Churches must help uninvolved members serve consistently, SBTS professor writes

Communications Staff — September 12, 2005

Paul was a member of First Baptist Church who attended every Sunday morning. Other church members often commented favorably on Paul’s faithfulness. But in reality Sunday morning worship attendance was the limit of Paul’s commitment to the church.

Unfortunately, Paul’s story is not an isolated case but is repeated thousands of times each Sunday in churches across America, writes Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Chuck Lawless in “Membership Matters,” a new book published by Zondervan. According to Lawless, churches must transform uninvolved members like Paul into fully involved Christian servants.

Many church attenders “are evangelicals, committed to Christ and his Word—but they’ve never been discipled,” writes Lawless, who serves as Brookes Professor of Evangelism & Church Growth and senior associate dean of Southern’s Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth. “… My prayer is that the book you now hold in your hands will help confront this issue.”

Lawless’ research began as a study of new member classes in 150 growing churches. As the research progressed, he expanded his investigation to the additional question of how churches move current members to greater commitment and involvement.

A membership class is a highly effective method of assimilating uninvolved and new members into a church, he writes. Such a class introduces members to the church’s mission and doctrine in addition to helping them build significant relationships within the congregation, according to Lawless.

“Scheduling a membership class is never easy,” he writes. “Church staff members and potential class members are already too busy…. But the leaders in this study told us that the benefits of the class far outweigh the scheduling difficulties.”

Among the basic doctrines taught in most successful membership classes are the plan of salvation and the nature of the church, including the church’s status as a family and God’s expectation that Christians join a local congregation, he writes.

“The churches in our study … did not promote joining only as a response to a biblical command; rather, they emphasized joining as an expression of commitment to God and to a particular group of believers,” Lawless writes. “Membership is a public pledge to find our role in the body, work alongside other members, and hold each other accountable to faithful Christian living.”

Along with central Christian doctrines, successful membership classes also teach membership expectations and the church’s mission, he writes, adding that membership expectations frequently include identifying with the church, attending worship and small groups, giving financially to the church and serving in ministry.

Despite the benefits of a membership class, a class alone cannot accomplish fully the work of motivating members to become involved in ministry, according to Lawless. Churches must also implement a ministry placement strategy and encourage every member to find a place to serve, he writes.

Raising the standards of membership and starting a class may result in short-term decline and frustration, but the benefits of a committed membership far outweigh the costs, he writes.

“Moving attenders into membership and members into ministry through a membership class will require some work,” Lawless writes. “Decide now that the results are worth the cost.”

Some key steps to beginning the process of moving members into ministry include enlisting a prayer team to pray for laborers, asking uninvolved members why they aren’t involved and starting with a few people who are willing to be discipled.

Lawless concludes the book with a chapter detailing the stories of specific congregations that successfully move attenders into membership and ministry. He then closes with a word of encouragement to church leaders.

“As you make membership matter in your church, develop a clear disciple-making strategy. Don’t stop with a membership class and a ministry placement strategy.”

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