The Importance of an Inquirer's Class
I've been a member of churches that have had an Inquirer's/New Member class and a member of churches that haven't. The most comprehensive Inquirer's class that I attended was at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. When I left Tenth to plant New Covenant, I started one within the first six months. On average we have had two Inquirer classes a year (here is the audio of several installations--in no distinct order--of one such class). Our elders have determined that attending this class is a prerequisite for membership in our local church. I have taught approximately 10 inquirer's classes over the years. We have vacillated as to the duration of the class. Depending on the current schedule and needs in our church, we either have a 12 week, 10 week or 8 week class. Additionally, we have held the class on either Sunday mornings or on Wednesday nights. One year, due to scheduling, we held the class on several Saturdays. I have progressively realized the importance of such a class. While there has been some changed regarding course material to accommodate our current situation, the content has largely stayed the same. What has happened over the years is that I have become more and more convinced of the benefits of having an Inquirer/New Member class. Consider the following rationale for such a class:
1. It serves the congregation. While it may not seem like the goal of an Inquirer/New Member Class, making it a prerequisite for local church membership can help protect the church from division by discouraging those who might be discontent or cause schismatic harm to the local church. One of the membership vows that men and women take in PCA churches is that they promise to "study the peace and purity of the church;" another has to do with their willingness to "submit to the government and discipline of the church." When we work through our doctrinal positions in an Inquirer's class, we hit on such things as "expectations of church members," "the doctrines of grace" (i.e. Calvinism) and the basic "tenets of Presbyterianism." I have typically found that those who are strongly opposed to any or all of these teachings (or who are simply divisively argumentative) often will not finish the Inquirer's class once they hear them taught. This is sometimes a blessing in disguise to the church--as it may protect the congregation from divisive individuals and forseen schisms.
2. It serves those coming for membership. An Inquirer's class can also serves as a protection for those who might not be a good fit for a particular local church in its current state. For instance, not everyone is cut out for membership in a church plant. I learned that the hard way in the early years of planting. While we must certainly discourage church hopping--and the idea that there is a perfect church situation--we must recognize that sometimes one local church might be better suited to the needs of an individual or family than another. An Inquirer's class can help this process along in such a way as to benefit those who may--for any number of legitimate reasons--make the final decision not to go forward in joining a particular local church.
On the other hand, an Inquirer's class can be an enormous benefit to those coming for membership. It can help them learn the various aspects of biblical and local church membership. When expectations of local church members are clearly articulated, those who might not have thought about the biblical requirements for regular Lord's Day worship, giving and service may begin to do so for the first time in the life. Furthermore, it can serve as a rich time of instruction in the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrines of grace, the doctrine of the sacraments, the doctrine of church discipline, etc. An Inquirer's class can be a great discipleship tool. How many have become convinced of the doctrines of grace by sitting through a careful consideration of them in an Inquirer's class! We often forget that many who are coming for membership have never been taught these foundational truths.
Additionally, there is a very real sense in which the members of the church are being instructed to hold the leadership accountable to sound teaching. If an elder decides to teach something that is out of accord with Scripture or our doctrinal standards, members (together with elders) become part of the checks and balances appointed by God. The members of the local church are responsible to test what the minsters teach in the church against the doctrinal standards that they learn about in the Inquirer's class.
3. It serves the leadership. One of the benefits of an Inquirer's class is that it gives the leadership the opportunity to better get to know the ecclesiastical backgrounds of the men and women coming for membership. Even if I have had individuals or families into my home, when they come for an Inquirer's class, they almost always share things that they have been taught by other ministers in other churches. Pastors can better assess where people are spiritually by what they share in an Inquirer's class. The same is true with regard to the gifts of those coming for membership. I have on many occassions been informed by one of the people in the Inquirer's class about their own gifts in music, service, etc.--as well as of the gifts of their spouses and children. For some reason, people are more apt to share that sort of information in that setting.
The other way in which an Inquirer's class can benefit the leadership of the church is that the pastors/elders get the chance to clearly communicate expectations regarding worship attendance, giving, service and submission to discipline. This becomes exceedingly useful when an individual or family in the church begins to become delinquent in any of those areas. I have, on quite a number of occassions, had to remind those we sought to shepherd about what they were taught in these classes and about the vows that they willingly took after the class was through.