Every year in January my congregation holds a special assembly. We call this gathering our “Getting Organized” meeting. At the meeting this past year, I presented the results of an informal survey I conducted. Essentially, I called the local Methodist, Baptist, ELCA, and two non-denominational churches and asked several questions, one of which was: “What is the process for becoming a member of your congregation?” Here’s what I discovered.
The two non-denominational churches I contacted are very similar to one another. Both encourage prospective members to choose and join one of several small groups they call “Life Groups.” These groups meet once a week for six weeks and are tailored to be, in their words, “relevant to the participants’ needs” (newly divorced, alcoholics, even sports fans). Again, prospective members are encouraged to join one of these groups, but it is not a requirement for membership. They can join whenever they want.
Both the Methodist and ELCA churches offer a single, three-hour class. The class takes place as needed on a Saturday. Church leaders are present to meet the prospective members and to talk about the church’s structure and membership expectations. Church doctrine is not discussed, and membership is granted at the conclusion of the session if the participant desires.
The Baptist church does not offer a class. It expects prospective members to learn as they go. A person can join when they decide they are ready.
So, why would any of this be important to know? Because whenever a church starts to talk about money, the topic of attendance and attracting new members never seems to be too far behind. At our quarterly congregation meeting this past June, during the discussion surrounding our annual budget proposal, I found myself compelled to urge all in attendance to keep a few things in the proper perspective when the topic of money and membership arose.
First, I asked folks to consider how the Bible defines healthy stewardship. I offered some basics to show that leadership, as far as they are involved in it, are indeed aligned with and practicing these truths. Do we have our struggles? Yes. Are they big? In my opinion, it depends on who you talk to. But big or small, should we worry that we are doing things in an “unhealthy” way as a congregation? Well, according to the Scriptures, I don’t think so.
Second, I reminded folks that we cannot necessarily factor “faith” into the financial predictions essential to the process for preparing a budget. What we can do is identify those things that God allows to stand before us as demanding of our trust in Him – the challenges – or as Luther called them, “tentatio.” I pointed out that “tentatio” is a necessary part of growing as Christians. God uses it to test and refine His people. It isn’t necessarily designed to be pleasant, but God knows best and so He allows the ones He loves to be challenged in order to strengthen hope in Him (Romans 5:1-5). In other words, “tentatio” is a good thing!
Next, I asked folks to consider how the Bible says real Christians are actually made. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel, both verbal and visible – Word and Sacrament. I urged folks to consider that God carries this out to the world through people (Matthew 5:13-16) and that if they, as individual Christians born of these gifts, salt and light by virtue of their relationship to Jesus, are not reaching out to folks around them with the Gospel, we should not be complaining about empty pews. I affirmed that, yes, it is true that as the pastor I am called by Christ to this place to preach and teach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments according to Christ’s mandate, but I’m not the only one who has been given the privilege to speak the hope that abides within him to family, friends, or neighbors while I’m at Walmart, or the car repair shop, or the local restaurant. And while I know for sure that there are others in my congregation doing this, nevertheless, if there are only a few of us, then…well… I think you get the hint. But if you didn’t get the hint, let Luther speak for a moment: “God has cheered our hearts and minds through His dear Son, whom he gave for us to redeem us from sin, death, and the devil. He who believes this earnestly cannot be quiet about it. But he must gladly and willingly sing and speak about it so that others may come and hear it. And whoever does not want to sing and speak of it shows that he does not believe and that he does not belong under the new and joyful testament.” 
Finally, I urged that as God’s people we need to understand that our church is vastly different from the others in the area when it comes to actually “adding” people to our roster, which brings me back around to where this article began. Once the Holy Spirit has moved our visitors to the point where they are willing to invest the time and energy to become a member of our congregation, it takes more than a few hours on a Saturday. A typical new member class takes about fifteen to twenty weeks to complete…and it’s not shallow. Not only do folks learn the Biblical theology behind the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, Christian faith and life, but they learn to discern objective truth by way of the Word of God, study Law and Gospel, differentiate between things like “norma normata” and “norma normans”, and “exegesis” versus “eisegesis.” It takes a while to do this. But why is it this way? Because Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan takes very seriously our Lord’s mandate for “making” Christians. God has made it clear that the people who gather in fellowship together here must know what is taught, believed, and confessed at this altar (1 Corinthians 10:14-22).
And so now, knowing that that I am not the only pastor out here doing this stuff, I must inquire of the laity who may be reading this post: Take a moment and think about what it is that may be preventing you from consciously reaching out and inviting someone you know to church with you. What is stopping you from helping to fill your pastor’s new member class? Is it fear? Is it doubt? Maybe you don’t think you’ll say the right words? Whatever it is, perhaps the following bits of advice will help. The first is a practical truth I find myself employing often. The second is a Biblical truth for all Christians.
- Climb the ladder to the high dive and jump! When I was a kid, there was a public pool near my home. It was the rule that once you climbed the ladder to the high dive, the lifeguard would not let you climb back down. The only way down was to jump into the water. One day, I didn’t necessarily have the courage to do it, but somehow I forced myself to climb knowing full well that once I was up there it was out of my control. Think about someone you want to share the Gospel with and then climb the ladder to the high dive. Pick up the phone and dial the number for that person. Let it ring. Since most folks have caller ID, if you chicken out, you will have already passed the point of no return and they will wonder why you called…and surely you don’t want to lie. Write a letter, put it into an envelope with a stamp and then drop it in the mailbox at the post office. You can’t get it out now. You’re stuck. Type up an email and click “send” before your fear causes you to reconsider. You can’t get that email back. It’s now sitting in the inbox of someone you would love to see beside you in holy worship. Climb the ladder to the high dive because then you’ll have to jump into the water! And if you are like me, after a few jumps, it wasn’t so scary anymore.
- Rest assured that it’s not your job to convert someone. It is the job of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 Corinthians 12:3, Romans 1:16, John 1:12-13, John 3:5-8). There really is nothing to fear (Psalm 27:1). Be faithful (Matthew 25:23). Be the Christian God has made you to be and simply give the message (Matthew 5:13-16, Luke 14:23). God has promised to work through that message to accomplish His purposes (Philippians 2:13). The results are not in your hands. If after you give the message, you find yourself in a discussion that you don’t think you can handle, just be honest. Tell the person you don’t know the answers to his questions. Offer to find out more. Or better yet, get your pastor involved! Pass along his phone number and email address. Work together with him to make the introduction to Jesus. And if after all of this you feel like nothing appears to be taking root, don’t consider yourself or your pastor as failures. Remember, Christ Himself was often rejected, even by His own family (John 6:41-71). Instead, keep that person in prayer and be ready. You have given a powerful Gospel. It can change a heart at any moment. Just look at Nicodemus, a devout Pharisee. He received the Gospel (John 3) and was later found at the tomb as a believer preparing the Lord’s body for burial. While you are praying for the Gospel to take root, set your sights on someone else!
While most churches do have many seats in their naves that are filled, I am certain that those same churches have some empty ones, too. And while I can understand why people gravitate toward thinking that more members just naturally means more offerings, you really need to keep that as far from your heart and mind as possible. That is not the right connection to make. The true church is not after money. Large structures, big budgets, plentiful staffing, many and various programs and activities (and, by the way, huge numbers of attendees) does not necessarily mean a church is successful. We are called to be faithful – faithful Christians being fed regularly by Word and Sacrament and thereby enabled to reach out to the world around us in order to introduce others to the One who gave His life for their rescue. While this is happening, those same Christians trust that God is faithful and will provide all that is necessary for this body and life!
If you are already actively reaching out to others, great! Keep at it. Your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). If not, pray that God would grant you the courage to start. Remember, if you need help, call or send an email to your pastor. He loves you in the Lord. He is your servant, and I’m certain he’ll want in on the effort.
 “Preface to the Babst Hymnal” (1545), LW 53:333.