When a cohabiting couple wants to join your church

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When a cohabiting couple wants to join your church: Church membership in a post-Christian culture

October 4, 2023 -

A couple holds hands in prayer over an open Bible on a wooden table. By Pcess609/stock.adobe.com

A couple holds hands in prayer over an open Bible on a wooden table. By Pcess609/stock.adobe.com

A couple holds hands in prayer over an open Bible on a wooden table. By Pcess609/stock.adobe.com

My wife and I recently joined a church I was not pastoring for the first time since 1981. The experience was a bit surreal for us: walking to the front of the sanctuary, being introduced to the congregation, standing around after the service to shake hands, and then having our picture taken for the church directory. For the first time in decades, I was on the other end of a process I’d led every Sunday morning as a pastor.

Seeing it from this side, I understood on a new level why joining a church can be daunting, especially for those who are new to the faith or have not yet come to Christ. Our experience raised a question for me I’d never asked as a pastor.

Why do churches have memberships?

The Bible nowhere directly teaches us to do so. In a day when nondenominational churches are proliferating, many of which do not maintain formal memberships, why is this a custom for so many of our churches? Should it be?

Now add other membership-related questions:

  • What are we to do when cohabiting couples want to join our churches?
  • What about same-sex couples?
  • What about LGBTQ individuals?
  • After they join our congregation, what do we do when members “come out” as LGBTQ?
  • What if they are found to be living sinfully in other ways?

My seminary education in the 1980s did not prepare me to answer these questions.


Contents


Is church membership biblical?

One easy way out of these problems is to stop insisting that people “join” our churches. If we did not have formal “membership,” we wouldn’t have to risk license on one hand or legalism on the other.

We know the biblical command: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24–25, my emphasis; all citations from the ESV). However, this text does not command us to “join” a church. Rather, it calls us to “meet together,” which does not by itself settle the question of actual membership.

If formal church membership is so important, why doesn’t the Bible command it?

The history of church membership

Today we identify churches with buildings and addresses, but early Christian churches had neither. In fact, churches did not commonly own buildings until Constantine the Great legalized Christianity in AD 313. Rather, they typically met in public gathering spaces (cf. Acts 19:9) and homes (cf. Colossians 4:15).

The earliest building archaeologists have definitively identified with Christian use is a house in eastern Syria that came into Christian possession and was remodeled in the 240s. We have other evidence of halls being constructed for church usage at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century, but the great era of church buildings began with Constantine’s support for the church. Some were new construction, but many were pagan temples that Constantine commandeered for Christian use.

Similarly, the concept of church membership evolved over the centuries. Christians from the beginning joined themselves together in local fellowships we would recognize as churches. Then, as the Christian movement spread beyond its Jewish roots, the process of joining such communities became more formalized over time.

New Christians without a background in Judaism needed instruction or catechism in the fundamentals of the Christian faith. By the end of the second century, this process became more formalized. St. Augustine (354–430) especially emphasized the local church as the visible entrance into the invisible community of Christ.

As infant baptism grew in popularity, over time it became the typical way a person “joined” the Catholic Church, followed by confirmation and taking the Eucharist as they grew older. Those who joined the Catholic Church as adults likewise did so through the “sacraments” of baptism, confirmation, and Holy Eucharist, a process that continues today.

The Protestant Reformation emphasized personal salvation by grace through faith. Some Protestants continued infant baptism as an act of dedicating a child to God, while others defined baptism as the immersion of believers. Some Protestant denominations still see infant baptism as an entry into membership, others require believers’ baptism, and still others have no formal membership. Many in the third category are nondenominational churches (which together, if they were a denomination, would comprise the largest Protestant denomination in America).

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Arguments for church membership

Christians are clearly “members” of the larger “body” of Christ (Romans 12:4–5; 1 Corinthians 12:12, 14, 18–27; Ephesians 3:6). While the New Testament does not specifically require membership in a local church for Christians, it makes frequent allusions to beliefs and practices that make little sense outside such communities and commitments.

For example:

  • We are commanded to “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). How can we obey leaders if we are not part of a community in which they lead? How can they keep “watch” over us if we are not in community with them?
  • Church leaders are to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (1 Peter 5:2; cf. Acts 20:28). How can they do this if there is no “flock” of believers to shepherd?
  • Elders who “rule well” are to be “considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). How are they to fulfill this calling if there are no members to lead and teach?
  • Paul commanded the Corinthian church to remove a notorious sinner from their fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:2) and so “purge the evil person from among you” (v. 13). When this person repented, the apostle then encouraged the church to “forgive and comfort him” and so “reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:7–8). These actions seem implausible if there was no Corinthian membership from which he could be expelled and into which he could be received again. As we will see below, Jesus similarly taught church discipline (Matthew 18:15–17), a concept that seems to require a membership to discipline its members.
  • The New Testament contains seventeen epistles written to specific congregations in specific cities. Their content relates to issues and challenges within these communities. Four other letters were written to leaders of such congregations.
  • Christians are to edify each other (Hebrews 10:24–25) and exercise their spiritual gifts in fellowship with each other (cf. Romans 12:6–8; 1 Corinthians 12:4–7; 1 Peter 4:10–11). These actions require a specific faith community.
  • Letters of endorsement were sent from one church to another (cf. Acts 18:27; Colossians 4:10; 2 Corinthians 3:1).
  • We are commanded to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10, my emphasis), which indicates that the “household of faith” is a specific subset of the larger population.
  • The New Testament uses collective metaphors for Christians such as “the flock” (1 Peter 5:3), “the household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15), and a “body” with many “members” (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:25).

In addition, joining a local Christian church is important for individual believers. As theologian and pastor Kevin DeYoung notes, it makes visible our commitment to Christ and his people, makes an important statement in a low-commitment culture, counters the self-sufficiency and independence of our culture, keeps us accountable to other believers, helps our leaders be more faithful shepherds, and gives us an opportunity to make commitments to other believers.

By contrast, writer Marshall Segal warns that Christians who are not part of a local congregation are “a toe without a body” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:21), “prey without protection” (cf. 1 Peter 5:2; Hebrews 13:17), and “a stranger without a family” (cf. Hebrews 10:24–25).

(For more, see Michael E. Osborne, “Why Church Membership?” and Paul Alexander, “10 Things You Should Know about Church Membership.”)

An argument from silence?

As you can see, there are clear and compelling reasons why churches should have memberships and Christians should join them. However, we must again admit that no biblical text actually commands such arrangements.

One reason could be that the evidence cited above is in fact so compelling. In my view, identifying as a member of a local congregation was so commonplace and expected that the New Testament did not need to command it. Like the word Trinity, which nowhere appears in the New Testament but is clearly biblical (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:23), the concept of church membership was so typical as to be assumed.

By way of analogy: pro-choice advocates sometimes claim that the New Testament nowhere forbids abortion. However, the reason is that abortion was already understood in the Judeo-Christian world to be so abhorrent as to be unthinkable. When the Christian movement expanded into the larger Greco-Roman world where abortion was more common, second-century Christian leaders began making clear God’s rejection of it. For example, the Didache, a second-century compilation of Christian doctrine, specifically states: “You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten” (Ch. 2).

On a much more positive level, we can view church membership in the same way: it was so common and accepted by early Christians that their leaders did not need to command what their followers were already doing.

The neglected subject of church discipline

Church discipline is a topic most of us would rather avoid. We know we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9) and that “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” We agree with St. Augustine that “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us” and want our churches to be hospitals for sinners, not havens for saints.

It’s been said that the church is the only army that buries its wounded. When people fall into sin, the last thing they need is judgment and condemnation from us.

But this is the wrong way to view church discipline. As with parents who love their children, our goal should always be to help our fellow believers experience what is best for them. This sometimes means helping them “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” so they can “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

Pastors are clearly responsible for the spiritual life of their flock (1 Peter 5:1–3). As we noted above, Paul sternly instructed the Corinthian church to expel a man living in sin from their membership (1 Corinthians 5:1–5) and to welcome him back only upon his repentance (2 Corinthians 2:5–8).

When he asked the congregation, “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12), his Greek syntax required the affirmative response: “It is in fact those inside the church whom you are to judge.” The word judge (krino) means to evaluate and punish if necessary.

As a result, we owe it to those who seek to join our churches and those who are already members to help them live biblically in every way we can. This is the case for their sake and for everyone they will influence. As the Roman philosopher Seneca noted, “He who excuses present evils transmits them to posterity.”

Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritan woman in John 4 serves as a model for us:

  • He built a personal relationship with her (vv. 1–15).
  • He pointed out her sinful living arrangement (vv. 16–18).
  • He extended grace that led her to himself and made her a witness to her culture (vv. 19–42).

A loving doctor will do all she can to help her patient live in good health. This means that she must sometimes diagnose disease and persuade her patient to take the necessary steps to treat it.

We owe those we are called to serve no less.

Moral issues prior to membership

Now let’s turn to some moral issues churches must confront today with regard to those seeking to join their congregations. At the front of the list from a practical point of view is the issue of heterosexual unmarried couples who are living together and want to join our fellowship.

I first encountered this situation with some regularity while pastoring in Dallas, Texas. Our staff began noticing that the new members’ information being completed by some unmarried young couples listed one address for both. At first, we thought this might be the woman’s address and that, assuming the couple would get married soon, the man would move into her home. But when we inquired, we quickly learned that this was seldom the case.

The vast majority of the time, the couple was living together but were not married. They obviously saw no issue with this arrangement and were even comfortable listing their shared address with us.

Primary and secondary issues

Before we proceed, we need to consider the fact that some doctrinal issues are more urgent than others. Saving issues related to trusting in Christ as Savior and Lord are obviously primary. Moral issues such as sexual relationships are secondary in the sense that they do not preclude a person’s salvation.

Some believe that only primary issues should be considered with regard to church membership. If a person has trusted in Christ as their Lord, we should make no other requirements prior to their membership with our congregation.

However, the Jerusalem Council listed abstaining from idolatry and sexual immorality as requirements for Gentiles joining Christian communities (Acts 15:29). As noted earlier, Paul instructed the Corinthian church to expel a person from its membership who was engaged in public immorality (1 Corinthians 5:5). And Jesus taught us to remove from church fellowship those who refuse to repent of their sins despite repeated warnings (Matthew 18:17).

For these reasons, it seems clear to me that moral and lifestyle issues can in fact preclude membership in a Christian church or be cause for discipline and even expulsion from church membership.

“Let the marriage bed be undefiled”

Given the fact that 70 percent of couples live together before marriage today, this is not a surprising challenge. According to a Pew Research Center study, only 14 percent of Americans say it is never acceptable for an unmarried couple to cohabit.

Of course, Scripture clearly disagrees. We are taught, “Let the marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4). God’s intention is clear: “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, my emphasis).

The Bible teaches that all sexual relations outside the marriage of one man and one woman are wrong. For this reason alone, not to mention the clear connection between cohabiting and divorce and the positive benefits of marriage over cohabitation, we should do all we can to encourage couples to abstain from sexual relations and cohabiting prior to marriage.

There is also the matter of our public witness. Cohabiting Christian couples could be a significant impediment to the faith as a result of their unbiblical and inconsistent lifestyle. Couples who save money by living together run this risk even if they abstain from sexual relations and stay in separate bedrooms. While they know they are living biblically, few who know they share a home would expect this to be the case.

As a result, if couples are cohabiting, we should encourage and help them to separate from each other sexually and in their living arrangements. With this as a backdrop, how should we respond when a cohabiting couple wishes to join our church?

We are responsible for what we know

Nothing in the New Testament specifies particular sins committed by Christians as barriers to membership in the body of Christ. We are saved by grace through faith, not works (Ephesians 2:8–9). If we had to be perfect to join a church, there would be no churches because there would be no members.

Once we start identifying particular sins as roadblocks to church membership, where would we end? To be fair, we would need to investigate “private” sins such as lust as well as “public” sins such as known adulterous relationships. What about gossip and slander (cf. Ephesians 4:29)? What about anger in the heart (Matthew 5:22)? Who would decide whether a particular behavior is sinful or not? How would this not quickly degenerate into legalism?

However, some sins such as cohabiting are obvious to those who know the people committing them. If we allow such people to join our church without accountability or discipline, how are we not endorsing their sin to them and the world? Since cohabiting is outside God’s will for them, do we not owe it to them to do all we can to help them experience God’s best for their lives and relationship?

It seems clear to me that public sins do in fact present a different set of circumstances regarding church membership than private sins. Church leaders are not responsible for what they do not know, but we are responsible for what we do know.

Scripture is clear: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). As noted above, pastors are shepherds responsible for the sheep they serve (cf. 1 Peter 5:1–3).

“And such were some of you”

What does this mean for cohabiting couples?

First, we should prioritize their spiritual lives over their church membership. The primary issue concerns their spiritual and relational well-being. We need to sit down with them, explain the biblical truths regarding marriage and sexual morality, and encourage them to separate sexually and physically until they are married (assuming marriage is their intention).

If they are unwilling to do this, they should be counseled with biblical truth and compassion, but they should not be accepted into church membership while in their unrepentant state. (We will discuss the topic of attendance without membership later in this paper.)

If they are willing to separate, we should do all we can to help them. If a partner needs financial assistance to move out, for example, we should try to provide it. If they need premarital counseling, we should offer it. Then we should welcome them into church membership as we would any other believers.

Before we move on, let me add that the same steps are essential for anyone who wants to join our church but is known to be living sinfully. We are not singling out sexual immorality; the Bible includes theft, greed, drunkenness, and swindling among the behaviors God forbids as well (1 Corinthians 6:10). If someone is known to be sinful and unrepentant in their business dealings, for example, we should take the same approach with regard to their spiritual health, church membership, and accountability to the body of Christ.

Again, we are not responsible for what we do not know, but we are responsible for what we do know.

God’s Spirit can change any heart willing to change. One of my favorite verses in Scripture follows Paul’s list of sinful behaviors with this encouragement: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11).

So it can be for any of us.

What about same-sex couples?

What has been said already about heterosexual cohabiting couples applies to same-sex couples as well. Since such behavior is clearly unbiblical, whether the couple is cohabiting or married, they are living outside of God’s will.

What makes this subject different from heterosexual couples is that sexual orientation is an obvious and public factor. As a result, ministering to this couple requires that we help them understand God’s word on this issue. Then, we should do all we can to help those with same-sex attraction live in celibacy and to pray for God to change their orientation.

Among those in Corinth were “men who practice homosexuality” (1 Corinthians 6:9), but Paul included them among those who were “washed,” “sanctified,” and “justified” by the Lord Jesus (v. 11). We should pray and work for the same transformation for same-sex attracted people we have the opportunity to serve.

Let me take one more step: it is my belief that same-sex attraction does not exempt a person from church membership so long as the person abstains from sexual relationships. The Bible consistently forbids same-sex sexual activity, not attraction. I believe same-sex attraction to be one of the consequences of the Fall, along with every other desire or proclivity that is outside God’s will for us.

I am just as tempted heterosexually as some people are homosexually. We are all called to be celibate outside of heterosexual marriage with one man or one woman. Some of my faith heroes over the years have been men and women who were tempted by same-sex attraction and chose to live in celibacy. I have also known some whose attraction changed over the years and are now happily married to people of the opposite sex.

To conclude this section: we should not permit a same-sex couple to join our congregation. Their sin is no worse than any other, of course, but it is more public. To overlook it does harm to them and endorses their sin in the eyes of others. We owe them loving, truthful counsel centered in God’s transforming grace.

Moral issues for members

The subject of spiritual and church discipline in Scripture extends far beyond those who are asking to join our congregations. In fact, biblical references to such discipline uniformly focus on those who are already part of the faith community.

Here again, we are not responsible for what we do not know, but we are responsible for what we do know. Jesus set out a clear pathway for our response:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15–17)

Here we find four steps we should take:

  1. Go to the sinful individual personally and privately, seeking his repentance and redemption.
  2. If he refuses to listen to us, include “one or two others” as we engage him again on this issue.
  3. If he refuses to hear them, disclose the matter to the entire congregation.
  4. If he still refuses to repent, remove him from our fellowship.

These steps apply to any member found to be living in sin that impacts others (“If your brother sins against you”) and becomes public.

Of course, we should do all we can to encourage our members to refuse “private” sin as well. But as noted, we cannot know what we do not know. Nor should we usurp the role of the Holy Spirit in seeking to convict every person of every sin. Church discipline and accountability are more reactive to moral failures that affect the larger body of Christ than they are inquisitional with regard to our members’ private lives.

One more note: I believe that a person found to be living sinfully who is involved in leadership should step down from their position until they have come through a process of repentance, accountability, and reconciliation. Leaders are to be “above reproach” and “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Timothy 3:2, 7). Churches will define leadership roles differently, but all should have a proactive policy and plan for facing such painful times.

Once again, the purpose of church discipline is not punitive but redemptive. Our purpose as fellow sinners is to help each other walk freely and fully in God’s best for our lives.

What about those who attend but do not join?

So far, our discussion has focused on those who wish to join our congregations and those who are already our members. However, in most churches there are numbers of people who visit but have not yet joined. Some may plan to join in the future but are waiting for a variety of reasons. Others, however, have no intention of formally joining our membership.

I am thinking of a young woman who attended our church in Dallas but made clear that she would not be joining until her grandfather passed away. The reason was that he was a Lutheran minister and had baptized her as an infant in their tradition. She knew she would need to be baptized by immersion to join our church and was willing to do so, but she also believed that this step would hurt her elderly grandfather’s feelings and did not want to inflict such pain and conflict on her family.

Others may be aware of the issues we have discussed in this paper with regard to membership and do not want to submit to such accountability. They may be cohabiting and do not want to separate, so they plan to join after they are married. Some cohabiting couples have significant reasons for not being married (to be discussed below) and may never join as a result. LGBTQ non-celibate individuals and couples may not want to face issues specific to their context regarding membership.

I believe pastors have a significant spiritual responsibility to such individuals. Each person who hears us preach and teach or otherwise comes into the orbit of our church is a person for whom Jesus died. If they are struggling with moral issues related to membership, they need our care all the more.

At the same time, we cannot use the membership process to provide such accountability. So, we need to employ our other means of ministry in intentional ways to serve these individuals:

  • Preach sermons that address issues they and others are facing.
  • Create written materials that address these issues and are available to members and attendees Consider posting on the church website as well.
  • Ask your congregational leaders to be intentional about noticing and engaging with attendees. Invite them to your Bible study fellowships and other activities if they are not already attending.
  • Make yourself and your staff available to them as you would with other members. They may not think they can call on you for counseling if they are not members of your church.
  • Offer a set of classes for those considering church membership where they can ask their questions and make an informed decision (to be discussed below).
  • Consider an annual membership “event” whereby you explain the benefits of membership and specifically invite attendees to join.
  • Intercede daily for your attendees, asking the Holy Spirit to move in their lives and to draw them to Christ and his church.

As a subset of attendees, there may be some who are cohabiting and, for very practical reasons, have no plans to marry legally. For example, some older couples have children and grandchildren who oppose their remarriage because they do not want the new spouse to have access to the family’s finances and their inheritance. Such couples may consider themselves to be married to each other (I know of one couple that even wears wedding rings) but choose not to take this step legally.

In this context, I have heard of some churches offering “covenant” weddings that are not legally binding. If the couple wishes their marriage to be recognized by the state, they must also be married by a justice of the peace or another legal official. These churches have adopted this strategy primarily so they will not be forced in the future to conduct same-sex weddings. But this concept has the added value of offering the biblical covenant of marriage to those who, for various reasons, do not wish to be married legally.

Nowhere does the Bible specify that biblical marriage must be legalized by the state. In England and Wales, for example, any wedding not conducted in an Anglican, Quaker, or Jewish congregation requires a legally binding civil ceremony along with the religious service. If I as a Baptist, for example, were to be married in England, I would need this civil ceremony as well.

I am not recommending this strategy but rather describing it as one option for consideration.

Another approach some churches have adopted historically is “watch-care membership.” Some churches offer these to college students or military personnel away from home, for example. Their membership remains at their “home church,” but they affiliate in this way with the congregation for the time they will be living in the community. Some churches also offer this to those who choose not to join for doctrinal reasons such as baptism method. They often allow “watch-care” members to participate in some aspects of church leadership but not to vote in congregational meetings.

I would consider this avenue for those whose reasons for not joining have to do with life circumstances or baptism theology. However, I would not do so for cohabiting or LGBTQ couples since their spiritual and moral issues are more foundational than church membership.

In a sense, those who attend our churches but do not join for moral reasons are paying themselves and us a compliment: they recognize our moral stands and do not want to violate them through hypocrisy or misleading appearances. Jesus urged us to count the cost before following him (cf. Luke 14:28). The same applies to church membership.

What is the best pathway to church membership?

Our discussion has highlighted some of the complexities regarding church membership in our post-Christian culture. These issues raise another question: What is the best pathway for joining our churches today?

The urgency of the issue

In my Baptist experience, people joined the church by “walking the aisle” at the end of the service during the invitation hymn. Some had spoken with me or others prior to joining, but this was not a requirement for membership. As a result, we met some people for the first time when they came forward to join. We only had the time afforded by the invitation hymn to talk with them prior to presenting them to the congregation for membership.

I considered this to be especially problematic with regard to personal salvation. If people told us they had accepted Christ as their Lord, we had to take their word for it and then present them for membership since the invitation hymn did not provide the time or setting needed to explore this crucial issue in any depth. As a result, I worried that some who were joining our church thought they were genuine believers but were not.

As a result, in my last pastorate we created a mandatory membership class for all who wished to join our fellowship. We publicized it widely and explained it in each service. I said during the invitation, “If you’d like to join our fellowship, we invite you to come forward to meet with volunteers who will take you to a brief membership class we require of everyone who wishes to join our congregation. If you’d rather meet with this class prior to joining, you’re welcome to do so.” I would then explain the location and time of the class.

The positive of this system was that our counselors had time to interview prospective members regarding their stories, possible membership issues, and especially their personal faith. The negative was that, despite our publicity and my explanation, on occasion some came forward expecting to join that day and were frustrated when they were asked to attend our membership class instead. Others who came forward to join the class would need to come forward a second time to join our church upon completing the class.

To solve for this, we tried a different strategy for a brief time, presenting people for membership when they first came forward on the promise that they would attend our membership class afterward. However, some of these new members never attended the class, despite our frequent encouragement to do so. As a result, we shifted to the requirement that they attend the class prior to joining.

Another objection some raised was that we were, in their view, creating a legalistic requirement for church membership. “Everyone is welcome at the cross,” one person told me. I explained that we want everyone to come to faith in Christ but that biblical membership comes with biblical requirements and accountability.

The major issue driving this process, as I discussed above, was my fear that some seeking to join our church might think they were Christians but had never experienced personal salvation in Christ. The possibility of their entering a Christ-less eternity simply because we did not have a process in place for ensuring they understood the gospel and accepted Christ made it essential that we adopt the strategy I’ve described.

Practical steps

In our membership class, we trained our staff and volunteers to ask these questions:

  • Tell me about your personal faith. (If they cannot describe a time they trusted in Christ personally as their Savior, our counselor then explained the gospel and offered to lead them in a salvation prayer or otherwise provide follow-up resources).
  • Tell me a little more about your life these days. (The counselor is looking for cohabitation or other possible lifestyle issues.)
  • Have you found a small group yet? (If not, the counselor works to help the person find a class and alerts class leaders to follow up.)
  • Tell me about your gifts and interests in ministry. (The counselor wants to help the new member get connected to the various ministries of the church.)

The counselor then prayed with the person. If they were ready for membership, the counselor transmitted this information to our staff for follow-up and to schedule a time for them to be presented to the congregation.

We scheduled this class to follow immediately after the worship services for the sake of those who came forward seeking to join. We also scheduled other prospective member classes during the week.

Some churches have much more extensive class requirements prior to membership. We chose to limit ours to issues that relate directly to membership. Then we offered a six-week follow-up course for those who joined during which we discussed other vital issues: spiritual formation, ministry engagement, biblical stewardship, and so on.

Whether you follow our plan or devise another, I urge you to give prayerful consideration to this issue. Eternal souls may be at stake.

Two other points:

One: Utilizing deacons and elders as membership counselors is a wonderful way of involving them in ministry to our members and elevating their leadership roles. The pastor and staff should be very engaged in this process as well.

Two: Creating a membership mentoring program is a very effective way of incorporating new members into the church fellowship. An existing member can partner with the new member over the course of a year to help them find their community within the congregation and become involved in the various ministries of the church.

Conclusion: “Speaking the truth in love”

My life text is Ephesians 4:11–12: “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” I see myself primarily as one called to “equip” Christians to change their culture.

Our goal is to “attain to the unity of the faith of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (vv. 13–14). Imagine a church that is this mature and consistent in its biblical convictions and witness. How could it fail to impact its fallen culture?

How are we to be such a church?

Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v. 15, my emphasis). This italicized phrase has captured my mind and heart in recent years. To me, it encapsulates our best cultural engagement in our post-Christian secularized society.

We are to be “speaking the truth,” a present active participle that translates literally as “tell the truth at all times.” But we are to do so “in love.” This phrase could be rendered “with unconditional love for every person in every circumstance and moment.”

In our post-Christian culture, we see Christians who are “speaking the truth” but in a judgmental, condemning, superior way. We see others who are communicating “in love,” but they fail to uphold biblical morality and call people to God’s standards.

The key is to do both, to the glory of God.

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