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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 articulate a knowledge of the gospel clearly and/or fails to demonstrate any genuine fruit of conversion?  Here are four 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.  Oftentimes 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 four 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.

Brian Croft is Senior Pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.  He is the husband of Cara and adoring father of four children—son Samuel and daughters Abby, Isabelle, and Claire.  He has served in pastoral ministry for 15 years and is currently in his eighth year as Pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church.  He was educated at both Belmont University and Indiana University, receiving his B.A. in Sociology.  He also undertook some graduate work at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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David Buffaloe

commented on Jun 2, 2011

Good ideas. Now give me a set of directions on how to handle the lost ALREADY on my Church roll. I have some who were added to the Church by past overzealous pastors and evangelists who think they are saved, but exhibit none of the elements of being saved. They are hateful and hate filled, always causing trouble and yet never adding constructively. If they were members of the body I'd consider them cancer cells or tumors. They sleep through the preaching of the Word, but are the most vocal and fight promoting during business meetings. Just curious.

Arlene Rice

commented on Jun 2, 2011

I am curious as well...Having been a church going christian myself,it wasn't until the emptiness I experienced, was was filled with the invitation of Jesus into my heart.

Sterling Franklin

commented on Jun 2, 2011

Templates are least desirable in pastoral ministry.

Scott Hardaway

commented on Jun 2, 2011

David, you have to either run those people out of your church, or help them come to a total repentance. Strangely enough, you don't have to choose which it is--they do. You need to gather leaders around you who love God and love the church, help them see how the destructive behavior of these divisive people is not only completely contrary to everything in the New Testament, it is damaging your church and hindering the kingdom. Get those godly people in your corner as you hold high in public and in private the biblical expectations of church members, and then when the troublemakers violate them, exercise church discipline. Explain to them (lovingly) that this behavior will not be tolerated anymore, show them chapter and verse from the Bible why, and detail what the consequences will be if they continue (removal from positions of leadership, removal from ministry, revocation of membership, excommunication). Let your godly leaders back you up and defend you when you come under fire from those who share the evil perspective with the troublemakers or who simply don't understand. It will get worse before it gets better; you will suffer outrageous slander. People will leave (perhaps many). Money will dry up. Let it go--God is the one who sustains and provides for his church--keep your eyes on him. Then, lead your congregation through a healing process, refocus them on the mission, give lots of love and encouragement and affirmation, and watch God's Spirit transform your church. If you are able to win over any of your current adversaries, they will become your staunchest advocates because you will have been the one who brought them into a right relationship with God, and they will love you for it. A VERY helpful (and little-known) book on this subject is "Direct Hit: Aiming Real Leaders At The Mission Field" by Paul Borden; I suggest you find it, read it, and get busy. One last thing. Don't start this fight if you're not going to finish it; if you leave your church three years into this, you will emotionally slaughter everyone you've enlisted to stand by you through it. And constantly pray for God to give you a heart of overwhelming love and compassion for everyone in your church... including the ones who are giving you grief. If you can love them, you can lead them.

C. Vernon Reed

commented on Jun 2, 2011

Scott - You wouldn't have to "run" me off from your church...I believe I could find my way out the front door. Sorry...I just had to say something. I seem to remember somewhere, someone saying that we might be the only Bible some folks get to read. I'd rather have the uncommitted in my congregation than attending a cult or liberal (non-believing) church where they may never meet the real Jesus.

David Buffaloe

commented on Jun 3, 2011

I appreciate the input, Scott. Pray that I'll have the courage to do these things, but you're right. C, Vernon Reed, spoken like a man who has never experienced the problem. I'll give you the scenario. I make a remark in Sunday School that, as a pastor, I am careful when counseling women. My wife is usually in the next room, or someone else who can be a reliable witness. The troublemaker hears my statement and begins passing to the Church members the gossip that "the Pastor can't be trusted with women - he's a womanizer". My personal website has a link on it that points to google.com. He goes to google, which is a search engine, prints up pornographic material from it, then prints it out and sends it to Church members saying "the pastor's website has this on it". I've dealt with mess like this for years in the ministry, and all from unsaved Church members. Anyone else experienced the joy?

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