Mark Dever's Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (3rd Edition) (9Marks) includes a chapter on embracing a biblical understanding of church membership. Dever's book has spawned a host of other books on church membership and perhaps led many churches to embrace some better screening and education of members or potential members. But these books strike me as similar to human resource books-- written more for the organization than the applicant. The attitude is "why should we let you join us?" which assumes a superior position. I think churches would do better to turn the question around and ask "why would you want to join us?"
There are two ways to approach a job or organizational interview-- to try and look your best so that you're accepted, or to use the interview to size up the organization and figure out whether you want to belong-- to determine whether you accept them. Only the desperate do the former, a solid applicant does the latter.
When you join an organization like a church you bring valuable assets, gifts, talents, experiences, and skill sets. You may have experience teaching or managing dozens of employees. You might build computers or websites for a living. You might be able to sing or play a musical instrument. You may own a large house perfect for hosting small groups. You may have previous experience with other established churches or church plants. You may be more involved in the community than anyone on staff. You should come with the expectation that joining the church means you are actively going to put those gifts to work in service to the others. Thus, you should be the one interviewing churches, not the other way around, to decide which one is the right fit.
Yesterday, a large local church-- part of its own network in the area-- announced it was in serious financial trouble and laying off half of its staff. This church was the envy of many, it had rapid growth, multiple campuses, thousands in attendance, and buildings capable of hosting huge community events. "Come join us!" the church blared. Yet the church failed to meet one of the basic requirements of any organization dealing with finances: it did not have a balanced budget. It had unwisely taken on debt it could not feasibly repay. The report also suggests the church did not have a strategic financial plan. That indicates a huge, irresponsible deficit of leadership and management. I would not apply at a bankrupt company unless I was intentionally obtaining a position where I could help turn it around.
I definitely agree with Dever et al that church membership is a serious commitment and decision. But I see the impetus more on the member, not the body. You shouldn't get married without having known the person through several seasons, to see what her character is made of. You shouldn't get married without counseling, including coming to an agreement about expectations, parenting, finances, expectations, etc. Likewise, a prospective member should interview the elder body and deacons thoroughly. What are their qualifications? What is their accountability structure? How long do they expect to remain at this location? What is the leadership style? What are they reading? What is the strategy? How does the church body see them? Is the church proving responsible in its stewardship of money, people, and resources?
To join a church because you like the preaching, music, or the friendly people is like marrying a woman based solely on her looks and how she acts in public. To say "I knew I wanted to join when I walked in the door," is akin to the love-at-first-sight fallacy. Likewise, to treat a church or any organization like you're an unworthy applicant-- you hope they accept you-- is not a good start to a healthy relationship.