Southern Baptists have always treasured the doctrine of regenerate church membership. Insofar as it is humanly possible, a church’s membership should be comprised of authentic believers. Of course, there are a million different ways to undermine regenerate church membership, even in a congregation that affirms the doctrine in principle. It’s important that every church have certain policies and procedures in place to help gauge the spiritual state of prospective members, even if we never get it perfectly right on this side of eternity.
Over the years, I have been a part of a couple of churches where prospective members never had to share a conversion testimony as part of the membership process. In one of those churches, you literally just had to walk the aisle and verbalize to a decision counselor that you were a Christian who had been baptized. I eagerly acknowledged I was a baptized Christian, even though at that time I could not even explain a basic gospel summary. I just knew I had grown up in church, believed that God and Jesus were real, and hoped I would go to heaven when I die because I was a pretty moral kid.
In the ensuing years, I came to faith in Christ, was biblically baptized, and became a member of a healthy church that required all prospective members to share their conversion testimony. It wasn’t enough to answer a couple of questions; you had to tell your story of Jesus and summarize the good news. I can remember working as a decision counselor and being a bit embarrassed to be asking a seminary professor who wanted to join our church to share his personal testimony. I told him it felt a little awkward and apologized to him. He told me it wasn’t awkward at all, he loved sharing his testimony, and he was thrilled our church was asking that of him as a potential member. It was a great testimony.
As one of the elders at First Baptist Church of Durham, it is a great privilege to regularly interview prospective members. Part of that membership interview includes hearing personal testimonies. I have heard some great stories of God’s grace in the past few years. One young lady grew up as a pastor’s daughter, was saved as a young child, struggled with a call to missions as a teenager, and is now married to a man who desires to be a pastor. One brother is a converted hippy who was radically saved in his mid-20s and has been teaching men’s Bible classes for many years. His wife, another converted hippy, grew up with terrible parents before she was introduced to a Heavenly Father who adopted her into his family.
One woman grew up in Brazil, was converted in college, but then was part of a quasi-evangelical cult for a couple of years because of poor discipleship; the Lord eventually rescued her from that group. Several brothers are former drug addicts or alcoholics, some of them homeless and living at a rescue mission before the Lord saved them. One husband and wife were both raised in Christian homes and have loved the Lord for the vast majority of their lives. Many folks came to America as international graduate students before they were introduced to the gospel through an ESL class. One young lady was raised in a very strong Christian home, became a teenager, and realized she had to own her parent’s faith as her own.
I have no doubt that some folks who are false believers occasionally join our church—such is life in a fallen world. But I am convinced that requiring prospective members to share their testimony with a pastor (and requiring public testimonies prior to baptism) helps to safeguard the principle of regenerate church membership. It also allows pastors to rejoice with prospective members at how God has manifested in grace in their lives. I would strongly encourage every church to require a full conversion testimony and gospel summary as part of the membership process.