Last Sunday we welcomed two people into membership of our church using the form of words laid out in Gathering for Worship. It was, I think, a joyous occasion, and one that many people seemed to appreciate. However, someone commented to me that they wondered about making such a big deal of it, and what any visitors or new people might make of the whole rigmarole. These were good questions about which, if I am honest, I have never really thought because all the Baptist (URC and even Methodist) churches I've had associations with or been a member of have had equally significant rituals (for want of a better word) for welcoming new members. That doesn't make it right or wrong, it just makes it my normative experience. And it's an approach I value because I think the promises made are important and I think it is important to make a bit of a fuss of the people involved (though maybe that says more about my needs than anything else!!). But what could I live with as a pared down version of this? Must people stand (or sit) at the front of the church facing everyone else? What is a minimum requirement by way of declarations of faith and commitment? How important is it that other people offer the 'right hand of fellowship'? And so on, and so on.
Whilst I would be very happy to adjust and tweak the words and format to reflect individual circumstances, there are some things I think are essential as symbols and signs of what we are doing...
- Reception into membership, like Baptism, is a public act and must take place in the context of public worship
- Reception into membership is a solemn undertaking and must involve some form of declaration of faith and some acceptance of the responsibilities to public worship, private prayer, mission and participation in the church meeting. This need not be mega heavy, and the forms offered in Gathering for Worship and/or Patterns and Prayers are neither unduly onerous nor unhelpfully narrow.
Apart from that, I think that it is up to the individuals involved to work out the fine details whilst keeping a framework that ensures some kind of continuity through time.
In the last two churches I worked with there was a rather fine, very old, tradition of new members adding their own name to the membership book. At Dibley we had a book dating back to 1875, in Manchester the book in use was newer, but additional, older volumes completed the full list. This visible sign of the 'communion of saints' (a concept Baptists seem to be getting more keen on these days) including notes of transfers and deaths was a much treasured part of each of these fellowships.
I know some churches are moving away from 'traditional' congregational ecclesiology approaches to membership (which are probably about as biblical as Christmas trees anyway) and using annual community covenants instead, albeit with their own problems and benefits. Maybe I'm just more of an old traditionalist that I like to realise, but I can't help feeling there is something instrinsically good about welcoming our new members, whether their route in is Baptism, confession of faith or transfer.
What do others think? What do your churches do? Do you have customs that are worth sharing?