By Ken Camp
Texas Baptist Standard
DALLAS — In a growing number of Baptist churches, new arrivals learn an important lesson early: Membership has its privileges, but it also has its responsibilities.
“We want to create a culture of discipleship here,” said John Wilson, minister of Christian education at Friendship-West Baptist Church, an African-American megachurch in southwest Dallas.
Candidates for membership understand when they respond to a public invitation at the end of a worship service, they will be required to attend two five-hour new-member orientation classes on consecutive Saturdays before they are accepted as members.
Once they complete the classes, where facilitators help them discover their spiritual gifts and match them to available ministries in the church, their graduation is noted in a “celebration service” at church. And at that point, the pastor announces the ministries in which the newly admitted members plan to serve.
About one-third of the people who walk the aisle during a public invitation at a Friendship-West Baptist Church worship service graduate from the orientation class, Wilson said.
Of those who complete the orientation class, most honor the commitment they make to service, he noted. And ministers on staff use a software program the church designed to keep in touch with people who have expressed a commitment to their specific areas of responsibility.
After graduating from the orientation class, many become involved in other discipleship training opportunities the church offers, such as teacher- certification classes required for anyone who leads a Bible study class, a church-sponsored Bible institute and a three-year program for ministers-in-training.
About 90 percent of the people who enroll in the teacher-certification classes complete the 35-hour training in biblical interpretation, theology and fundamentals of teaching. In the last eight years, the church has certified about 400 teachers.
“If you challenge your people to grow, most are going to respond to the challenge,” Wilson said. “We set the bar high because God’s word is high. If you set the bar of expectation too low, you do people a disservice.”
Similarly, Legacy Church in Plano invites anyone who wants to become a church member to attend a two-session “discover Legacy” class. In the class, prospective members learn about the church’s mission, beliefs and values.
First, facilitators help the inquirers — many previously unchurched —understand what it means to become a Christian.
Between the first and second sessions of the orientation class, prospective members are asked to write their Christian testimony and complete a spiritual gift inventory. At the end of the second session, after they learn more about how to apply their gifts within the context of Legacy Church, they have an opportunity to sign a covenant.
“When they sign the covenant, that’s when they become members,” Pastor Gene Wilkes explained.
Tying membership to a covenant pledge rather than a vote by the congregation and allowing people to make that commitment in a small-group orientation class rather than in a public invitation during a worship service proved difficult for some members at Legacy to accept at first, Wilkes acknowledged.
“Initially, some longtime Baptists said, ‘We don’t sign anything,’” he recalled. Pointing them to church covenants in the back of Baptist hymnals from the mid-20th century helped soften the blow somewhat.
The new-member orientation classes grew out of a genuine need at Legacy Church as the congregation reached unchurched people.
“When Baptists move from franchise to franchise, everybody gets it. But when we started reaching non-Southern Baptists and unchurched people, we realized we had to make it clear who we are and what we expect,” Wilkes said.
“We were growing so fast, and people were coming wanting to be members. We had an outreach program and had visited many of them, but others came whom we hadn’t met. I essentially had 30 seconds to decide whether to present them for membership.”
The orientation class allows inquirers to understand “what they’re getting into and what our expectations are,” he explained. “For us, it’s a matter of truth in advertising.”
After learning the demands of membership, some inquirers have opted to remain involved in worship services and in the church’s small-group Bible studies but not take the next step of commitment, Wilkes noted. Unless they agree to the terms of the covenant, they are not eligible to vote in church business conferences or become part of the church’s servant leadership network.
Numerical growth has slowed somewhat at Legacy Church since the congregation adopted the covenant approach to assimilating new members, Wilkes acknowledged, but the commitment level has increased.
“It has raised the value of membership,” he said.