Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Allowing new members into the church

This morning I attended church at a friend’s congregation who was having his farewell service before he moves away to another city in South Africa. As part of the service, five young people became “full” members of the church. The way in which this happened, was the same way in which I became a member of my church when I was sixteen years of age. We attended six years of Sunday School and then a further five years of “Catechism” where we learnt about the formal doctrines of the church. The last year was conducted by our minister and usually involved the more difficult doctrines that non-theologians struggled with. After all this formal teaching, we appeared before a committee who had the opportunity to question us and to have informal discussions with us, until eventually we were all approved to be members of the church. And the emphasis falls on the word “all”, because with this method, you can hardly refuse someone who had gone through this entire process of eleven years of preparation to become a member. At the very least, the consequences of such a decision would be that the potential member’s family and friends would leave the church and find somewhere else to worship – and who wants that to happen?
One of the amusing things which I remember about those days was when we had eventually been allowed as members of the church and we posed for a picture to be taken afterwards. A boy who was with me in class at school and who had quite a reputation (and not a good one!) for his life-style, was standing next to me. At some point, as we were waiting for the photographer to take his shot, he whispered in my ear: “I think I will now have to start changing my life-style!” Needless to say, he never did.
I suspect that most mainline churches are struggling with the same problem – people becoming members of the church because they grew up in this church, but without having any relationship with God. And while it’s fine to have those people worshiping at your church, it becomes a problem when they commit themselves to becoming members of that particular denomination. When you become a member of a church, you are promising, amongst other things, to become actively involved with God’s work. But of course, if you had never been actively involved in God’s work before, chances are small (Read: “Non-existent”) that it will happen merely because you had become an “official” member of a church.
Things were different in the early church. To become a member of the church in New Testament times could well mean that you would literally be thrown to the lions. Such a decision could not be taken lightly. In my own church in Swaziland, we allow people to worship with us for years until they are personally convinced that they really want to join the church. I’d be dishonest if I would say that this has a major impact on the lives of our members, but at least I’m not compelling people to tell lies, merely because they feel forced to become members.
I have absolutely no idea what the solution to this problem is. I’m convinced that it’s not only the mainline churches who have a problem with this. I have dear friends in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (and who are willing to be honest about their experiences,) and I find that they have much the same problem. In their case, people have to be baptised in order to become members of their churches, but often, due to pressure from their parents or peers, they are baptised, while proclaiming their faith in Jesus Christ, but still without living in a relationship with Him. The method in which you become a church member has very little influence on the quality of your membership, especially if you feel pressured into becoming a member.
So, if you have success stories to share, I would love to hear about them.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008 - Posted by | Church, Mission, Swaziland, Theology

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