Should a Church Membership Class be Required?

More and more churches now expect new church members to complete a membership class, but the debate about whether these classes should be REQUIRED is still an ongoing one. Here are some of the arguments I’ve heard from both sides, and I’d love to hear your opinion. Help all of us consider this important issue. 

Arguments FOR a Required Class:

  1. Nothing in the Bible forbids this requirement. There’s no clear text that says, “Churches shall not require new members to complete a class.”
  2. Too many churches take church membership lightly. One way to counter this tendency is to show new members that this church is different – and it’s best to do that when members first join.
  3. Stated expectations up front are critical to leading members to be faithful. And, a required class means that all members must hear those expectations. For churches that do church discipline, it’s tough to do so if you haven’t established expectations up front.
  4. If every member is to serve in some way, a required class helps every member learn about possibilities. In addition, the earlier a new member is encouraged to get involved, the more likely he or she will do so.
  5. Members who aren’t willing to attend a membership class probably shouldn’t be members in the first place. Thus, a required class also helps to weed out folks who aren’t really committed to the church.

Arguments AGAINST a Required Class:

  1. The Bible never speaks of a membership class required to join the church. And, where the Bible doesn’t speak, we don’t have permission to add requirements for church membership.
  2. Establishing an expectation—but not a requirement—that new members attend a membership class is probably the best we can get. That is, having a clearly stated expectation is further than some churches have ever gone; they start there before they require the class.
  3. We’ve never done it that way before. In fact, what does a church do with all its current members if a membership class is now required? Rather than seek to answer this question, some churches simply don’t tackle the topic of a membership class at all.
  4. We might lose members if we require the class. For some congregations that are struggling, the thought of losing any new member is enough to fight against requiring a class.
  5. Requiring a class is legalistic. After all, it’s just adding another burden for people who are ready to serve the Lord through His church.

What are your thoughts? What does your church do? 

19 Comments

  • Paul R says:

    Your blog is one of the rapidly shrinking set of blogs I follow that seem to still talk common sense. I’m also Catholic, and a catechist.

    In Catholicism it is required. Yet I fully appreciate your arguments against, although the Bible never talks about Altar Calls as what’s required for you to become a Christian either. 🙂

    Our parish has a programme (rather than a one-off) of around six months, but ideally, it should be around 1-2 years, every week. Sadly, many people join the classes for the wrong reasons, because they want to get their kids into our schools, or marry a Catholic, rather than for the right reasons. In short, they just want access to what we have which they can’t get elsewhere. It also starts with “pre-catechumenate” where people can ask any questions they like before they start formal catechesis, where they are called “Enquirers”.

    Often it’s done by school teachers, and unfortunately, that’s usually fatal. It encourages the “brain on a stick” mentality Jamie Smith talks about, and doesn’t seriously include what should be taking place “transformation in Christ” (formation), and becomes primarily “learning about Christianity and its doctrines” (education). What’s important is that it’s a springboard to participation in long-term Christian formation and deeper relationship with Christ (“Mystagogy”) , rather than a one-off “to go through some hoops”.
    http://teamrcia.com/2007/10/a-step-by-step-guide-to-mystagogy/

    One of the key aspects is that there is a special Rite and candidates/catechumens are welcomed on one day in the year, wherever they are in the world: Easter Day. More specifically, the Easter Vigil (the night before, after dusk). It begins in the dark and each person has a candle which is lit from the Paschal candle and, as the light spreads, “Lumen Christi!” (“The light of Christ!”) is sung, then the “exultet”, and there are nine long readings from Scripture, all marking the key points in Salvation History, and it is a true celebration of joy in Christ’s resurrection, and their resurrection as new Christians as they are Baptised, Confirmed, and welcomed.
    “Dear brothers and sisters, now that we have begun our solemn Vigil, let us listen with quiet hearts to the Word of God. Let us meditate on how God in times past saved his people and in these, the last days, has sent us his Son as our Redeemer. Let us pray that our God may complete this paschal work of salvation
    by the fullness of redemption.”

    There is so much that could be said, but as a bottom line, if the process is performed, as stipulated, you should end up with transformed, stable, and mature Christians, who love Christ, and know he loves them, and become effective Christians within the parish and wider. But, when done badly, people who remain emotionally and spiritually immature and stunted, but know a lot (with which they then proceed to browbeat/bully others, create schism/discord, or simply show off, etc.).

  • I think a membership class should be required for new members and I lean upon your #3 which is stating expectations up front. To me this is important because it starts at square one and lets new members know where you are going to lead them and how they are going to get there. Often the reason church members don’t grow is because there is no clear path of assimilation. I read a good book once on why Membership Matters ;o)

  • Kent Anderson says:

    For us membership or Inquirer’s classes allows us to let the new people know, in greater depth, what it is we believe and how we function. We get to know them better as well, and it help build relationships. It is also the change to share our testimonies together.

  • Jerry Watts says:

    A membership class may save pain and suffering. In most SBC churches throughout history, people walked the aisle, shook the preacher’s hand, made a ‘public’ profession of faith, and then was baptized or was voted into the ‘full-fellowship’ of the church. They joined, in hindsight, and we received them, no really knowing their deep beliefs. A membership class can bring to the forefront what the doctrine of the church is on a range of truths.
    In our culture, which I liken to the last verse in the Book of Judges, there exists beliefs that are foreign to the word of God. As a historical truth, the church basis here doctrine on Biblical Truths and not man-made beliefs. The class would assist both prospective member and church family from colliding on Biblical truth.

  • Robin G. Jordan says:

    My inclination is not to call it a church membership class but newcomers orientation. You would cover what you usually cover in a church membership class but would package it differently Some folks find the idea of a church membership class daunting but are more receptive to the idea of newcomers orientation especially when it is offered as a way of helping them become better acquainted with other people in the congregation, to learn more about the church, its vision, and its values, and to explore opportunities to contribute to the life and ministry of the church.

    • Paul R says:

      Very thought-provoking idea, Robin. Thanks.

    • I agree with you. New Believers in Christ might not understand how a church should Biblicly act. A understanding of how to contribute to life and ministy according to what the Bible says as a class can be helpfull. A class that teaches what the church is all about is a good idea. On the other hand, I dont think it should be called a memebership class. You dont have to take a membership class tobecome a member of the body of Christ. There are some great scriptures that say what make a person a body of Christ.
      Acts 2: 41, 47″Those who accepted his message where baptized, and about 3000 where added to there numbers… And the Lord added to thier number daily those who where being saved.”
      They did have to have a class to make them members. They only had to repent, believe and then those who accepted the message where baptized.

  • It appears that all the above comments are in favor. I’ve been conducting membership classes for over 40 years and find it to be one of the best things I have ever done. We take about 6-8 hours divided into 3 sessions. We promote it as an opportunity to know what the church is all about. For example, In the membership class you’ll learn our essential teachings. If someone makes a negative statement about what we believe you would know if that is the truth or not. You will learn how we are structured. How you can be involved. What the role of a pastor is in your life etc. Much more. We normally have lots and lots of questions. The end result is people have a very good understanding about the church they are joining. I have never had anyone who regretted attending.

  • Tom Allen says:

    I planted a church in 1999. We’ve always had a membership class. What we have realized is one class is not enough. We have adopted the GROW system of 4 classes. The first class is truly a membership class, but we encourage them to follow the GROWTH TRACK through all 4 classes. The second is a workshop to determine your design, (personality and spiritual gifts, the 3rd is our leadership culture and finally, we get them assigned to the Dream Team most suited for them (their place to serve) based on their personality/gifts and an interview. You can check out more information at grow.com.

  • Richard Wilcox says:

    I find it sad that new members find out down the road, that their beliefs and the congregation’s are not the same.

    I believe the best solution is to call it informational and spell out expectations and beliefs and then offer a break where anyone can leave with no one really noticing and then enter a time of membership commitment.

  • Jim Cole says:

    Perhaps a booklet or SOP (standard operating procedures) about the church doctrine, beliefs, expectations and opportunities to serve should be openly displayed and available to all attenders regardless of membership. It should also cover requirements such as background checks to serve in certain positions. It may be better for a prospect to know more about the church prior to membership.

  • Joshua Fletcher says:

    We have an orientation/new members class that meets at the same time as Sunday School at Grace Baptist. Any visitors that come we recommend they go into the orientation class to formally learn what we’re all about. Anyone who then decides to become a member, those classes (5 Sunday school time sessions (done in rotation through the year)) are required, but if they’ve gone as a visitor, those still count. It’s 100% to make certain the communication of what it means to be a member. There are things in the class that teach about church discipline and the baptism ordinance, but the class is there to basically make sure the person is a believer in good standing.

    As for the churches who haven’t done it that way and are afraid of losing members, the most likely person that a church body would “lose” to a church membership class is an unbeliever. There is no downside to clear communication. Sure it’ll be a headache to figure out and transition, but being a part of the family of God was never meant to be easy.

  • Jeff says:

    The building is not the Church, the people who come are the Church. God is the head of the Church and we learn from our Relationship with Jesus and study of Gods Word. Hand out newcomers packet with details, and either Pastor or he can delegate who he trust to follow up with newcomers. I don’t fell the Church’s need more classes, we need to be the ones who Welcom and Pray for All in the Church, not just the newcomers.

  • Tomorrow I’ll be baptizing two adults (a husband and wife) who learned about baptism in my membership class. If promoted positively and if it proclaims the basics (salvation, baptism, basic theology, and member expectations), a membership class can be a very good thing. (And yes, we require it for membership.)
    Another dynamic of a required membership class is that it allows us to quickly baptize new believers, even if their lifestyle has not yet caught up with their new faith. There are an increasing number of new believers who we find are living unbiblical lifestyles (e.g., cohabitating). Church members who are cohabitating—and I am assuming in this example that cohabitation includes sex outside of marriage—would begin to be placed under the process of church discipline (cf. Matt. 18:15-18). If baptized believers are immediately considered church members, then either the church should not baptize people until their lives are holy or the church should ignore its duty to discipline sinning members. For us, baptism is a prerequisite for church membership, as is salvation and the membership class.

  • Paul Coleman says:

    #1 argument against (there is no biblical requirement for a new members class) is the most compelling to me. If God does not require it, who are we to do so.

  • Jim Cole says:

    Is there a church without “sinning members.” If so, why do they need Jesus?
    The church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners. (unknown)

  • Guy Fredrick says:

    After a lot of study of the issue of church membership as delineated in Scripture I have come to the conclusion that church “membership” is not mentioned, per se, because it is ASSUMED UNIVERSALLY by every one of the churches mentioned in those same Scriptures. The very idea that Jesus would call CHURCHES to discipline their members (and never individuals to do so on their own accord) speaks volumes as to this universal inclusion as members of a local body of believers. The second assumption found in Scripture regarding church membership is that the individual “called out ones” making up the local body would be “discipled” — that means “trained.” To train means to have some level of class whereby the expectations, the covenant agreements, and also the benefits are laid out in some systematic fashion. It is these assumptions, never “proof-texted” by ever-present that should inform those of us walking with Christ some 2000 years into the future of His Church as to how we proceed with the same.

  • Ed Pomelear says:

    Here, it’s available if needed. But not required of all. I, the pastor, interview people when they requested or are asked to consider membership. If they have come from a very like-minded congregation with a similar structure and faith statement, I’m not going to require a class. If the candidate(s) do come from a different background, we have an informal ”class” that’s more like one-on-one (two) counseling. In my 20+ years here in a small church this has worked very well.

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