In the average Southern Baptist church on the average Sunday morning, the pastor gives an invitation at the end of the service, inviting worshippers to make a number of different decisions. One of these decisions is the option of church membership. When the candidate for membership makes his way down the aisle, the average church offers him three avenues: profession of faith followed by baptism, transfer of letter, or membership by statement.
Often a vote by the church immediately follows that walk down the aisle and the candidate instantly joins the congregation with all the privileges that membership affords. But in recent years, concerns have arisen about the practice of “instant” membership, leading churches to rethink how they receive and disciple new members.
Newly elected LifeWay President Thom Rainer in his book “High Expectations: The Remarkable Secret for Keeping People in Your Church,” lamented the ease at which professing believers join most local congregations.
“After studying nearly two thousand churches in America for the past six years, I heard prospective members and new converts ask this question with a slight change of words: ‘What must I do to join this church?’ Unfortunately, the leaders of the vast majority of churches responded with a nod to walk an aisle or to fill out a membership card. Nothing else was expected or required.”
“Is it any wonder that the membership standards of civic organizations are usually much higher than those of local churches? Is it any wonder that only four out of ten Southern Baptists attend church services on any given Sunday?” Rainer wrote.
Three SBTC churches the TEXAN contacted have adopted non-traditional approaches to screening and discipling new members.
At Castle Hills First Baptist Church in San Antonio, new members receive counseling and are required to attend a Discovery Class before they are voted into the fellowship, said David George, senior adult pastor. “We require it to get a better idea of who they are and where they stand spiritually,” George said.
When a person presents himself for membership at Castle Hills, a pastor or a deacon contacts him to help him begin the process of “plugging in,” George said.
Prospective members are then encouraged to attend the Discovery Classes, which are adapted from Saddleback Church, led by Rick Warren. The first class, “Discovering Your Membership,” is required before a candidate is presented at the quarterly business meeting. The other three classes, “Discovering Your Maturity,” “Discovering Your Shape for Service,” and “Discovering Your Mission,” are recommended but not required for membership.
George said he believes these classes are vital in assimilating new members.
“They help people to join,” George said. “They put us all on the same level playing field.”
In addition to leveling the playing field, this process also gives the church time to get to know new member candidates.
“It gives us plenty of time to discern where they are spiritually,” George said. In fact, during this process candidates have realized they are not believers.
“This minimizes the number of people in the church who are not saved,” George said.
The new member’s class, however, has not been without controversy at Castle Hills. The church requires the class for all new members, even those transferring by letter from other Southern Baptist churches. “You always have some stubborn Baptist who doesn’t want to take the class,” George said.
He said the church then lovingly tries to encourage them to participate and shares with them the advantages of membership at Castle Hills, which include the ability to hold positions of responsibility in the church.
Ted Tedder, a Castle Hills member, was one of those “stubborn Baptists” at first, he said, but has come to see the value of the new member classes. When Tedder joined Castle Hills, he had already been a Christian for 70 years and had seved in many leadership positions, including deacon and Sunday School director.
“At first I thought it was ridiculous,” Tedder said.
But after attending the classes, he said he believes they are an important part of helping everyone understand how the church functions.
Required new member classes didn’t work well at Macedonia Baptist Church in Longview, Pastor Steve Cochran said.
“Getting everybody in a class was kind of like moving cattle through a stall,” he recalled.
One-on-one mentoring has become the preferred method for assimilating new members at Macedonia.
“It’s not really a program, it’s a lifestyle,” Cochran explained. “We are trying to put people together with others who have similar life experiences.”
New believers or those who might already be believers but are struggling are paired with a maturing Christian in the fellowship for approximately 6-8 weeks of personal growth.
The staff at Macedonia helps facilitate these connections. Cochran said the staff has been at the church long-term and knows the background and history of most of the members and is therefore able to pair new believers and maturing believers with similar life circumstances.
“We define people as they come,” Cochran said. “This is the most effective—one-on-one.”
In addition to one-on-one counseling, Cochran said Macedonia’s deacons play an important role by counseling people as they come forward during the invitation.
“At invitation time, we have a 90 percent return rate on decisions [when] we have done counseling,” Cochran said, explaining that before using this one-on-one approach, often a person would make a decision and then never come back to church again. “I think it was because we didn’t make a connection. This is more effective.”
Making a connection in a new way is the job of Skip Smith, personal assistant to John Morgan, pastor at Sagemont Church in Houston. Smith works to evaluate and assimilate new members into the fellowship since the congregation does not vote on members. Membership at Sagemont does not begin after walking the aisle, but rather after filling out a card at the end of the service. This method actually began by accident, Smith said.
“We went to three services six years ago and ran out of time in the services,” Smith said.
Morgan asked people to fill out a card to make a decision and that day 37 cards, representing decisions by 60 people were turned in. Smith was asked to begin follow-up on these cards. After a couple of weeks of using cards, Sagemont went back to the traditional altar call, but saw decisions drop. It was then that church leaders realized that they might be on to something new.
Since then, Sagemont uses cards exclusively and Smith is responsible for follow-up with every individual who makes a decision.
But even the follow-up is unconventional, Smith explained. Many times, he makes contact with people by phone.
“On a phone conversation, I’m doing what we use to do by pastoral visitation. People are so busy they don’t want a visit.”
Through those phone contacts, Smith tries to determine the validity of the person’s decision.
“We do have some people who misrepresent the truth,” he said. “I’m able to talk with people and discern their intent.”
He notes that about five couples a month who are living together apply for membership at Sagemont.
“We try to counsel them, but only 1 out of 10 will take us up on it,” Smith noted.
In addition to discerning the intent of potential new members, Smith also counsels new believers on the importance of believer’s baptism.
About 35 percent of Sagemont’s new members are from a Catholic background, Smith said. Sagemont requires baptism for those joining from churches that are not of like faith and order.
“Catholics and Episcopals are the most open to rebaptism,” Smith said. “Presbyterians are the most hesitant to be rebaptized.”
After the issues of membership are resolved, Smith encourages new members to attend a five-week Discovery Class, where they not only learn about Sagemont and biblical foundational truths, but are also introduced to other new members of the church.
“Our main effort is to try to get them connected,” Smith said. “We call the ‘the little church within the big church.’”
In addition, Smith helps them become involved in Sunday School.
“Eighty-two percent of new members age 20 and over are situated in a Sunday School class,” Smith stated.
Even though Smith is responsible for bringing new members into the church unconventionally, he said he was the most resistant of the staff to the new method.
“I was the guy who was stuck in the mud. It boiled down to ‘if I had to walk down the aisle, why don’t they?’”
But Smith admits that he now sees the benefits to Sagemont’s approach.
“There are some changes and we are having to adapt to that,” Smith said.