Mailbag #62: How to Encourage Attendance at Members’ Meetings; The Relationship between Baptism & Church Membership

Mailbag
05.19.2017

Could you provide some wisdom for how to handle situations where members are consistently neglectful of attending members’ meetings? »
I understand that baptism should precede church membership. But must membership always follow baptism? »

Dear 9Marks,

Could you please provide some wisdom for how to handle situations where members are consistently neglectful of attending members’ meetings?

—Erik, Nebraska

Dear Erik,

Thanks for your question. I want you to think about two biblical texts here. First, 1 Peter 5:3 instructs you and me as pastors to “not domineer” or “lord over” those in our charge. Second, Ephesians 4:11 teaches us that our job is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.”

So, we as elders have a job. The members of the church have a job. And our as pastors job is to equip them as church members to do their job. Their job, with regard to the body as a whole, is to guard the who and the what of the gospel, and part of how members do their job requires them to participate in the decision-making that occurs in a members’ meeting.

So the question you should be concerned about is this: how can you encourage and teach members to do this without being domineering?

First, pray for them.

Second, use membership classes, membership interviews, sermons, Sunday School classes, and book handouts to cast a vision of the church member’s work. Have you explained to them why attending members’ meetings is important? Do they understand that Jesus has charged them with protecting the gospel witness of their fellow members (Matt. 18:15–20) or that Paul and John intends for them to ensure that right doctrine is taught, which is to say, right teachers are in place (see Gal. 1:6–9; 1 John 4:1–3)? In other words, do your people understand that the kinds of matters discussed and decisions made in a members meeting emerge from their priestly responsibilities in the gospel (see 2 Cor. 6:14–7:1)?

Third, consider how you are presently using your members’ meetings. Do you involve them in receiving and dismissing members? Do you involve them in church discipline, for the purpose of protecting the who of the gospel? Do you involve them in choosing elders and deacons, for the purpose of protecting the what of the gospel? Do you offer ministry reports that remind them of their ownership of the ministry? Also, do you adopt language and a tone that treats it as a “business meeting” or a “family affair”? Work to make it the latter.

Fourth, remind the whole church in the weeks leading up to the meeting of its importance. Perhaps say something like, “Please make plans to join us for the members’ meeting this coming _______. Remember, this is where we work to care for one another as a family.”

Fifth, speak to people privately if an occasion presents itself, encouraging them to come. But be gentle and patient, knowing that maturity comes slowly.

No, I would not move toward church discipline for a failure to attend members’ meetings. (In general, I lean away from discipline for sins of omission.) We’re teachers. We work for maturity over the long term. That’s why Paul tells us to teach “with complete patience” (2 Tim. 4:2). In other words, your goal is not to get absentee members to begin attending this year. Your goal is to help them grow into maturity so that they’re more likely to attend over the next five, ten, or twenty years because they love the body and the work of the gospel.

Dear 9Marks,

I have found several discussions on your website about baptism as a necessary prerequisite for church membership. But I have not found any discussions about church membership as a necessary post-requisite for baptism. Must membership follow baptism?

—Will, Maryland

Dear Will,

My one sentence answer is, church membership should ordinarily follow baptism.

Notice, I didn’t say necessarily. Ordinarily, you want to keep membership and baptism tied closely together since baptism is a sign of entrance into the fellowship of Christ’s body, the church, which we represent in our local fellowships.

A pastor friend of mine (who sometimes reads this column!) once shared a story with me of baptizing an older man with whom he had been sharing the gospel for some time. He wanted to rejoice with me, and I rejoiced! Then, almost in passing, he mentioned that he also hoped to bring this older man into membership at some point. I said, “Wuuuuuut?!” I don’t remember how the conversation went after that.

But here’s my concern: when you baptize someone, you baptize them “into the name” of Father, Son, and Spirit (Mt. 28:19). You publicly identify them with Christ. You say to the nations, “This one belongs to Jesus.” After that, the people who “gather in Christ’s name” (Mt. 18:20) possess the responsibility to teach, care, and watch over this person. And the person has the responsibility to watch over those who gather in Christ’s name (Mt. 18:15–20), like I talked about in the first answer above. To baptize someone but not to bring them into membership is like hatching a chick but not protecting it in the nest. It’s leaving the believer outside the camp, unwatched and unaccountable. This doesn’t make any sense to me.

The first church in Jerusalem baptized people into membership: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). I don’t know if they wrote those names down on an Excel spreadsheet, but they were counting. They were keeping track. They knew who “they” were.

You also want to keep baptism connected to the Lord’s Supper. Or rather, you want to keep baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and membership bound tightly together. The ordinances, after all, are signs of membership. All three do the same thing: they affirm someone’s profession of faith, and they signify that affirmation. Baptism is the doorway into the body of members; the Supper is the regular family meal for those members (see 1 Cor. 10:16–17, esp. v. 17). (For more on this, you might find these two books useful: Understanding Baptism and Understanding the Lord’s Supper.)

There are rare occasions, however, where you might baptize someone who is immediately moving away. For instance, we baptized one woman who was planning on immediately moving back to her home country, to a city with no known church, in order to care for an ailing mother. She had become a Christian through our international ministry. Her situation was certainly an exception to the rule.

I pray this is useful.