The New Members Class: Moving Converts into Membership and Ministry
by Chuck Lawless
On any given Sunday, uninvolved churchgoers sit in almost every congregation in America. In some cases, they are ready and willing to serve, just waiting for leaders to direct them and give them an opportunity. Others are faithful to attend on Sunday morning, but they never join. Some do join, but they never get involved.
In 2003-04, my research team and I studied more than 75 growing churches to see how these churches were emphasizing membership and then moving members into ministry. Specifically, we looked at membership classes in these churches. The national study became the basis for my latest book “Membership Matters.” Let’s look at some of the highlights of the research.
Opposition to mandatory new members’ classes decreasing. More than 73 percent of the churches responding to our research survey utilized a membership class. Of those churches, more than 30 percent require new members to attend.
In fact, throughout every component of this study, we saw this trend: more churches are now requiring attendance at a membership class. To our surprise, most of these churches faced little opposition when moving to a required membership class. Their leaders were often patient (yet persistent) in moving the church in this direction, and their church members typically got on board. This finding should encourage others to begin implementing an effective membership class.
Relationships really do matter
In the first part of our study, church leaders told us that the primary purposes of their membership class were church orientation and teaching doctrine. In a second part of the study, members who attended the class also agreed that orientation was important. At the same time, though, they strongly emphasized the importance of developing relationships in the class especially their relationship with the pastor.
Church members greatly appreciated time with their pastor, even if the time were only one hour per week. Based on this study, we strongly encourage pastors to be involved in the church’s membership class. The relationships developed there can pay dividends for a long time to come.
Church discipline is still not easy
Ninety-six percent of the churches in our study emphasized membership expectations in their membership class, but only 25 percent addressed church discipline in the same class. That is, the churches raised the bar of membership but did not talk about what would happen if church members did not live up to those expectations. Because many of these churches are continually developing their classes, they had not fully resolved how to implement church discipline when expectations were not met. The few churches that did clearly hold members accountable typically did so through a small group system but this process still was not easy. This issue will require more study.
A membership class can be an effective evangelism tool
This study showed us that a membership class can be used effectively for evangelism. The names used for these classes do not usually imply evangelism (e.g., New Members Class, New Member Orientation, Members on Mission), but 43 percent of the churches said that evangelism was “a primary purpose” of their class. Indeed, they ranked this purpose as a “5” on a scale of 1-5.
These churches invited non-members to attend their class, and they often found these guests open to the gospel. Some churches even told us that it is highly unusual to hold a membership class without someone becoming a believer in the process. Wise church leaders will look at ways to use their membership class in a similar way.
Membership classes contribute significantly to assimilation
We know from our previous studies that there are four components to the “assimilation rectangle”: membership expectations, relationships, involvement, and convictional preaching. These combined elements, when intentionally promoted and provided, lead to church members actively serving in the church. An effective membership class promotes all four by teaching expectations, offering new relationships, providing involvement opportunities, and promoting convictional preaching/teaching in the pulpit and classrooms. The result is members who are ready to get involved.
Not every church struggles with attenders who do not join
In the course of our research, our team asked pastors to respond to the concern that people do not want to join churches today. Pastor Douglas New of Georgia expressed our overall findings: “I disagree with that statement. . . . People like to belong if it really means something.”
In fact, when we asked these leaders about their plan for addressing attenders who never join, few could articulate an intentional strategy. Sometimes the response was momentary silence as leaders were forced to think about many attenders who had not joined. These churches taught us that raising the bar of membership does not stop a church from growing. That fact should challenge leaders to raise and uphold membership standards.
Churches must have a strategy to move members into ministry
Too many churches just assume that a new member will automatically want to get involved in ministry and will know how to do so. But, simple reasoning proves otherwise. If I am a new believer who does not know church systems and processes, how would I know what opportunities are available? How would I know whom to contact? How would I know what my spiritual gifts are?
Many of the churches we surveyed use their membership class as the starting point to move members into ministry. They learn that the church expects them to get involved, and they learn of opportunities for service. In some cases, each participant in the membership class completes a spiritual gifts profile. The goal of these churches is to move members into “entry level” positions as quickly as possible and then train them to take on higher levels of responsibility.
Even long-standing uninvolved members can be motivated to serve
I hear it all the time from my seminary students: “Dr. Lawless, I’ve decided to plant a church. That way, I can start from scratch, and I won’t have to deal with members who aren’t interested in doing anything.” There are some advantages to “starting from scratch” in church planting, but this study has shown us that even long-standing, uninvolved members can be moved into ministry.
In many cases, we learned that members were simply waiting for someone to ask them to serve. In other cases, members were willing, but no one had helped them discover their giftedness. Both of these situations as with many that we discovered in our research are easily resolved so that members get involved in ministry. A clear strategy, combined with obvious passion for ministry, will challenge even long-termers to get busy in their church.
Chuck Lawless, Ph.D., is Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth and Senior Associate Dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of four books, including his latest, “Membership Matters : Insights from Effective Churches on New Member Classes and Assimilation,” and “Discipled Warriors: Growing Healthy Churches Equipped for Spiritual Warfare.” Dr. Lawless also consults with churches on church health and growth and is an instructor with Church Central’s Church Consultant Training.