RNS article on Integrity in Church Membership

Amy Green, who writes for the Religious News Service, gets it mostly right in her article on integrity in church membership. It is available online at the Dallas Morning News blog, the Washington Post and EthicsDaily.com. The only complaint I have is the paragraph that states,

Ascol, the Southern Baptist, takes issue with some churches that enroll people after they answer an altar call and commit themselves to following Jesus. He says it’s a superficial means of joining the church and requires no real commitment. Even after those members disappear, the denomination counts them, he said.

Actually, my concern is not that churches use an altar call–though I am no fan of that modern invention and think it has been complicit in fostering many spiritual problems in churches. Neither do I object to people being “enrolled” into a church’s membership after committing themselves to following Jesus. Indeed, I wish that only such people were accepted into the membership of Baptist churches.

What I obviously did not communicate clearly to Ms. Green is my objection to the way post-sermonic altar calls are typically employed in adding people to Baptist membership rolls. It often works something like this: At the end of the sermon the pastor will say something like this, “If you want to trust Jesus as your Savior, or redicate your life to Him, or join this church, then while the music is playing just step out and come down front and let your desire be made known.” Anyone who comes down front and expresses a desire to join the church, through statement of faith, promise of a letter (of recommendation from a sister church) on profession of faith is usually voted on at that moment by the church to be accepted as a member.

Too often those who are not really known, or whose testimony is unknown, are immediately accorded full membership. I think it undermines a church’s Baptist identity to accept members this way. How can the congregation exercise any discernment at all in receiving new members when they know nothing about them and when those prospective members have not been adequately interviewed to hear their Christian testimonies? Obviously, the whole church cannot interview every applicant, but they can assign that responsibility to their leaders.

However it is done, every church owes it to the candidate for membership as well as to the congregation to look for a credible profession of faith before accepting new members into the fellowship. The process for doing this need not be complicated or too extensive, but it should be thoughtful and intentional.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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