Whether you're launching a membership process for the first time or revising your current process, designing a membership process can be a daunting task. But it also has the potential to help people become more committed to the Lord and to what he is doing in and through your local church. Below are some things that we have learned at my church as we have designed and tweaked our process over the past few years.
The Membership Pathway
Clearly define the pathway from the front doors to the class. Our process begins with a guest center—a clearly defined place in every ministry (children, youth, adults) where a visitor can go to meet a leader, ask questions, get information about the church, and give us their contact information. At the guest center we invite them to a monthly complimentary lunch with our leaders. We follow up with these guests through personal phone calls, cards, and emails.
At the lunch, we tell them more about our church and invite them to our membership class, which we believe is the best way to get connected to our church. By the time someone decides to register for our membership class, they have heard about it at least three to four times.
All of these steps create a clear pathway for new people to integrate into our church. Because the pathway is simple, everyone at our church knows the pathway and is able to decide if they would like to take the next step.
The Class Sessions
Determine what day and time to have the sessions, how long they will be, and how many times the group will meet. These decisions will reflect the unique culture of each church. Just remember that the more you require of people in the process, the more likely they will be to remain committed to your church long-term: easy come, easy go.
While we require a lot from people completing our membership process, we make getting started easy by allowing folks to come to the first session without registering for the entire class. We also let them wait until the end of the process to decide whether they will actually become a member.
We also want to make membership matter—our church is not like a country club with benefits, but a body with ownership and responsibility. Only members can serve in positions of leadership or be involved in ministries to children and youth. Our leaders must be fully committed to and accountable to the church, and the membership process ensures this.
The two primary goals of a membership class are to solidify both a person's commitment to and knowledge of Christ (catechesis) and their commitment to and knowledge of your particular body of Christ (confirmation/membership). Your content should reflect these two goals. What are the key tenants of the Christian faith that you want every member of your church to be able to articulate and affirm (the Trinity, Jesus' Cross and Resurrection, living in the power of the Spirit, how to study the Bible, communion and baptism)? What are the values of your church that you want every person to know and seek to embody (your history and traditions, serving the poor, missions, family)?
We grow in commitment to Christ and his church through teaching, worship, community, and prayer. Make sure to include these aspects in your process so that it is more than just information, it is formation. We include a retreat in our process so that we have time for extended worship, shared meals, and prayer for every single person.
Lord willing, your process will include new believers who you may be preparing for baptism. We have a clear moment in our teaching where we invite those who have not fully made a commitment to follow the Lord to do so. We want to be clear about what it means to believe and live the gospel and that we want to see people affirm that before we will accept them as members or before we will baptize them. Holy Trinity in Brompton's Alpha Course, which serves as their membership process, could provide a helpful model in this aspect.
Written covenants help clarify your expectations of members. Our members agree to attend worship, serve, give sacrificially of their money, obey Scripture, and preserve church unity by handling conflict Biblically. Other churches include things like attending parish business meetings or joining a community group in their covenants.
Some churches try to make these commitments clear by using categories like "Give, Go, and Grow." Saddleback Church has five purposes: worship, ministry, mission, fellowship, and discipleship.
The Connection Afterward
The pathway going out of your membership process should be as clear as the one going into it. Design clear connection points at the end of the process to help members fully integrate. If you want them to serve in a ministry, then teach about spiritual gifts, have them take a spiritual gifts assessment, and help them find a place to use those gifts.
If you want them to join a community group or support group, have groups available for them.
Help them begin giving financially by having a church report available to show how you steward your finances and by making any methods of giving that you have available to them (giving envelopes, automatic debit, online). Finally, make sure you have their accurate contact info so you can add them to your mailing list, email newsletter, social media pages, and other forms of communication.
The Reception of New Members
We value what we celebrate. If you want membership to be meaningful in your church, design a meaningful way to celebrate each new group of members in front of the whole church on important Sundays. We receive new members by presenting them by name in front of the church. We then give them the chance to affirm their commitment and faith verbally as a group. We give them objects of remembrance—a candle and a cross—and have pastors pray for each of them individually during a congregational song.
When appropriate, we have someone from the class give a testimony about what God has been doing in their life that brought them to this decision to become a member, to be baptized, or to return to the Lord. For many of our folks, it becomes one of their most meaningful worship experiences.
The Continued Revisions
As you run your process, keep adjusting it and trying new things. We started out by providing meals for every session, but it became cost-prohibitive and we wanted to keep the registration costs low for everyone, so we now cater a couple meals and do potluck snacks for the other sessions. We're always slightly changing our topics or our covenant to better reflect our values.
The Launch of a New Process
The membership process is for many people one of their first impressions of your church, so put your best foot forward. Bring in your top leaders, best teachers, and friendliest volunteers. You want people who have been through the process to tell others, "I loved it. You should do it. The process was so good for me!" After we redesigned our process, we had folks who had been through our old process years before going through the new process because they kept hearing about how good it was.
Keith Hartsell, one of our pastors and the chief architect of our process, says the goal is to turn people who are uncertain attenders into raving fans. You will know your membership process is meaningful when people complete it feeling more committed to the Lord and more committed to his church.
Trevor Mcmaken is a pastor and ordained deacon at Church of the Resurrection, a charismatic, evangelical, Anglican church in Wheaton, IL. You can read other articles by Trevor and his wife Bonnie at their website, www.themcmakens.com; © 2013 Christianity Today/BuildingChurchLeaders.com.
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