Making Church Membership Meaningful Again
- Reclaim a vision of regenerate church membership by emphasizing meaningful church membership through such practices as decision counseling, believer’s baptism, and new convert mentoring.
By and large, church membership doesn’t mean much anymore. At most churches, all you have to do is say, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” or, “I confess of my sins,” or pray a prayer, be baptized, and then you’re a member. And that’s it. You can now partake of the Lord’s Supper and vote for deacons. That’s what membership in many churches means today. Simply put, that’s not meaningful. Why? Because admitting people who simply profess faith is not enough. To admit unrepentant “Christians” (who are really unsaved) to the Lord’s Supper is to desecrate the Lord’s Table. We blissfully allow nonbelievers to eat and drink judgment on themselves by allowing them to join the church without exhibiting true repentance and faith! Notice what Paul says: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29).
The Puritans in Jonathan Edwards’s day had this same problem of having a lax view of church membership. Jonathan Edwards pastored a church in Northampton, which had previously been pastored by his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard began this practice of easy membership at Northampton for the sake of admitting more people to the Lord’s Supper who were really saved but doubted their salvation. As a result of this, though, some unsaved people were admitted to the Lord’s Supper who weren’t really saved. This problem revealed itself years after Edwards had succeeded Stoddard, but Edwards had by then revised his view on church membership. As a result, he later refused to allow someone membership in the church who had not exhibited true repentance and faith. The subsequent conflict led to the end of Edwards’s pastoral ministry there.
We are in a similar quandary today that Edwards was in 300 years ago. He began life and ministry in a world of easy church membership. We live in a time when church membership (in most places) means even less than it did in Edwards’s day, for we don’t even practice church discipline, which the Puritans did to a fault. The problem is obvious: too many nonbelievers are church members. Now, goats (unbelievers) will inhabit the flock (church) of sheep (believers) until the Lord comes again (Matt 25:31-32). However, we should not willingly and knowingly allow this to happen.
There are two dangers in the requirements for church membership. Too lax a policy results in many more goats mixed in with sheep and gives many more unbelievers a false sense of salvation. Too legalistic a policy results in some genuine Christians being excluded. This is where the GCTF’s recommendations walk the fine line of biblical wisdom. While their recommendations will not weed out all unbelievers, it will weed out as many unbelievers as humanly possible; and their recommendations also do not exclude true Christians from full church membership.
First, the GCTF recommends churches to adopt “such practices as decision counseling.” The British pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones didn’t even have a post-sermon invitation. He preached, blessed the congregation, and that was it. Service over. No post-sermon invitation, no hymn of invitation, just the sermon and benediction. The end. His radical devotion to biblical practice is amazing, but here in America (as in Britain) most congregations have a post-sermon invitation of some kind. In such a case, someone either walks down the aisle and says a sinner’s prayer, “makes a decision,” or simply professes that they believe the gospel. In most churches, they are then immediately announced as candidates for baptism. Where is the assurance that this is not a false conversion? Where is the assurance that this person really believes the gospel? Quite simply, there is none. This no-strings-attached come-to-the-front and welcome-to-the-household-of-God mentality has led to the false assurances of many. And every unbeliever we admit into full church member is another unbeliever who will have a rude awakening at the judgment when Jesus says to him or her, “I never knew you.”
Decision counseling is the solution to this problem. Rather than hastily saying, “Let’s baptize you next Sunday” to every person who walks down the aisle, the GCTF rightly recommends pastors to exercise godly patience (as their calling commands, 2 Tim 4:2) by counseling people who express interest in joining the church as a new convert. Each situation is different, so suffice it to say that each pastor should meet at least one time with a prospective new convert and ask questions such as the following:
- What do you believe about God?
- What do you believe about yourself?
- What do you believe about Jesus Christ?
- How do you, personally, respond to the gospel?
After those basic questions about the gospel, the pastor should stress that Jesus calls “anyone” who would follow Him to “deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The faith isn’t just about a one-time decision. Someone who expresses initial joy at the gospel should first be told of the implications of the gospel before he or she is baptized. The pastor must confront this person with any known sin and ask a question such as “Do you love this sin? Do you love God enough to hate your sin? Or will you wallow in it?” If a person chooses to wallow in sin, he is no true Christians. True Christians will stumble and sin occasionally, yes, but true Christians hate their sin even when they do it. As Paul says in Romans 7:15, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Decision counseling helps make sure that new converts are genuine converts and not unrepentant goats in sheep’s clothing.
Next, and closely tied with the first point, is that new converts should undergo believer’s baptism. Just as the New Testament establishes immersion as the practice of baptism, the New Testament also establishes that believers alone should be baptized. As Peter asks in Acts 10:47, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” People receive the Holy Spirit in the new birth (John 3:5, Ezekiel 36:27), so this verse establishes that only born-again Christians should be baptized.
Decision counseling comes into play again at this point. The last point a pastor should discuss with the prospect in decision counseling is the meaning of baptism. The pastor should make it clear to the counselee that baptism is for believers alone; the pastor should stress what baptism means. Galatians 3:26-27 is a helpful depiction of baptism: “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Baptism does not justify us before God; we “are all sons of God, through faith,” not baptism. But those of of us who “were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Baptism is the public declaration of our inner faith. Baptism is the first act of obedience we do as Christ’s disciples (Matthew 28:19). People who have undergone decision counseling and are willing to follow Jesus regardless of the cost should be baptized.
New Convert Mentoring
Lastly, newly baptized converts should be mentored (or discipled, to use a biblical word). In Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23, Jesus tells and explains the parable of the sower:
"A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear."
"Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty."
True Christians are “the good soil” that produces grain. But so many baptized church members fall into the category of those who hear the word and “immediately” receive it “with joy” but who “falls away” once “tribulation or persecution arises.” Other baptized church members fall are “among thorns” who are choked and are unfruitful. Both of these types of people are unsaved, but both of these types of people exist within the church. New convert mentoring seeks to remedy that problem. The discipleship of new believers strengthens true believers to persevere (our sovereign God uses human means), and it can even lead to the almost-unwitting salvation of a false believer! Either way, new convert mentoring helps mature believers in Christ Jesus.
These are but the first steps to making church membership meaningful again. In the next (and final) two posts in this series, I will explain how corrective/redemptive church discipline and personal discipleship can also contribute to reclaiming “a vision of regenerate church membership.”
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