governed, ensuring your church is comprised of Christians is vital. Otherwise, non-Christian members will vote on important matters like what the church believes, who is qualified to lead, whether another member should be disciplined for unrepentant sin, and who to receive into membership.
Further, church membership communicates that the church believes a person is a Christian. When we accept someone into membership without inquiring about their profession of faith, we may be giving them false assurance of salvation and damaging our own collective witness to the community.
Second, immediate assimilation assumes that prospective members understand and agree with a church’s statement of faith.
A church’s beliefs are typically spelled out in a statement of faith, which highlights what a church believes about primary matters (such as the Bible, the Trinity, and the gospel) and some secondary matters (such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church government). A statement of faith engenders doctrinal unity so that the church can focus on worship, discipleship, and evangelism, rather than endlessly hashing out what they believe.
If prospective members don’t understand and agree with a church’s statement of faith, disunity is inevitable. A church cannot be unified if some members believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God and others do not; nor can they be unified if some believe that either men or women can serve as pastors and others do not.
When we admit people into membership without seeing if they understand and agree with our statement of faith, then we’re inviting disunity into the church.
Third, immediate assimilation assumes that the church body needs to know nothing—or next to nothing—about a prospective member.
When a person joins a local church, the covenant goes two ways: from the prospective member to the church at large, and from the church at large to the prospective member. Among other things, church members have agreed to meet together regularly to worship God, observe the ordinances, and discipline one another.
Neither Jesus (in Matthew 18) nor Paul (in 1 Corinthians 5) lays the responsibility of church membership at the feet of the church leaders. Rather, they hold the members responsible to exercise church discipline as necessary (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:4–5). If the members will be held responsible to excommunicate the unrepentant among them, it follows that church members should have some say in who becomes a member in the first place.
When we admit people into membership without involving the church body, we’re requiring them to take spiritual responsibility for those whom they know little or nothing about, which seems both unwise and unfair. Even in a church with elders, this approach doesn’t allow members to trust their elders because they also know nothing about these prospective members.
WHY YOU NEED A LONGER MEMBERSHIP PROCESS
If your church’s membership process looks something like what I’ve called “immediate assimilation,” I want to persuade you to lengthen your process. It doesn’t have to be long, but it does need to be long enough.
Consider these goals for a membership class. Are they being met?
- Explain the church’s doctrinal positions. Are you a Baptist or Presbyterian? Complementarian or egalitarian? Autonomous or connectional?
- Explain the church’s requirements and expectations of members.
- Establish that a prospective member has a made a credible profession of faith.
- Involve the church body, who will be responsible to discipline them if the need arises.
At my church, our membership process lasts roughly 6 weeks, and we offer it three times per year. Our process isn’t perfect, but we’ve seen good fruit over the past ten years. It consists of three parts: two membership classes, a personal meeting, and congregational affirmation.
Two Membership Classes
The goal of our first membership class is to teach prospective members what we believe and why. We teach on the universal church, the local church, and our local church, which includes our Statement of Faith and Church Covenant.
The goal of our second membership class is to explain our requirements and expectations for church members. To help with this, we ask prospective members to read Thabiti Anyabwile’s What is a Healthy Church Member?, which we discuss during the second class.
A Personal Meeting
If prospective members wish to continue the process after attending both classes, they submit a Membership Questionnaire. Along with basic information about themselves, we ask them to share their testimony, their understanding of the gospel, and information about their previous church involvement.
Prospective members then meet with one of our pastors, which gives us the opportunity to know them better, encourage them, and determine whether they’re candidates for membership. As long as a prospective member is a baptized believer who agrees to uphold our statement of faith and church covenant, we happily recommend them to the church body for membership.
At a scheduled members’ meeting, our elders share a photo and basic information about each prospective member, along with a brief version of his or her testimony. We then ask for questions or concerns, and ask the church body to affirm them as members by a vote. Congregational affirmation gives the church body the opportunity to know something about every prospective member, and communicates their responsibility to spiritually care for these people once they’re affirmed.
Only in extremely unusual cases would a congregation vote no on a member the elders have recommended (though I’ve heard of cases in which the membership was at least put on pause, and for good reason). Normally, this step enables members to learn facts about new members—how they got saved, where they work, etc.—that will make relationships easier from the beginning.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
So how long should your membership process last? Since there’s no formula in Scripture, there’s also no right answer. But it may be helpful to answer a few questions before deciding on the length of your process:
- Where you live, are Christians persecuted for their faith, or do most people claim to be Christians? In either case, speeding up or slowing down the process may be wise.
- What are the rhythms of your community? If people are constantly moving in and out of town, a shorter process offered more regularly may be prudent. If the community is fairly stable, offering a lengthier process less often may be best.
- How many elders does your church have, and how available are they to meet with prospective members? If you have more elders, your membership process can be shorter, and you can offer it more regularly.
At the end of the day, your membership process—whether shorter or longer—is a tool for discipleship, usually one of the first ones people come in contact with. Keep these questions and the goals clear your mind, teach your congregation about them, and your process will be helpful—however long it takes.