A dear pastor friend of mine contacted me recently with what he felt was this exact dilemma. I have faced it. Many of you have faced it. All pastors are grateful when individuals desire to be at church and want to commit themselves to the church. There is, however, a problem when the most basic requirement (for most of us anyway) to become a church member is that they have indeed been “born again.” For whatever reason, there are those who desire church membership who show no signs of it. Pastors cannot see the heart, and yet are charged with protection and care of the flock.
Therefore, how do we discern as pastors what to do with someone who does not articulated a knowledge of the gospel clearly and/or fail to demonstrate any genuine fruit of conversion? Here are 4 suggestions to consider as you talk to a prospective church member. My hope is that they fit in many different contexts of taking new members into the church:
Ask simple and clear questions. Pastors are trained and gifted to be able to respond to tough, challenging questions asked without any warning. Many people are not gifted that way. When talking to someone in this moment, ask simple, clear questions. It is very possible that someone could freeze in response because you failed to state clearly what you wanted from them. Make sure their less than clear response to your questions is not the result of your poor word choices.
Carefully evaluate the meaning of their words. My first membership interview did not go as planned. I had my list of questions and “expected responses” I wanted to hear. About half way into my talk with this woman, I just threw my sheet out the window. Do not listen for the exact wording you desire to hear, but whether their words mean what you need to hear. For example, we do not have to hear them say the words, “repent” or “imputation” to know they still understand the gospel, love Jesus, and have submitted their life by faith alone to Christ. Be open and listen well.
Seize it as a gospel opportunity. Often times as these interviews go downhill, we can begin to panic wondering, “What should I do, how will I explain this to the church, what if they leave if I tell them they cannot be members, etc.” Instead, if you conclude this person does not understand the gospel, seize the opportunity to talk to them about it. After all, they want to join the church. They want to hear you teach from the Bible. They want to be around the other members. Tell them you want to spend 4 weeks meeting with them discussing a clear understanding of the gospel before you proceed any further with the membership process. Pray and expect that the Lord could bring them to saving faith during that time. If they reject your offer or are offended by the gesture, you may have gotten the answer you were looking for.
Trust the Lord will give you discernment. We are not God, only shepherds of His sheep. God is not expecting us to see and know the heart, ultimately. Pray for wisdom. Ask good clear questions. Involve other pastors if you have them. Then, make the call trusting the Lord will be gracious to you and the church in it. Two of the most beloved members in our church now were very questionable at the conclusion of my interview with them years ago. They both serve in leadership today. Keep in mind, how willing your church is to discipline church members (Matt. 18:15-17, 1 Cor. 5:1-8) matters when making a decision of uncertainty like this.
May the Lord give each of us grace and discernment beyond our years and abilities as we face these matters for the protection of God’s people and the purity of Christ’s church.