How can I lead my church toward meaningful membership? Mark Dever addressed this at an SEBTS 9Marks conference (30:23). So I listened to that section and used this web page to expand what I learned.
1. Proclaim the gospel. Preach about God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness, Christ’s substitutionary atonement and resurrection, and our need to repent of our sins and trust in him. And make it clear that those who are not committed to one another in love have no reason to think that they have committed to God in love (1 John 4:20-21).
2. Use a statement of faith and church covenant. Require members to affirm a statement of faith (what a church believes) and a church covenant (how members will live together). Mark Dever said in Africa in 2007 http://andynaselli.com/mark-dever-on-the-function-of-statements-of-faith:
Have and use a congregationally agreed-upon statement of faith and church covenant.
Now I’m aware we’re from different polities at this minister’s conference, and that’s great. If you have a denominational statement, depending on your structure you can take your denominational statement and use that. If you’re a congregational independent church, you can come up with one yourself or use one that other churches before you have used. But with membership in the congregation comes responsibility, and the statements of what the congregation together believes (and in our church we call that our statement of faith) and of how we will live (we call that our church covenant) are very useful tools. They are a clear ground of unity, a tool of teaching, [and] a fence from error and from the worldly who would erase such distinctions or [from] the divisive who want to see them more narrow. We can point to the fact that, “Well actually, this is what we’ve agreed on.”
So, for example, I’ll give you something else provocative. Our church’s statement of faith talks about the second coming of Christ, and it basically says, “He will come back; he will raise the dead; he will judge them; and they will go some to eternal felicity with God and some to eternal torment in hell.” That’s it! “But Mark, what about the rapture? What about the nation of Israel? What about the seven-year tribulation? What about the millennium?” You know, praise God, our statement of faith was written in the 1830s, so Christians hadn’t thought of all that stuff yet. They were just about to get divisive about that in the late nineteenth century, but our statement of faith is so old we only have this really clearly biblical stuff about the return of Christ. And then we can disagree—we can argue with each other—as best we see implications of these other precious truths.
So every Christian in the church should believe a lot more than what’s in your statement of faith, but what you’re trying to define in your statement of faith is “What do we need to have agreement upon in order to be a church together?” And I think we need to know that Jesus is coming back and that he told his disciples that he could be coming back at any time, so they need to be ready. Beyond that, well, you and I can argue about it. We can [dis]agree. We can read and write books.
3. Require a membership class. Help prospective members know what will be expected of them, and what they can expect from the church. Use this opportunity to teach through the statement of faith and the church covenant, the importance of membership, the history of Christianity and your own congregation, and the practical nuts and bolts of how your church works.
Thom Rainer: Keep the initial orientation brief. Some churches have new members’ classes that last multiple hours over multiple days. These orientations are counterproductive. They engender information overload and have little impact. If there is much information you need to share, do so over a longer period of time, but not in the initial new members’ class. The new members’ class works best if it is two to three hours in one setting.
I prefer the Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s 6 session orientation or something like it rather than a shorter 2-3 hour one time class recommended by Rainer. CHBC offers a 3 hour Friday night and 3 hour Saturday weekend to get it done and also has one session every Sunday during Sunday School hour every week all year long.
4. Require an interview with a pastor-elder. In the interview ask the individual to share the gospel and provide an account of their conversion and their discipleship since then. Have they seen change in their lives? Get their feedback on the church and programs and tell them their basic responsibilities (attend Sunday gatherings, Lord’s Supper, Members’ Meetings; get to know others and be known; pray for others, give).
Require this conversation before you recommend them to the congregation but after the membership classes. This is what Baptists have done historically before other members, pastors, or even the whole congregation.
5. Stop baptizing and admitting children into formal membership. A young child can certainly become a Christian. But a church can’t necessarily discern whether or not a child has become a Christian. Children should be given the opportunity to mature and have occasion to resist the pull of the world. So don’t create confusion by baptizing those whose professions of faith the church cannot reliably assess.
6. Require congregational approval of new members. Admission into and exclusion from church membership is an act of the congregation (this is an implication of 2 Cor. 2:6). So lead your church to explicitly affirm every member the church receives in and sees off.
7. Regularly publish an accurate membership directory. Encourage the members to use this as a prayer list. Name, picture, physical address, email, phone number, Facebook, twitter. Have them pray for members and they will eventually get to know many of them.
8. Give active pastoral oversight to members. Try to make sure that every member is in regular conversation with an elder or a mature Christian in the congregation. Take initiative in getting to know what’s going on in the members’ lives.
9. Cultivate a culture of discipleship. Encourage younger Christians to become disciples of older, more mature Christians. Encourage more mature Christians to take less mature Christians under their wing. Encourage every member of the church to be in multiple spiritually beneficial relationships.
10. Limit certain activities and areas of service to members. Churches should consider the possibility of restricting its business meetings, public service, and small groups (except for evangelistic ones) to members only.
11. Revive the practice of corrective discipline. Only after you have established a culture of meaningful membership, begin to lead your congregation to excommunicate those who persist in serious unrepentant sin.
12. Recover something of the grandness of God’s plan. Pray for other congregations by name in your Sunday morning gatherings. Don’t just be about your local church but for every gospel church everywhere. Remind them of the story that is much greater than our local church. Remind them of the pastor’s serious accountability that they’ll have to answer to God. Remind the church that they affirm the salvation of each member.
What single bit of counsel has made the most significant difference in your leadership?
John Brown in a letter of paternal counsels to one of his pupils newly ordained over a small congregation:
“I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at his judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.”
(This material (1-11) has been adapted from Mark Dever’s chapter “Regaining Meaningful Church Membership” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, ed. Thomas White, Jason B. Duesing, and Malcomb B. Yarnell, III, pages 57-60)