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In considering the welcome of new church members, 3 John invites reflection. The object of concern for John was Diotrephes, who liked to put himself first, not acknowledging Apostolic authority (v. 9) and speaking “wicked nonsense” (v. 10). Moreover, John writes that he “refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (v. 10). Diotrephes not only pulled up the welcome mat for these newcomers, but he actually sought to disrupt and excommunicate anyone who did welcome them. This lack of respect is a heinous sin and worthy of John’s warning to the church at large.

Lest we think this an ancient problem, we need only think of titles of Christian books such as Outgrowing the Ingrown Church and others that address similar topics. Like the ingrown toenail that turns on its own body and inflicts pain and suffering, the ingrown church attacks its very life and soul. Attitudes of apathy and comfort seek “maintenance mode” and despise being open to the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing new lifeblood into the body of Christ.

The key to welcoming new members isn’t found in online church growth advice columns promoting surface-level Band-Aids, such as refusing to preach on sin and hell and implementing man-centric worship services. Rather, we must return to the Scriptures and see the underlying emphasis that God places on being the family of God and on the hospitality that accompanies healthy family living. In Paul’s words, we are “no longer strangers and aliens, but . . . fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). We are mystically united to one another as we are united in Christ Jesus, being “knit together in love” (Col. 2:2). That love needs tangible expression.

Current church members should be continually in prayer for God to bring new members of His choosing into the fellowship. When visitors begin to attend regularly, it is good to invite them to become members, as it is good for their souls to be counted in a local expression of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:21–26; Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17). Then, there should be an informed and purposeful discussion of the church’s history, doctrines, discipline, polity, mission, and culture. Included with that should be a cautionary note about the sober reality that the church may disappoint and fail at times, and how this doesn’t mean that a new member should run away without an attempt to communicate with the leadership called by God to shepherd the sheep (1 Peter 5:2). At the same time, new members should be reminded that because Jesus Christ loves the church as His bride (Eph. 5:25), we should love the church as the Spirit does His perfecting work.

Once this commitment before God and watching angels is expressed, the joy should break forth in warm welcome.

New members should have the opportunity to take public vows before the congregation. Our culture is bereft of public expressions of sacred obligations. This should not be so in the church of Jesus Christ. Once this commitment before God and watching angels is expressed, the joy should break forth in warm welcome. It should be as if a long-lost cousin shows up at a family reunion. In our church, we have a reception for new members. After some food and fellowship, we form a circle with new members, and the pastors give a charge. The kinship nature of becoming a member is expressed in doing this—forming one circle helps convey that we are one body—and I imagine that there are many creative ways of doing likewise. But the point should not be missed: crossing the line into membership is significant to God, and it should be marked with both gravity and joy.

Remember what Jesus taught us concerning the welcome of God for repentant sinners in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). The younger son returns home, and “while he was still a long way off,” the father dispenses with cultural dignities as he lifts his garments and runs toward him. Then he embraces him and kisses him. After the son’s confession, the father calls for the family emblems of a robe, ring, and sandals. We need to reflect more clearly our Heavenly Father’s love of repentant sinners who come home to where the His love is visibly expressed through His Word, sacraments, and discipline—whether they be new believers, mature saints seeking a new church home, or something in between.

The follow-up to initial welcome can take many forms. As a pastor, I meet with many of our new members in an attempt to hear testimonies at greater length, discern spiritual gifts, and better understand how we shepherds might be praying for these new members. We cannot program a new member’s feeling of full inclusion into the visible family of God, but we can strive to create opportunities for newcomers to become known and to find meaningful connections. The church is not a country club. Mutual interests and friendships alone will not suffice. The church is centered on the transforming grace of Jesus and making disciples (Matt. 28:16–20). But seldom will we find new members remaining for long without friendship and the feeling that they would be missed if not present.

As our culture descends into the darkness of fragmentation and suspicious tribalism, the welcome we extend to new members in the church becomes an important aspect of our apologetic before a watching world (John 13:35). May the Lord expel the spirit of Diotrephes from our churches and give us a twenty-first-century revival in receiving new members into the household of faith.

Living with a Sacrificial Heart

The Witness of the Communion of Saints

Keep Reading The Ordinary Means of Grace

From the June 2020 Issue
Jun 2020 Issue