3 Ways Church Membership Can Protect Against Child Abuse at Church
In the last month many were horrified when they learned the details of sexual abuse that has taken place in Southern Baptist Churches across the United States. The Houston Chronicle released a three-part expose detailing the reality that over 20 years there have been at least 700 victims of sexual abuse.
For many this has been a massive wake-up call as it relates to making sure that everything possible is being done to protect children and everyone else from the threat of abuse. I am glad to say that our own church, Eagle Heights, already had many safeguards in place. But it is always good to take a crisis like this seriously and do some thorough review and self-examination regarding protective plans and execution of those plans to make sure we are doing all we can to prevent something so evil and tragic.
Our church family has policies that protect both children and volunteers. For example, we have regular training times, which includes a recent video that we have put together about what to avoid and what to be looking for as it relates to abuse. And of course, any person who works with children or youth has a current background check. Additionally, the Elders and church staff are presently working on evaluating and addressing any gaps in our plan.
But as a church we take one more step that might be undervalued as firewall against abuse: Church Membership.
In his book, On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church (2014), Deepak Reju argues that there are three reasons that church membership “can help decrease the likelihood of sexual offenders infiltrating your children’s (and youth) ministry.” (All quotes below are from Reju.)
- Church membership done thoroughly helps us to identify whether a person is genuinely a Christian. Before a person can become a committed and active part of our faith family and serve, they are required to meet with an Elder and answer four questions: First, what is your testimony of being saved? Second, what is the exclusive gospel of Jesus Christ that alone can save and transform? Third, have you been baptized as a believer by which you publicly identify with Christ? Fourth, what is the evidence that the Spirit lives within you? Are you bearing much fruit showing you are really His disciple (John 15:8)? Now of course we know we can’t ultimately judge the the true spiritual condition of a person, but if we are going to let people teach the gospel to our children, and give them the responsibility of physical and emotional care over them, it only makes sense that we do all we can to reduce the risk of spiritual and physical harm. Church membership helps identify genuine believers, and Genuine believers are less likely to abuse those under their care.
- A church membership process also gives the pastors, the staff and other members the opportunity to know people before they are given responsibility as a part of the church. We have started presenting prospective members to the congregation for consideration a week in advance before the church affirms them. We know this can be uncomfortable for some, but if there is a concern, we want to deal with it up front. A church membership process prevents “immediate access to the church and, consequently, the church’s kids.” (Reju) I trust most parents wouldn’t let someone watch their children if they knew nothing about them. If a parent vets a babysitter, why would a church be less diligent and careful?
- “A church membership process causes pedophiles to think twice about joining, especially since there are other churches that don’t require this and will give them almost immediate access to children.” Reju writes, “Anyone can come to church, but not everyone who comes should have access to our kids.” We want the struggling and hurting person to come to our church, but we also want to make sure hurting people don’t hurt others. Reju is surely right when he suggests that a sexual offender, or potential sexual offender, is more likely to gravitate toward a church that has less protection and a “low wall” of accountability. And frankly, it saddens me to think there are churches who have such a low standard for protecting their children.
There is no plan that is completely foolproof, but there are ways to reduce the possibility of abuse. It is better to have tried and failed, than to have failed to try. We must be able to say that we did all that we could to prevent abuse. Believe it or not, church membership can serve as a useful preventative tactic. It is just one piece of a safety wall that may protect our church from a disaster that hundreds have experienced over the last twenty years. May God give us the wisdom to do all that we can to love people and protect them from evil.