Implementing Membership in an Existing Church
“How can we get involved in ministry in this church?”
The seasoned couple wanted to begin serving that very day—hosting small groups, leading Bible studies, anything. Encouraged by their enthusiasm, I simply urged them to continue coming along and getting to know the church better. The fact is, new attenders shouldn’t be serving the church in any official ways, from serving coffee to volunteering with childcare.
This isn’t because we’re mean or unwelcoming. It’s because we believe the most important question that should confront a new person attending any church is this: Where do you stand with God? Have you been forgiven of your sins and adopted into his family? Until you address these issues, your service in the church may simply distract you from these most important questions.
WE DIDN’T KNOW WHO “WE” WERE
When I began pastoring the United Christian Church of Dubai in 2005, we didn’t know who “we” were.
There was no list stating who was and was not a member in good standing of our church. There were just several hundred people showing up on a weekly basis, some regularly, some not. People who had never committed to the church were not only serving coffee, they were leading small groups. The elders didn’t know it, but some of these official leaders held unorthodox views like universalism and modalism. They had never been vetted through any membership process.
Paul instructed the Ephesian elders: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). Without membership, how could we know who that flock was so we could pray for them and care for them? Is it just those people who happened to appear at our weekly gatherings? Hebrews 13:17 says we will “give an account” for the flock entrusted to us. Thus, it’s important to know who they are.
This is why my church began to observe formal church membership six years ago. By establishing membership, the elders could know and care for the flock entrusted to them.
RUNNING INTO TURBULENCE
Everyone at UCCD was fine with membership as long as it remained optional. No one objected to membership for leaders only, or for the extra-committed, or as a new management technique. But when we presented membership as an expectation for all the believers of our congregation, we hit turbulence. Many people didn’t understand or agree that membership was a biblical expectation. Some even considered it to be legalistic, divisive, or exclusive.
The interview process for new members was especially contested. One person wrote, “I have never been to a church where you feel like you are required to pass the test as a Christian in order to belong to the family. The whole church experience is meant to be a loving and caring experience. . . . Surely you first lovingly invite the members into the church and then if you feel they need guidance or further mentoring to grow as Christians then you can set something up. We have felt like we have had to meet the grade before we can belong to the UCCD church and I’m pretty sure that this is not the way God intended it to be.”
MEMBERSHIP: THE SECOND MOST IMPORTANT TOOL FOR REFORM
Six years later, in spite of these objections, we have found that biblical church membership has been vital to strengthening our church. In fact, aside from the preaching of the Word, I believe the most important way to reform a congregation is to implement membership.
LESSONS LEARNED ALONG THE WAY
Here are some lessons we learned along the way.
1. Teach on it first.
The surest way to alienate a congregation is to begin changing the culture of the church without laying out a biblical case for the change. Paul exhorted Timothy to minister with “great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). If your church existed for years without biblical membership, then it may take years to see true biblical change.
2. Preach expositionally.
As people grow spiritually through hearing the Word preached every week, they will be more receptive to biblical arguments for church government, and indeed for all of life. “The Spirit gives life” (John 6:63), and he uses the Word to do it.
3. Raise the bar on what it means to be a Christian.
Highlight God’s holiness in your preaching, along with the corresponding demand that God’s people reflect his character (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:16).
Through a steady diet of expositional preaching, point out church discipline in the New Testament (see, for example, Gal. 6:1-2, 2 Thess. 3:6-15, 1 Tim. 5:19-20, Tit. 3:10-11, Jude 22-23, etc.). Eventually people may wonder why they haven’t seen discipline in their church lately. Church discipline is the clearest evidence in the Bible for church membership (for example, Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5; also 2 Cor. 2:6).
A church is an identifiable group of believers who are self-consciously committed to each other. Their lives are not perfect, but by God’s grace they are substantially, observably different from the world around them. As you underscore what it means to be God’s “holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9), membership will begin to make more sense.
4. Make corporate application in your sermons.
Don’t only apply Scripture to individual believers. Ask people to consider what a passage says to the church as a whole. Over time this will affect their orientation toward community and covenantal responsibility one with another.
5. Spread this vision among elders and other leaders.
Hand out Mark Dever’s brief booklet A Display of God’s Glory to up-and-coming leaders in your church. If your leaders prefer comedy, try Mike McKinley’s Church Planting is for Wimps. Talk them through the arguments for a biblically ordered congregation.
6. Model robust community in your own life.
Make your life a microcosm of the strong corporate community you desire to see in your church. Be hospitable. Go to lunch with men who are responding to your ministry. Begin to build a core community that recognizes the value of accountability and fellowship. Start small, and be patient and prayerful in your interactions with others.
7. Pray that God would enrich the relationships in your church so that membership would make sense.
Without genuine Christian community, membership is just a shell. We are dependent on the Holy Spirit to create the brotherly affection and maintain the unity which membership so beautifully displays. Be much in prayer for the fellowship and relationships in your church. Encourage spiritual conversations. As relationships deepen in your church, confession of sin and correction will become more normal.
8. Implement a church covenant to highlight corporate responsibility.
A covenant is a promise each member makes to love and care for the church. And it specifies the obligations believers have to one another. If your church is more than 50 years old, you may already have a covenant lying around in storage somewhere. Dust it off and re-introduce it to your church, but only after you’ve taught on the concepts at length. If you don’t have one, consider this one.
In order to make sure the covenant is actually a “living” document in your church, recite it together before the Lord’s Supper or members’ meetings. True membership is comprised of those who have self-consciously covenanted with others in your church. Without a covenant and membership, your church may be just a preaching point.
9. Prepare for objections.
Objection #1: We’ve never done this before.
Answer: Allow the Bible, not tradition, to establish what you do in church. Consider the prevalence of church discipline in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 18:15-17, 1 Cor. 5, 2 Cor. 2:6). If one can be put out of an identifiable assembly, one can also be put in. That’s membership. And the New Testament assumes that all Christians are members of churches.
Objection #2: Membership is legalistic and unloving.
Answer: It can be, but it isn’t necessarily, and it shouldn’t be. In fact, allowing someone to remain comfortably a part of your church without ever confronting the question of where he or she stands with God is perhaps the most unloving thing you can ever do. Admittedly, membership alone won’t cause your congregation to be more loving, but it should be a potent display of Spirit-wrought community.
Objection #3: It’s too time-consuming. At the end of a busy elders’ meeting, who wants to devote attention to a dozen new-member interview forms and talk through individual details, lives, and testimonies? An elder once asked me, “Can’t we delegate this to a deacon?”
Answer: An elder’s fundamental calling is not to administer programs but to “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). What could be more integral to such a calling than seeing new members in and old members out?
MEMBERSHIP FRONT-LOADS THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS
Another reason to practice church membership is that it front-loads the most important questions. The screening process and the pastoral contact are vital for the church.
One man from Yemen pursued membership at UCCD, but based on the interview he clearly wasn’t a believer. Alerted to this fact, we began to work with him on basic gospel truths. Now he’s a thriving Christian sharing the gospel with others. When another man from South Africa went through the membership process, he was unable to explain the gospel clearly, although he seemed to believe the Truth and gave evidence of fruit of faith. After a couple more intentional conversations and John Stott’s Basic Christianity, his faith began to deepen and flourish. Now he serves faithfully as a deacon in our church. Many more people have been saved and strengthened through the membership process at UCCD.
Of course, not everyone is persuaded.
Three years ago a husband who was unhappy with our membership process wrote to the elders regarding his wife, who had been unsettled after her membership interview. “The whole experience has had her questioning the Christian faith,” he said.
Little did he realize that that is exactly what membership is supposed to do.
It’s supposed to cause us to examine our faith (2 Cor. 13:5). Why? Not because we pastors are abrasive or insensitive or unsympathetic. Not because we believe we are better than others, or we sit in judgment over people’s faith. Rather, we should allow the process of church membership to cause us to examine our faith because the question “Am I really a Christian?” is one of the most important questions we can ever face.