Church Membership and New Converts
By T. R. Kelley
How do you define church member? In the past the answer would include terms or categories such as baptism, confirmation, or profession of faith. Membership was seen as a destination. As we move into the 21st century Schaller identifies two extremes in defining membership. At one end of the spectrum are high-commitment churches that demand that high standards of belief and behavior be met in order to become a member of the covenant community. Some even utilize the concept of term membership where all memberships automatically expire at midnight on December 31 and must be renewed. At the other end of the spectrum are churches where membership is labeled a voluntary association.
These congregations are filled with members who were born into them or who came by letter of transfer. Those who joined by profession of faith may have had to give assent to certain religious beliefs but no further commitment may ever be required of them to maintain their membership, including worship attendance. So what is the future of church membership, high-commitment or voluntary association? Schaller states that if you count congregations, the larger parade appears to be moving toward the voluntary association end of the spectrum. However, among younger people, the fast-growing parade is moving toward a high-commitment, covenant community approach that makes membership more meaningful (Schaller Bridges 97-103).
Requirements for Membership
Between these two extremes, contemporary approaches to church membership vary. Some large and growing congregations have high expectations of their people but do not have membership rolls. To others, membership is synonymous with conversion and regular worship attendance. Yet, many churches today have high demands for church membership. For example, Communion Fellowship requires a six-month probation and a signed commitment form in addition to the completion of a 12-week class in the basics of Christianity and subsequently joining a small group. This congregation is an example of membership that is reviewed and renewed annually (Stutzman 158-159).
One prominent example of a 21st Century high commitment church is Saddleback Community Church. By the summer of 1999 Saddleback Community Church had a membership of over 10,000 with a weekly worship attendance of 14,000 (Warren Conference 13). The requirements for membership include, 1) attending Class 101 Discovering Saddleback Membership, 2) a personal profession of faith in Christ as Lord an Savior, 3) baptism by immersion as a public testimony, and 4) a signed commitment to abide by the Saddleback membership covenant (Warren Purpose 320). Warren encourages, but does not require, members to join a small group; however, the covenant includes the following:
1. I will protect the unity of my church
* By acting in love toward other members
* By refusing to gossip
* By following the leaders
2. I will share the responsibility of my church
* By praying for its growth
* By inviting the unchurched to attend
* By warmly welcoming those who visit
3. I will serve the ministry of my church
* By discovering my gifts and talents
* By being equipped to serve by my pastors
* By developing a servant’s heart
4. I will support the testimony of my church
* By attending faithfully
* By living a godly life
* By giving regularly (Warren Conference 47)
Another high commitment congregation is Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church near Dayton, Ohio. This church has grown from an average of 90 to 2100 worship attenders with a 62 percent increase in the first three years of the 1990s. Many congregations today see church membership in the same context as membership in a community club or civic organization, not so at Ginghamsburg. Pastor Slaughter declares, It costs something to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It costs something to be a member of his Body (71).
When someone wants to join Ginghamsburg they are asked to spend three months in a class called Vital Christianity. Any missed classes must be made up in order to join the church. Class attendance alone, however, does not insure membership. A person must also 1) demonstrate a commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ, as evidenced by lifestyle integrity, 2) accept the responsibilities and commitments of covenant membership through active giving, worship attendance, participation in a service-outreach ministry, and involvement in a small group. Jesus is calling disciples, not institutional members (71-72). What does an assimilated member of Ginghamsburg look like? An assimilated member:
1. Has accepted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and shows evidence of a transformed lifestyle. (values clarification)
2. Is publicly identified as a follower of Jesus. (by those outside the church)
3. Participates regularly in the celebration of corporate worship.
4. Has bought into the vision and mission of the church, as evidenced through the personal sacrifice of time, talents, and resources.
5. Practices a private devotional life through prayer, meditation, and reflection upon Scripture.
6. Has established important relationships within the Body.
7. Is functioning in a significant responsibility as it relates to Christ’s mission (120).
These high-commitment congregations provide challenging models. What should responsible membership look like in the 21st century? What should be expected of people who join the church? Donald McGavran said, A responsible member carries his or her share of the church’s work giving, worshipping, and working happily with other members. Being a responsible member, includes 1) a relationship with Christ as Head of the Body, 2) a relationship of sharing in the life and work of the local church, 3) discovery and use of spiritual gifts in service, and 4) efforts to correct that which displeases God by bringing peace, justice, love, and brotherhood into the world (51-52). Compare McGavern’s description to the following ten characteristics that Stutzman adapted from a list issued by the Institute for American Church Growth. Responsible church members:
1. Grow spiritually.
2. Are faithful in worship attendance.
3. Have many friendships in the congregation.
4. Belong to a fellowship group.
5. Identify with the body. Members should be able to say, This is our church.
6. Have roles or tasks appropriate for their spiritual gifts.
7. Identify with the goals of the church.
8. Understand and own the mission and values of the church.
9. Are concerned about stewardship.
10. Bring other people to Christ and the church (159-160).
Membership or Newcomer Classes
Many church consultants suggest that local congregations should offer a new member orientation. It is know by a variety of names: new member orientation, new member classes, and newcomer orientation classes (Martin Issachar 121; Oswald 80; Waldrup 3; Schaller Active 45-46; Logan Beyond 113; Stutzman 163).
The length of these classes varies from several hours on one day to one hour a week for eight or nine months. Ben Patterson offers ten weeks of classes, which may seem like a large commitment. Yet he is reminded that the pastor in the second or third century would see this as positively superficial compared to the early church’s practice of requiring a year of instruction before baptism. The way a person enters a church or any organization greatly influences the way he or she will function. Men and women will take their commitment to Christ and the church more seriously if they have taken time to be instructed in what vital Christian faith and responsible church membership means (82-83).
What should take place in the new member’s class? On the audiocassette, Assimilating Visitors into the Life of Your Church, Logan suggests that class time be equally divided between lecture and small group discussion. For the first four weeks have participants form new small groups each week. Then, for the final four weeks ask them to form small groups that will stay together for the remainder of the class. This allows the bonding of friendships and the formation of new small groups.
There are a variety of approaches to new member classes. Yet the following list represents a reasonable consensus from the literature of which elements merit inclusion in a new member class:
1. Get to know the pastor and staff.
2. Confirm commitment to Christ.
3. Fellowship with other newcomers.
4. Encourage spiritual growth.
5. Learn about the church vision, values and goals.
6. Learn about basic Christian beliefs.
7. Grow spiritually.
8. Become involved in a small group.
9. Discover spiritual gifts and use them in personal ministry.
10. Decide on ministry involvement.
11. Determine financial stewardship.
12. Understand membership commitment and provide opportunity to join. (Logan Toolkit 7-12;
Martin Issachar 121; Warren Purpose 318; Stutzman 164; Slaughter 139).
From: www.newcommunitytoday.org web site. October 2006
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.