At the outset, it may be helpful to acknowledge that there are no specific verses in Scripture that require a church to conduct an interview before recognizing someone as a member of its congregation. In the days of the New Testament, the process for becoming a member of the church seems to have been fairly brief and organic. A new member professed faith in Christ, was baptized, and was added to the church (cf. Acts 2:41).
But for good reason many churches have found it helpful to set aside a time to talk with a membership candidate before he or she joins the church. In my experience, these interview sessions represent an extremely valuable pastoral opportunity. It’s a chance to ask questions, provide pastoral care, and shape the candidates’ understanding of their role in the church.
The purpose of this article is to provide some practical guidance on how to make the most of these interviews for the benefit of the member and the health of the church. And while there’s no one set way to conduct a membership interview, I’ve found it helpful to try to achieve three things in the course of a one-hour meeting:
- Get to know the candidate for membership.
- Help the candidate understand the church.
- Begin pastoral care for the candidate.
Get to Know Them
After opening in prayer, I usually begin asking questions that will help me get to know the individual better. Sometimes I interview persons I know quite well, like former members who have moved back to the area. Other I’m interviewing those who are, for all intents and purposes, complete strangers. So while I might tailor my approach to those specific situations, here are four things I normally ask of every membership candidate (with some brief comments):
1. What makes you want to join the church?
This question is a good ice-breaker. It helps get at people’s motivations and can occasionally raise some red flags (such as the person who once answered, “Because I’m sick of looking for a good church”).
2. Where are you from?
People don’t arrive in your office ex nihilo. They’re formed for good and ill by their backgrounds, their experiences, and their families. As a pastor, this information will help you care for the new member as she becomes part of your flock. Someone from a legalistic Christian background will probably have different needs, reactions, and temptations than someone raised by atheist parents.
3. How did you become a Christian?
This is the most important piece of information to get in a membership interview. A church must be confident its members are genuinely converted, and a person’s understanding of their conversion will often reveal quite a bit about their spiritual maturity. More than once this question has been used by God to reveal that the potential member may very well not be converted at all.
4. Can you briefly explain the gospel to me?
You may be surprised how many Christians cannot clearly articulate the good news about Jesus. They may believe the gospel but not understand it well enough to communicate it. Or, more commonly, they might leave out an important part of the gospel, such as the need for sinners to respond in repentance and faith. This question allows you to gently inform or correct their understanding of the good news.
Help Them to Know the Church
After taking time to get to know the potential member (and believe him to be converted), I move the conversation toward helping him to understand the church he’s come to join. While we have a membership class that covers many of these subjects, it’s helpful to walk through them one-on-one.
1. Answer any questions the candidate might have.
People often have questions about the church that range from the small (“Why is the church logo green?”) to the weighty (“What does the church teach about divorce?”). This is a good opportunity to let folks explore whatever questions might be nagging them.
2. Review the statement of faith and church covenant.
This subject is normally covered pretty thoroughly in our membership classes, but the interview occasionally generates good opportunities to explain some point of doctrine or correct a misunderstanding.
3. Review expectations of church members.
The membership interview is a great time to clearly set expectations. We tell our new members the congregation expects six things from all its members:
- Attend – For our church, this means Sunday morning and (if at all possible) Sunday evening. You can’t be part of something if you’re not present.
- Pray – We ask and expect our members to pray for each other.
- Give – Giving is an act of worship and obedience.
- Serve – Use your Spirit-given gifts to edify the body.
- Live holy – Your actions, in private and in public, affect the health of the body. Fight sin by God’s grace and be quick to confess and ask for help when you need it.
- Evangelize – You’re a missionary sent by our church into your neighborhood, home, and workplace.
4. Reinforce any distinctives important to your church culture.
The membership interview is a prime time to ensure new members really “get” the church culture. I usually review our approach to Christian liberty, the priority we give in our budget to church planting, and our emphasis on every-member ministry rather than programs. It’s helpful for everyone in the church to be on the same page with these kinds of issues.
5. Review the membership process going forward.
This part is simple; walk them through the next steps in your church’s membership process. It may be helpful to address questions they have about timing as well as any public statement they may be asked to give.
Begin Pastoral Care
At this point in the conversation, I should have a pretty good idea about what a candidate might need as he enters into the life of the congregation. At the end of the meeting, it’s good to set up a plan for ways the candidate can integrate into the church. In our congregation, this can mean arranging to set him up with a small group and a one-to-one Bible-reading partner. In some special cases, it becomes clear the person would benefit from some special follow up (like counseling, a program of Bible study, or even an evangelistic course). In those cases, I prefer to start the ball rolling on that process before the candidate leaves my office. At the conclusion of the meeting it’s helpful to pray for the new member, that she’d be fruitful in the life of the church, and that the church would bear much fruit in her life.
It’s a privilege to conduct membership interviews. It can feel wearisome when a lot of people want to join and my schedule (and those of our other elders) is tight. But it’s important to the church’s health that we carefully examine people before they become members, and it’s a joy to hear candidates’ testimonies of God’s grace and to consider together how God might bless them through the church.