“Just Give Me the Facts” A Pastors’ Forum

“Just Give Me the Facts” A Pastors’ Forum
Chuck Lawless

As a young pastor, I read as many books and attended as many conferences as I could in order to learn how to lead a church. I learned the most, though, by listening to other church leaders who had led, or who were effectively leading, their own churches. The goal of this chapter is to let you listen to leaders of churches that move attendees into membership and ministry. Six pastors agreed to contribute to this discussion.

Each of these men responded to five questions posed by our research team. We’ll let them speak for themselves in this chapter, trusting that you will learn much from them.

Question 1: Explain your church’s membership process, i.e., how does one become a member of your church?

KH: You become a member of Valley View by committing your life to Jesus and following through with baptism or by your testimony that you have previously done so. We still have a walk-forward invitation, but we do not present the people at that time. We simply celebrate with those making decisions, which allow us time to counsel strategically with those who have come forward.

You can also become a member at the conclusion of our “Discovery Class,” which discusses our purpose, vision, and so forth.

DJ: In the Presbyterian Church, a candidate for membership appears before the governing board (session) and gives one of the responses listed below. We encourage all potential candidates to attend our inquiry class before meeting with the session.

* If the person has never made a profession of faith and been baptized, he or she responds affirmatively to the question “Do you affirm your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and will you be a faithful member of this congregation, giving of yourself as God has equipped you for Christ’s service?” A time of baptism is then arranged.

* If the person is a member in good standing of another congregation, he or she simply requests that a letter of membership transfer be sent to our church.

* If the person has made a profession of faith and been baptized but a letter of membership transfer is not forthcoming, he or she makes a reaffirmation of faith.

RS: People join our church through baptism by immersion following conversion, through transfer of membership from a church of like faith and order, or by statement of their faith and Christian baptism. Regarding church membership, our church constitution also states:

* Following counseling to confirm that the candidate is qualified for membership according to the church constitution, the candidate will be presented in a church service for affirmation by the members. Individuals who are living in open adultery or fornication or are engaging in homosexual behavior are ineligible for membership.

* All new members of this church will be asked to participate in the new member orientation process. In addition, the new believer will be asked to complete a study of basic Christian disciplines.

We have an invitation at the end of every worship service. People are invited to join our church and to make other spiritual commitments as well. When a person comes forward, he or she is greeted by one of our pastors. Children are directed to one of our children’s ministry staff members. Individuals are briefly counseled at the front of the church before being introduced to the congregation at the end of the service. During the closing prayer, they are then led to a private area to be individually counseled by a pastor.

At this initial meeting, they are instructed regarding baptism or questioned regarding their baptism. They are given a membership covenant and invited to the next membership information meeting. New believers are invited to a class designed for them. Children are required to read and fill out a special booklet before they can be baptized. After completing the booklet, they must meet with someone from the children’s ministry team for an interview. Children must be nine years old before they are baptized.

BH: People first connect with Harpeth Community Church through one of our groups or through the Sunday morning worship service. Those who first connect through a small group eventually attend the Sunday morning service, which becomes the place of primary contact. Those who fill in “prayer and care” cards are contacted and invited to our 101 seminar. The purpose of this seminar, advertised every week in our bulletin, is “to explain the core teachings in the Bible on what it is to be a Christian.” Then, after the 101 seminar, if people continue to attend church, they are invited to our 201 seminar, which explains the beliefs, mission, vision, values, and programs of the church. At the end of 201, people are invited to make a commitment to become members.

SB: To become a member you need to go through our class. We have five of these a year. Three are a full weekend (Friday night, Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.). Two are a pair of sequential Sunday afternoons. At the end of the class, we will have gone over their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, some theological foundations, what it means to be a Presbyterian, and the responsibilities of membership.

During the class they will have met three times in small groups and are invited/expected to become part of an ongoing small group. At the end of the class, they need to deal with four membership questions.

* Who is your Lord and Savior?

* Do you trust in him?

* Do you intend to be his disciple, to obey his word, and to show his love?

* Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, giving of yourselves in every way, and will you seek the fellowship of the church wherever you may be?

BG: People are accepted into the Hunter Street church family by receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and obeying him through believers’ baptism by immersion; by transfer of membership from another Baptist church (having already made a profession of faith in Christ and having been baptized by immersion); by statement of faith in Jesus Christ, with prior membership in a church that teaches salvation through Jesus Christ, then obedience through believers’ baptism; or by baptism from another Christian denomination, having made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ but having never been baptized by immersion as a believer.

We offer a monthly membership information class. This class helps attendees make an informed decision in their personal commitment to Christ and to our church family. The class may be attended by anyone desiring information, but it is also a requirement for church membership. When requesting membership, attendees complete a commitment card that includes our membership covenant, to which they signify agreement by their signature. People may present themselves for membership at the close of a worship service and then attend the membership information class, or they may attend the class and join at the close of the class.

Question 2: Some say that people don’t want to join churches today. Have you found this to be the case? How does your church emphasize membership?

KH: If people are anxious about joining a church, it’s usually because they don’t know what we expect of them. In other words, they don’t know how to join the church—so I try to briefly explain this process each Sunday during the response time. We also have a “New Members’ Board” in the lobby, which allows our people to see the new members’ pictures while emphasizing the positive aspects of being a church member. The names of the new members are also listed in our Sunday and Wednesday bulletins in order to emphasize the importance of church membership and to allow our people to celebrate what God is doing in the lives of people and in the church.

DJ: Some persons join rather soon, but others take longer. But Sandia Presbyterian Church has not encountered a non-joining attitude, other than in a small portion of our worshipers. We constantly emphasize membership. Pictures of our newest members are posted prominently by the doors leading into the sanctuary. New members are introduced monthly to the congregation in a worship service. And new member dinners are held quarterly at the senior pastor’s home.

To make candidates for membership aware of the inquiry meetings and the next session meeting, a standard procedure is followed week after week, month after month:

* During the “ritual of friendship” time at every worship service, the senior or associate pastor says, “For those of you looking for a church home, our next inquiry class at Sandia Presbyterian Church will be held on___________. Please sign up on the sheet in the fellowship hall.”

* “Blurbs” promoting the inquiry class are in every issue of the newsletter and every Sunday morning bulletin.
* A first-time visitor receives a letter of welcome from the senior pastor, along with a brochure about all the available programs and ministries. A second-time visitor gets a phone call from the new member coordinator. A third-time visitor gets another letter from the senior pastor, inviting him or her to an inquiry class.

RS: An attitude of not wanting to join may be more prevalent in places like California, where people may not be as likely to have a church heritage. We emphasize the importance of church membership in our membership information class. We have a saying: “We want people to not only believe but belong.” Also, I mention in my sermons the importance of membership with regard to areas of accountability and ministry involvement. We talk of the church as a family to which we belong.

A person cannot serve in a ministry position in our church unless he or she is a member and has signed the leadership covenant. Therefore, membership means something at Valley Baptist. It represents connection, belonging, family, and accountability.

BH: Most eventually want to join the church. However, we have found that those who don’t want to financially support the church or who don’t want further involvement (beyond attending the main worship service) will not attend our 201 seminar or, if they have attended it, will not become members. We invite all regular attendees to become members, and we emphasize that it is an important part of discipleship and growth in one’s spiritual journey.

With new Christians, we’ve found that they need time before they will commit to membership. Because we have two seminars before membership, it allows time for them to process what it means to be a Christian and then to discover who we are and our expectations of them as a church. If membership is pushed quickly, especially with high expectations, many find we are asking for too much too fast. We look at both conversion and membership as the fruit of a process, and we want to be careful not to rush people.

SB: Yes, it is true that membership is suspect. People enter church with one hand on the door and the other guarding their wallet. Membership means “I’m diving in.” It’s not unusual for people in our church to have attended for over a year before they join. We try to fight this by announcing the membership classes, providing testimonies from people who have attended, and showing videos of the class. We want people to see that this is a compelling, life-impacting experience.

We’ve recently adopted a new approach that emphasizes membership. After the new members answer their membership questions before the congregation, we ask all members to stand and recite, along with the new members, these promises of membership:

* Gather—I promise to worship at Chapel Hill regularly and to share my life with others in this church family.

* Glorify—I promise to love God with all my heart.

* Grapple—I promise to wrestle with life’s challenges while holding on to Jesus.
* Give—I promise to be obedient to God’s claim on my money and my talents for his work at Chapel Hill.

* Go—I promise to stretch myself to reach others with God’s love and truth.

This approach runs the risk of alienating nonmembers, but we think the greater opportunity is that it elevates membership in a way that invites others to join.

BG: People are more noncommittal than ever before, so teaching the importance of commitment is crucial to the spiritual life of an individual and of the church corporately. The percentage of “regular attendees” has risen slightly over the past decade but not significantly here at Hunter Street. Church membership is a requirement for all lay leadership positions at our church.
Membership in God’s family is emphasized by teaching the biblical foundation for church membership from the pulpit and in Sunday morning Bible study classes. Information on “How to Join the Church Family” is printed in the weekly Sunday morning worship bulletins. Once a month in the worship bulletin worshipers are encouraged to register for the membership information class. I also write a letter to all guests who worship with us for the third time, extending an invitation to attend the membership information class. Each month prior to the class, the membership minister then personally invites all who have expressed an interest in the membership information class or who have been regularly attending worship. “Membership leaders” of Sunday morning Bible study classes also promote the membership information class to attendees who have not yet joined the church. We have found that our church members are the best encouragers for church membership, as they share their enthusiasm for being part of our church family.

Question 3: How does your church move people from membership into ministry? How do you get them involved?

KH: We have a simple four-step process for assimilation. We show this process on the worship center screen just about every Sunday, so people know what we are going to ask them:

* Step #1: Attend the “Member Information Class”— a onetime, sixty-minute class we offer every month. This class acquaints the new member with everything we have to offer. We’ve put together a little notebook that lets them know about every ministry at Valley View. Those who want to join are also required to sign a membership covenant at the end of this class, which is another way to communicate our expectations of them and our commitment to them.

* Step #2: Join a small group. At the end of the member information class, we encourage participants to join a small group, which involves a Sunday morning Bible fellowship class and possibly a monthly care group.

* Step #3: Attend the “Pastor’s Discovery Class” —a three-hour class we offer every other month on a Sunday afternoon. This class discusses our vision, doctrine, mission, and so forth. We also require this class for every leader in our church.

* Step #4: Attend the “Servants by Design Class”—a three-hour class we offer every other Sunday afternoon at the same time as the discovery class. This class looks at personalities, spiritual gifts, and opportunities to serve. We are constantly encouraging our people to invite others to serve with them in areas of their passion.

DJ: Sandia Presbyterian Church has from its beginning been blessed with about 20 percent of the attendees of each worship service being nonmembers. We’ve always welcomed nonmembers to join in our programs or ministries—to test the fit and to try out what it would feel like to be a member. The only things a nonmember cannot do are cast a vote in a congregational meeting and serve as an officer.

Informally, staff members and church members are always urging other members to get involved. Our formal process of moving people into ministry includes the following:

* During our basic discipleship courses, we invite participants to go one step further and take our SHAPE course, discover their gifts, and find their ministry niche.

* During our three-hour inquiry class, I promote our seven core commitments, one of which is “find your ministry.” We describe our programs and ministries, including the SHAPE class.

* Our annual commitment card is also distributed and discussed during the inquiry class. This large card (8 x13) outlines for new member candidates how we expect our members to get involved: Pray for Sandia ______ times per month; attend worship ______ times per month; attend Bible study/Sunday school/small group ______ times per month; invite _____ persons to church functions in [current year]; serve in Christ’s church as indicated below, and then we list various volunteer opportunities the candidate can choose.

* New members are received at the monthly session meeting and then dismissed to discuss with the new member coordinator, the volunteer coordinator, and the associate pastor how they are going to get involved. The volunteer coordinator keeps a data bank of volunteer information.

* The commitment card is distributed to all members and updated during stewardship season each year. The commitment to a volunteer ministry runs from February of one year through January of the next. We devote time each January to train volunteers for their ministries.

RS: At our membership information dinner, we survey new members’ ministry experience and interests. This information is passed on to the appropriate ministry leader. The ministry leader will then interview and personally recruit new members for ministry if they are needed and are ready to serve.

In our discipleship ministry we have a system for developing leaders called LIFE—”Leadership Institute for Equipping.” The classes generally meet for an hour and a half for thirteen weeks, and we offer classes on four levels. The first level includes foundational classes for Christian living. The second level includes classes that are foundational for ministry. The third level consists of general leadership and communication classes. The fourth level includes ministry-specific classes; for example, there are child development classes for those who work with children, music classes for those who want to be part of a music ministry, and youth worker classes. A person is certified as a leader after so many classes have been taken in each level.

Each May we have a “leadership fast track” that lasts four weeks. The first week’s class focuses on general leadership principles. At the other weeks’ classes, various ministry leaders explain their specific ministry and the opportunities for service. Interested individuals then come alongside a ministry leader in a ministry context for three weeks in order to determine if they want to pursue that particular ministry.

BH: Those who become members commit “to do their best to be actively involved in an area of service at Harpeth Community Church.” We set ministry as a key part of membership. Then, after our membership seminar (201), we strongly encourage members to attend our 301 seminar. The purpose of this seminar is to help people identify their spiritual gifts; in the process, we help people see how they might uniquely serve in certain areas. We set up a special one-on-one interview with a staff member, who helps find the best place of service to match each person’s giftedness. We’ve found that shoulder tapping, where we personally as leaders ask for their specific help in a ministry, is the key to getting people involved.

SB: First, many people become involved at some level before they become members. Second, our specific strategy for getting them involved at a personal level is the follow-up small groups. In this setting, they gain the relational strength to try something new Third, at the time of each inquiry class we also create a “getting connected” list of the current jobs that are available We do find, though, that we’re not as effective as we wish we were in this regard. We need more follow-up and more connecting of people to ministries.

BG: “Every member is a minister” is practiced by the ministerial staff through equipping the saints to do the work of ministry and also by members as they become educated to realize they are ministers as well.

Sunday morning Bible study classes are fundamental to the goal of seeing our members become involved in the life of our church. It is here that people grow together in Bible study, personal relationships, and ministry to guests and members alike. Every person who joins our church family is assigned to be a member of a Bible study class. Many of those who join our church have already been attending a class. They are assigned as potential members to classes immediately following their first worship visit. These classes are responsible for ongoing contact under the guidance of the class “membership leader.”

Because we believe church health is more important than church growth, the goal of becoming a “grand slam disciple” is promoted throughout the church body. Once people commit to church membership, they attend our “second base” discipleship class, where they learn the basics of how to begin maturing in their walk with Christ. After that, they attend the “third base” class. Each potential class attendee completes a questionnaire defining his or her “SHAPE.” The class includes a ministry fair, where attendees can visit exhibits of all the church ministries in which they can be involved. Those indicating interest in a ministry are contacted by the minister of that particular area and then trained for service. Different ministries are spotlighted in weekly and monthly publications, with testimonies and invitations for people to become involved.

Question 4: What is the value of your church’s membership class? What is your role in the class?

KH: The entire membership process has been critical to helping us sustain our growth. Emphasizing the importance of membership has helped us keep a close eye on the back door of the church. We certainly aren’t perfect in this area, but we are much, much improved since implementing our assimilation strategy. I lead the discovery class, and I also emphasize the four-step assimilation strategy from the pulpit.

DJ: Our class is called the “Inquiry Class into Sandia Presbyterian Church.” It consists almost entirely of nonmembers who want to know what belonging to SPC entails. I personally conduct this class in my capacity as senior pastor. It gives me the opportunity to get to know newcomers—and they get to know me. This personal touch helps me pick up on some things right away—baptisms to be performed, kids to be channeled into youth group, obvious interests and gifts, and so forth.

Among the many other benefits, this class gives me an opportunity to go over denominational history, to share the history and structure of Sandia Presbyterian Church, to define church membership and explain the benefits thereof, to go over the core commitments of Sandia—what we expect of members—and to promote our hands-on missions and mission giving, both locally and globally.

RS: We have a membership class that meets each month on Sunday evening. We call it a membership information meeting because anyone who is interested in becoming a member may attend, as may the new member. Generally between thirty and eighty people attend. The meeting is divided into three parts. My co-pastor leads the first part, which covers the church’s confession of faith and doctrinal distinctives. I take over for the next hour, dealing first with our church government and structure. I also talk about our church’s strategy, which includes a discussion of our ministry philosophy and vision. Our minister of discipleship concludes with a third session about our opportunities for service. During this time he talks about ministry and ways to get involved.

It’s been our experience that families will often join our church immediately after attending the information class. Also, I’ve found that those who attend feel more personally connected to me as their pastor.

We also have a new believer’s class that meets during Sunday school. The class is four weeks long and runs continually. A new believer can start at any point. We have a group of people called “encouragers” who are assigned to new believers to help them in one-on-one discipleship.

BH: The value of the classes (we do two seminars) is very high. You cannot become a member without attending both of them. We have also found that people really value and appreciate the two classes after they’ve attended them because it has helped them to know where the church stands and what it believes.
I teach the first seminar (“Christian Basics”) because my gifting is evangelism, because people want to get to know the lead pastor, and because I want to make an early connection with everyone who will become a member. I share the second seminar (the beliefs, mission, vision, values, and practices of the church) with my associate minister.

SB: The value of a membership class is that it acculturates people to our church. It says that our values are Jesus, relationships, excellence, honesty, and the journey of faith. In addition, we are able to see from our data that membership means “buy in” for individuals. They realize this is their church and they need to support it financially.

Several features make our class so important:

* Our pastors make it a priority. We make sure we are in town to teach the classes. We tell our stories, and by the end of the class, most people have the sense they know us far better than they had expected. We keep it positive, relational, and from the heart. We are real and personable throughout.

* The gospel is preached in a clear, relational way. If you are not a Christian, it’s a very supportive and compelling environment in which to make the commitment. The people tell their own stories. The last small group is where they share their prepared statement of their own faith stories. There is nothing more powerful than this. Such stories are typically accompanied by tears and hugs.

* The behind-the-scenes work of the leaders is tremendous. They meet after each small group, process what is happening in their groups, and direct one another to move effectively with the problem talkers and the spiritual neophytes.

* We “put on the dog.” We provide snacks for class members, and it’s obvious to the new members that this is a very high value for us. Name tags are pre-made, accommodations for those with disabilities are taken into consideration, and child care is provided at all times. It is a big deal, and they know it.

BG: As pastor, my role is to teach the class and personally interact with the attendees. Membership information class attendees hear the plan of salvation and have an opportunity to respond; receive detailed information about our purpose statement, strategy, and structure as a church; understand what is expected of them as members of our church family and what they can expect of their church family; meet other newcomers to the church; and personally connect with the pastor. They are encouraged to make a commitment to Christ and the church.

Question 5. What practical advice can you give to pastors who want to raise the membership standards and expectations in their churches?

KH: I’d suggest that pastors connect with other churches that are already doing a decent job in this area. I’d also mention that you cannot overemphasize the need for the pastor to be vocally supportive and positive about membership and assimilation changes and requirements.

DJ: Adopt something like Sandia’s “seven core commitments”—you can call them the “five whatevers” or the “six something elses.” Yet, what it does is lay out in a memorable form what the congregation expects of its members. Enumerating the expectations hardly wins the day, but at least it’s a start. From then on you have to keep these in front of the congregation and build on them.

Because SPC allows nonmembers to participate in our programs and ministries, I tell my inquiry class that we will take care of them as long as they like without joining—but when they join, they make a full commitment to the work of Jesus Christ in and through Sandia. This way membership is further linked with the word commitment.

RS: I believe two things are essential in raising the membership bar. One is a membership covenant that clearly spells out what is expected of a member. I go over this covenant in our member information meeting. The second essential is a membership class. It doesn’t have to be required if it is clearly expected and done well. A lot of information can be communicated in a short time. Members will only value membership if they are taught to value it. You cannot raise membership expectations without having a mechanism to communicate these standards. The membership covenant and the membership class are the two best mechanisms I know of for such communication.

BH: I’m a big advocate of membership classes, membership covenants, and membership expectations. The class is a no-brainer. Why would you have people as members who do not know what the church believes and where it is going? What better process to help people understand these matters than a membership class or classes?

Membership covenants (when properly done) are very healthy. They establish up front the basis of the relationship between church leaders and members. Members are formally taught the things they need for a healthy spiritual life and the commitments and practices that are necessary for their spiritual growth.

Membership expectations are very important as long as they are healthy ones. We ask everyone who becomes a member to commit to the “Three S’s”—Sunday morning worship, a small group, and an area of service. We ask people to commit “to do their best” to become regularly involved in these groups (note that it is important to avoid absolutistic language).

SB: First, don’t be afraid of taking on this issue. It is vitally important that you set the standard for what you want. A poorly planned or executed class says this whole experience isn’t really very important. Second, get your elders and leaders involved. Make sure they are part of the process as facilitators. Third, commit your time and resources. It will be one of the best returns on investment in ministry you can experience.

BG: Share your vision with the church (create a sense of destiny), and “plow the ground” with your core members regarding any change. Change the easiest thing first. In addition, don’t take criticism personally when it comes. Be willing to let people leave the church if they don’t agree with the church’s direction. More than anything else pray as you make these changes!

Learning from These Churches
By this point in this book, you may have been expecting similarities in the stories of these church leaders. These pastors believe that membership matters, and they’ve led their churches to believe the same thing. They preach membership, publicize membership classes, and promote opportunities for ministry and service.

Their plans for moving members into ministry are both proactive and preventive. They expect members to get involved and tell them so. Strategic follow-up and accountability through small groups help prevent spectator church members. The point is these churches have intentional strategies in place to move attendees into membership and members into ministry. None claim to be perfect and all see room for improvement, but they are (in Kevin Hamm’s words) “already doing a decent job in this area.”

Perhaps your church can learn from what they are doing. Even one insight properly applied in your particular context will be a step in the right direction.

Questions for Consideration

1. According to these pastors, how important is it that church leaders continually emphasize membership and ministry?

2. What role do small groups play in the membership and ministry placement processes in these churches? How do the small groups in your church contribute to these processes?

3. Buddy Gray encouraged leaders to be “willing to let people leave the church if they don’t agree with the church’s direction.” How do you respond to this statement?

4. After reading this chapter, what one change or improvement might you make in your church’s membership class?

This article “Just Give Me the Facts” was excerpted from the book Membership Matters written by Chuck Lawless. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

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.”