How to Conduct a Membership Interview
The popularity of individualistic, private Christianity creates and perpetuates serious challenges. For instance, Christians have little sense of their collective responsibility for one another’s discipleship. Nominalism abounds. And few Christians fully grasp what it means to be a church member. Even many theologically driven and expositional preaching churches don’t regularly emphasize Scripture’s corporate implications to their people.
I've felt the (seeming) futility of trying to address these problems. Yet, by grace, membership in our church has slowly become meaningful, and one of the more crucial tools in this transition is interviewing those who desire to join the church.
The two-pronged goal of an interview is to (1) disciple the person, and (2) discern whether their profession of faith in Jesus is credible. You want to disciple and discern.
Topics covered in our membership interviews include (1) greeting and prayer; (2) basic contact, family, and church history information; (3) personal testimony; (4) gospel definition; (5) personal questions on the soul and commitment to our church; and (6) an overview of expectations and next steps.1 Let's think about how to interview strategically by discipling and discerning.
Christians disciple others by helping them move toward maturity in Jesus. Even something as mundane as a membership interview can disciple Christians toward Jesus in gospel confidence, gospel gratitude, and gospel community.
At the same time, you must discern whether or not you would recommend the candidate for membership. In order to do this, you need to know if a person's profession of faith in Jesus is credible. Credibility does not look for absolute certainty but rather observable evidence of continuing repentance from sin and functional faith in Christ.
Now, if you barely know someone, how can you possibly discern the credibility of a profession? Simply put, look for a basic understanding of the gospel and a present willingness to obey all that Christ commands (Matt 28:20). You can discern it by their gospel explanation, their testimony, and their willingness to join a church that practices meaningful membership.
Let's look at these three categories for discipleship and discernment.
Disciple for gospel confidence.
Here’s the most important question you can ask a prospective member: "What is the gospel?" Asking for a simple understanding of the gospel message2 disciples the prospective member toward stability in the Word about Christ. You want to make sure they understand both Christ's death for our sins and his resurrection for our justification. You want to make sure they have categories of (1) God's creation and righteousness, (2) man's dignity, sinfulness, and condemnation, (3) Christ's person and work, and (4) the necessity to respond in repentance from sin and trust in the Lord Jesus. New and untaught Christians will likely stumble through the basic message, so don’t be afraid to coach them where they are shaky. Ask them directly if they believe this gospel, and then thank God for their profession.
Discern credible faith by their gospel explanation .
Do they understand the gospel? If they think God accepts them based on their works, if they don't believe Jesus rose from the dead (I had a missionary joining our church who thought Jesus only rose spiritually), or if they have no clue why Jesus died, then pause the process to make sure they understand the gospel. In these situations, you may need to invite them to a few studies on the gospel.3 Perhaps you can connect them one-on-one with a church member.
Disciple for gospel gratitude.
Ask for their life story focusing on their conversion—what life was before and after God saved them. When were they baptized? By which gospel church? What churches have they been a part of, and what was their most recent church experience? What are their major life-shaping events and relationships? In all of this, we celebrate the grace of God, reminding them of God's faithfulness.
Discern credible faith by their testimony .
Do they testify of a change in their lives after becoming a Christian? Do they mention the fruit of repentance, even if they don’t use such a phrase? If they don't know when they became a Christian, have they seen the effects of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit working in them and changing them from who they would otherwise be? Their willing commitment to gospel community may express it.
COMMITMENT TO CHURCH
Disciple for gospel community.
Biblical community is intended to flourish within a structure of commitment and accountability. This membership interview should be used to solidify their connection with the church as they volunteer their basic contact information, and you volunteer different on-ramps to involvement in the church.
Speaking candidly is crucial to biblical community. Since each member is a priest-king responsible to participate with the whole church in exercising the keys of the kingdom,4 we need to teach them to speak up. The interview provides an opportunity to do so as we ask for both godly encouragement and criticism. They'll learn that we seek to improve the church as we ask for feedback on the membership class, Sunday gatherings, the singing, the preaching, small groups, the prayer meeting, and anything else they’ve observed. Openness to another's observations strengthens the church and honors Christ.
Furthermore, disciple them toward meaningful friendships by asking direct personal questions, summarizing the responsibilities of new members, and asking if they agree with the statement of faith and church covenant.
Don’t be afraid to ask, “How is your personal relationship with Jesus?” But before you ask personal questions, be sure to let them know that you’re asking so that you may shepherd them well.
Discern by their willingness to exercise collective responsibility.
Christ commissions us to obey everything he commanded (Matt 28:20). Since you already clarified the collective responsibility and expectation of church membership and discipline, do they happily receive it? Are they willing to give and receive the ministry of corrective discipline (Matt 18:15–17)? If they grasp the gravity of Christ’s charge to follow him in everything, then it is generally sufficient for me to recommend them for membership.
Discern by their willingness to be shepherded.
Certainly some situations may arise, case-by-case, that will cause you to press pause, or to dig for more info, or perhaps even to contact their previous church. But generally speaking, if they answer your direct questions, understand the expectations, and are willing to share their story, then that’s a helpful clue that their profession is credible.
On the other hand, if a prospective member resists wise and meaningful shepherding, if they seem disinterested in collective responsibility, then it would be wise to pause the process and continue to teach the Bible until they display a more willing and understanding spirit. If such disagreements persist, then it’s perhaps best for them to simply join another local church where they can join without concern.
The bottom line is this: Strategize how to interview prospective members effectively. Keep the process relatively uniform so that any pastor can do it. This likely starts with adopting a basic membership interview template.5
If you don't interview prospective members effectively, then you may miss an opportunity to weaken the culture of individualistic, private Christianity. You may also create unnecessary problems in your church down the road.
Perhaps you've been deflated by Christians coming from unhealthy church cultures. But if you interview new people, if you seek to disciple them as you discern the credibility of their profession, then you can have greater confidence that the Bible's teaching of collective responsibility is more personally pressed on their hearts and minds.
This is effective shepherding.
1 For a list of more specific questions, see "A Sample Template for Conducting a Membership Interview."
3 We use Michael Bennett, Christianity Explained (The Good Book Company, 2013).
4 See Jonathan Leeman, Don't Fire Your Church Members (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016) or his condensed teaching on the subject in Understanding the Congregation's Authority (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2016).