How do you welcome new people into church membership? It’s an important question to ask because doing it well is vital to the health of your church.
What’s your church’s usual path to move people into church membership? Done well, it can be a huge encouragement to help folk feel welcomed into the church family. But done badly…!
In my experience the journey normally involves a meeting with a nominated official (pastor, elder or congregational representative) to ascertain if the person requesting membership is a real Christian.
Of course, these conversations are usually friendly, even if a nervous person can feel like it’s an interrogation carried out under caution! The applicant is usually given a copy of the church’s doctrines and rules, and there may be the opportunity to question things. Perhaps too many questions suggests an awkward person, so most wisely acquiesce without asking too much.
Some churches then carry out a doctrine course and even a test. Or an applicant may have to come before the church (as I did) and give their testimony, then leave the room so that a vote can take place to either accept or reject them.
The main purpose of this procedure is to ensure the church’s ongoing doctrinal purity. No one is allowed in who is going to challenge what the church stands for, and perhaps tacitly it’s expected that no one will rock the boat or want to change anything.
The assumption is that if we are doctrinally united then church life will be peaceful and harmonious (how wrong you can be?). So only those who ‘pass’ one or more of these tests are later formally accepted into membership… and then left to figure out how it all works and how they can get involved in church life.
As we began to grow at Grace, it became ever more obvious that new people didn’t know how the church as a family/organisation actually worked or understood what part they could play in it. We had to help these new people with their journey into membership.
So we gave more thought to an organisational pathway which started with Attraction; moved on Recognition/identification; and led to Integration.
This can be everything from your website and media presence, through to good signage and publicity, to a greeting in a car park and by your welcome teams.
This is about spotting if there any new people, but also warmly relating to those who return for the second, third, and fourth times. Such people are key – the returnees who are trying church out. They especially need us to connect to them with invites to hospitality, information, and introduction to others who can identify with them.
We hope that individuals in the church will be active in relating to new people. This is what is called ‘organic’ development; believers doing spontaneously what the Lord encourages us all in his word – being welcoming, hospitable, and kind to outsiders (Heb 13:1, 2).
In smaller churches this may happen naturally and easily, but in larger ones it will need some careful planning and co-ordinating, so that new people really feel part of the family of God.
So how do we move people towards integration and church membership?
1. Meet the Pastors
To start with, we regularly invite new people to a ‘meet the pastors’ lunch’, where staff leaders meet new people. As well as giving a welcome, we talk to them about finding out about Christianity if they are not yet Christians, and by homegroup involvement if they are.
This is a key part of the integration process for we have come to see that ‘the large’ grows only as ‘the small’ is effective. So we try to get new people very quickly into small groups where they get ‘velcroed in’, as Larry Osborne puts it1.
2. An ‘induction shaped’ course.
This used to be held on four evenings but we have found it much better to do it in one go on a Saturday, finishing in the early afternoon. Though it is quite a time commitment for those attending, it has been universally appreciated.
So what does it look like?
Session 1: Family Values
This outlines why the church looks like it does today – its history, mission, vision and values. It’s also an opportunity to get to know each other and to discuss a person’s conversion experience and subsequent Christian journey.
We take the opportunity to do some evangelism training by getting each person to think of their story being told in around two minutes, without any jargon, so that they may be prepared to share it as God gives them opportunity in the future. The Lord often uses Christian’s personal stories to help others.
We employ the ‘evangelism styles questionnaire’ to help each person work out their own ‘personality style’ and to see that God uses all kinds of people in our church to reach others2. We put quite a bit of ‘heat’ under the outward-facing mission of the church even as people are coming into it.
Session 2: Family Life
This is the nuts and bolts of the church – how we’re structured and run, and individual’s responsibilities and commitments.
So we discuss leadership, meetings’ structure, finances, outreach strategy, and the like. Transparency and the opportunity to ask questions and make comments is a significant aspect of this session. Spelling all this out has helped us realise how to improve a whole lot of other things too. The session concludes with descriptions of what membership looks like and what membership promises are about.
Session 3: Your role in the Family
This is the unique contribution we can all make to God’s kingdom. This looks at people’s ‘SHAPE’ and our opportunities for service3. We use this helpful acronym to get people talking about how they have served the Lord and where they would like to in the future. We then talk to them about our teams, explaining about our CARE plan strategy and discussing with them how they can serve.
We have produced all of this in really attractive visual formats to help people navigate their way through what otherwise can seem like a huge download of information4.
3. Follow Up
After this induction course one of our pastors follows up on each person to discuss whether they want to go on into full membership. For some that will mean being baptised as well as they join.
We also aim to listen to people talk about their background, their circumstances, their relationships, their work, and their hopes and aspirations, as well as discussing the formal membership commitments. We liaise with other leaders so that we can discuss how they can serve and on what service team.
4. Weekend Away
As the final part of our organised induction process we invite people to a weekend away. One of the pastors and his wife hosts around six others at a country cottage. Over the weekend the leaders again go over values and key ideas, and generally help people feel that they belong. These breaks are great at building friendships too.
Only downside? Some of our long-established members have been left feeling, ‘I wish we had that when we joined’.
So in conclusion, this induction process has proven itself very valuable. But why wait until you are a larger church? Why not supplement the usual ‘beliefs’ part of joining a church with a better introduction into how it all works and how people can be involved?
1. Larry Osborne, Sticky Church (Zondervan, 2008)
2. Bill Hybels and Mark Mittleberg, Becoming a Contagious Christian Training Course: Participant’s Guide (Zondervan, 1995); see also Mark Mittelberg, Building a Contagious Church (Zondervan, 2000)
3. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Zondervan, 1995)
4. Ray Evans and Simon Rowell, Joining the Church Family (Grace Community Church, Bedford, 2017) is available as a pdf file. Contact Ray via our contact form for more information.