One of the most significant changes in church practices in the past fifteen years is the requirement of an entry class to be granted church membership. In a 1997 survey I did, only 17 percent of churches were requiring a new member class. In a recent and non-scientific Twitter poll I conducted, 86 percent of those who responded said their church requires a membership class to be formally affiliated with the church.
Even if you provide allowances for the potential lack of accuracy of a Twitter poll, the change is remarkable if not dramatic. The number of churches requiring a membership class has increased 400 percent in 15 years!
That is one of seven key trends we see today in new member classes. Let’s look at all seven:
- Requiring church membership classes has become a normative church practice. Indeed this church practice is almost as pervasive as churches that have small groups or Sunday school classes.
- The longer a church has required a membership class, the shorter it becomes in length. Many churches start with membership classes that are multiple weeks in length. Because of teaching efficiency and the need for better participation, they typically move toward one-day classes.
- The most common length of a new member class is three hours. Of course, there is a wide variety of lengths and days of these classes, but the three-hour class is now the plurality among those offered. It still is a long way from becoming the majority preference though.
- The most common day the class is offered is Sunday. The logic behind this option is that people are already at church, so offer the class while they are there. I have heard from many church leaders whose churches offer the class during the Sunday school/Bible study/small group time. Others offer the class immediately after the worship services, typically connected to lunch. Again, there is still much variety on the day or evening these classes are offered.
- The most efficient membership classes have options. By efficient, I mean the level of participation. If the church offers classes at different times, more people are likely to participate. A common example is a church that offers a class on two Wednesday evenings for 90 minutes each, or one Sunday afternoon for three hours.
- Among the minority of churches that do not require new member classes, there are strong feelings against them. Some church leaders and members view such a requirement as legalistic and/or unbiblical. This issue still evokes strong emotions.
- Leaders in churches are enthusiastic about the benefits of new member classes. Though I have no metrics, I do hear anecdotal testimonies about improved member retention, better stewardship, stronger ministry participation, and lower conflict.
Let me hear from you about new member classes in your church. Do you require them? When are they offered? What is the content of them? What is your assessment of their usefulness thus far? What have you changed about them? What would you like to change?
Posted on November 16, 2013
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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We have discovered that we have a large number of people who self-identify as members, but who aren’t. For us, the only real difference between a member and an attender is the right to vote and hold positions in leadership. And since we generally have only one business meeting a year, that isn’t a big deal. On any given Sunday, perhaps 1/4th to 1/3rd of those in attendance are actually members.
We want it very easy and friction-free to attend and participate in the life of the church. We want it hard enough to be a member that only people with real interest and commitment are leading and making decisions.
We have a Membership Commitment luncheon after worship on each fifth Sunday. We provide childcare if needed, and it will last 90 minutes or so, depending on questions. We cover a brief history of the church, our mission and strategy, beliefs and practices, how the church functions, and introduce the senior staff. We ask each new member to introduce themselves, and tell a little of their faith story and how they ended up here. We insure that everyone is indeed a born-again believer and has been scripturally baptized. We then ask them to sign an agreement to be bound by our Member Commitment.
Our church conducts a membership class during an early service. It is eight weeks long (before it was four separate courses at four weeks per class) that focus on building a foundation of discipleship on faith, exploring spiritual gifts to serve in ministry, providing practical training for sharing the gospel/evangelizing, and then finishing with our church’s history and future mission. At the end of the class, upon successful completion (based on attendance criteria) there is an offer of membership.
David mentioned a YouTube video. What do you all think of incorporating video into this process? We’re considering a one-hour in-person session, then 2-3 half hour videos, then a follow up one-hour in-person session. The plan is that this would all take place in about a three week period of time. A session that lasts around 3 hours is what we’ve done in the past, but we’ve found we can’t cover all that we’d like to cover. The thinking is that the videos would allow us to be concise so we could cover more material. Then, we’d build in some Q&A time for the video sessions in the last in-person session.
Again, I would check MinistryGrid.com. It is designed to let you upload your own video and track those who are taking the class.
Is there a biblical basis for requiring people to take classes or do sign papers to become a “member” of a church?
To answer your question directly, there is no biblical mandate to take a class or sign anything to become a member of a church. In 1 Corinthians 12, however, it is abundantly clear that membership is a biblical concept, and that we need some means to communicate the expectations of church membership. New member classes are a functional option to do so, but they do not have to be the only way to communicate expectations.
I would love to hear from you about alternative approaches.
Thanks for your reply. It seems like you’re saying you think there are different approaches, or perhaps wineskins, which makes sense.
I’ve only belonged to one evangelical church (the one I went to when I became saved, which I still go to), so my only other experience with church is Catholic. In the church I go to, one is a member if they have decided to believe in the forgiveness Christ has offered them. Being saved, they should then have spiritual gift(s) and also be an indispensable part of the body of Christ. There are theology training classes, which I believe are important, but they are not required. People that decide to follow Christ and that are actively involved in the body are highly encouraged to take classes that are offered, however.
Are the expectations of church membership different in every church or is there a similar expectation in each church? Again, I don’t have much experience, so I really don’t know! Also, one allowed to attend a church without being a member? I guess I’m asking what the difference is between someone who attends a church and an official member.
Admittedly, I haven’t read your book “I am a church member,” so if this is covered in that, I apologize.
Membership is not required to attend Protestant churches. Membership is a sign of a commitment to serve Christ and others through a particular congregation.
Thom, we dropped the term “member” for “mission partner” due to the fine biblical concept of membership (in the body of Christ) being misunderstood in our culture. Membership invokes the notion of a club or the YMCA where becoming a member gives rights and privileges rather relationship and service. So Jesus makes you a member of His Body and we invite believers to join our mission as partners (Phil. 1:3-5). So we offer a class to explain our mission and how they can be part of it (gospel, serving, groups, giving) Naturally, if your partnership and gifting moves you to lead others in our mission, you become a mission leader. There is a class (90 mins) to become a mission partner and ongoing sessions for mission leaders.
Dr. Rainer –
I am surprised you have not mentioned your own book, “I Am a Church Member.” Every where I turn, I hear people talking about your book. It seems like it is being used in new members classes all over the world. I think it is the very best content ever, besides the Bible, for a new members class.
Thank you Michael. I have been blessed with the response to the book.
Although the Church I grew up in didn’t offer a New Members Class, I support it 100%. My guess would be most people who regularly attend Church services, have no idea of the commitment and responsibilities of a member of a New Testament Church.
You are so right Gerald.
I really like David’s new members class. It is very practical. We offer one at New Liberty but it was not an easy process to get approved through the body.
You could use MinistryGrid.com to video, customize, deliver, and monitor a new members class online.
This is what we are facing. Any suggestions about how to lead the church family to want a members class?
Of recent, I started what I call a new Christian class on Sunday mornings rather than calling it new member class. This idea came from a friend of mine as we were discussing some issues of youth joining the fellow and not necessarily knowing Jesus. So I developed a class that focuses on the decision in which they made in their acceptance of Jesus. Further, it is helping them through the Scriptures to understand Salvation and then moving into God’s expectation of them as a new Christian. It is working for Good Hope Baptist Church for now. The class, I must admit needs tweaking here and there, but it is helping the youth to come to an understanding of their decision to follow Christ.
Our church offers a Membership Class twice a year, open to new and prospective members. It is not required, but encouraged, and almost always sought out. It helps people know who we are and how we operate before making a commitment, and helps members know how to connect and get involved. Our classes last 3-4 weeks during Sunday School.
By not requiring it, don’t you still have a lot of members join the church who don’t know what it means to be a member?
We do not have a new members class, but I’ve been wanting to start one. Are there any “best practices” that I should be aware of to get it off the ground?
Some of these trends may prove to be best practices. Ultimately, we must devise a way to measure effectiveness before we can declare anything to be a best practice.
At Cotton Ridge, we have an online church membership class at http://cottonridge.org/#/next-steps/step-3-membership. The participant can print out a workbook and follow a one-hour Youtube video. The video is simply my voice walking the participant through a mind map that I created on MindMeister.com. The content of the class includes: (1) What God desires for your life: To become a part of His family by following Jesus Christ (where I discuss receiving Christ and being baptized); (2) How Cotton Ridge fits into God’s plan for your life (where I talk about what church is, essential biblical doctrines, and the strategy and mission of our church; and (3) Beginning your journey at Cotton Ridge (where I talk about why you should join, what is expected of members, how to join, and what’s next. What comes next is a personal visit from two of our elders where we can get to know one another, answer questions, and verify that the participant qualifies.
I can cover a lot in a one-hour video that I would take me longer in person due to questions. Those questions, of course, can be answered in the personal interview with our elders.
I came up with this format because, much like the just-released Ministry Grid, having an online class gives people a chance to take the class on their own time. It’s user-friendly. We can still offer the class in person, of course. The online class is too new to judge its effectiveness.
That is fascinating David. I would love to hear your assessment several months from now. You’re right: the premise is very much like MinistryGrid.com.
David,I really the topics in which the class deals w/. Just looking from the perspective of what is posted I can see that this would give a new Christian ground in which to build their faith in Jesus and for me that is very important. I too am interested in knowing over the course of the next few mths how things are progressing; plus I would love to hear from a new member if that is possible.
thanks for sharing this
Just an update on the online membership class mentioned above. I have changed our website a little, and the class is now offered at http://cottonridge.org/#/belong/become-a-member
It would be interesting to know the topics that are covered most often. Thoughts?
That will likely be another research project for me. I hope some of the readers will share their insights as well.
I have heard a brief history of the church is helpful, a video of the church along the lines of a promo video, presentation the church constitution, bylaws, etc. The Pastor stating the vision and requirements such as attendance, tithing etc.