In the Methodist Episcopal Church, there is a “probation” period for catechumens that lasts for six months. During this time, all people who want to join the church go through a course that teaches them about its beliefs and ways of doing things. This prepares them for full membership.
This is the theory. There is abundant reason to doubt whether the wisdom of the theory is sustained by corresponding wisdom in action.
There are many preachers in charge who, in times of religious revival, at the close of an evening service, call upon “all who desire to unite with the Church upon probation” to “come forward,” or to “rise up,” or to “speak to the preacher after the benediction.” The names are then taken down. In the church paper, a very large addition is reported. During the six months of probation, little is said to the new candidates, and if they have committed no great wrong and are recommended by a class leader, at the end of the six months they are received, almost in an informal way, into full church membership. So careless have many of our ministers been in this part of their work that many thoughtful men seriously doubt the importance of the probationary relationship. Probationers by the hundred drop out during the six months, and the reaction that follows the excitement of the special religious meetings often leaves them apparently worse off than before they came in contact with the Church.
We have great faith in the true Methodist idea of church probation. We believe in it because it may prevent indiscreet and hasty action during periods of intense religious excitement. It gives an opportunity for careful self-scrutiny before full identification with the Church. We believe in it because it affords the convert the opportunity for a careful examination of the doctrines and usages of the church, to which he pledges allegiance by joining.
When the probationary relationship is seen for what it is and the preacher in charge uses it as a time to teach the person about the faith, nothing but good can come from it.
In support of this idea, the author could recommend the following plan, which he used himself when he was a pastor:
- Make the reception of members on probation an event that people want to see. Instead of taking every name that is suggested, look at each case carefully, explain the whole theory and plan of the probationary relationship and of being a member of the church, and talk to the parents or friends of the person who wants to join as a probationer. Set a date for all of these people to come forward and be recognized in public. Preach a sermon that is especially for them. Remind the church and explain to the congregation what probation is, what it means, and what duties it puts on the church itself. Ask for sympathy, a hand of friendship, social recognition, honesty when correcting, and any other kind of help that a disciple can give to another. One of the most solemn services we have ever attended was of this character. The preacher’s fervent plea, his earnest prayer on behalf of the probationers, and the hymn chosen with special reference to their needs and sung with feeling by the entire congregation all tended to impress the probationers with the fact that their new relationship meant something and that both the preacher and church members understood that fact.
- Require the probationers to attend class meetings regularly, according to church law, and give them to the class leaders. Make sure the class leaders know how responsible they are for this task so that the power of the class meetings can be used especially well during the first six months.
- In addition to the regular class meeting, the preacher in charge should lead a “probationers’ class” once a month. This class should include a lecture and discussions about the duties and responsibilities of the candidates. During the pastorate of several years, the following course was given over and over to groups of probationers: First months’ lecture on the rise and progress of Methodism; second months’ lecture on the doctrines of the Methodist Episcopal Church held in common with other evangelical Christians; third months’ lecture on the distinctive doctrines of the Methodist Episcopal Church; fourth months’ lecture on the distinctive economy and usages of the Methodist Episcopal Church; fifth month’s mouthpiece on the usual objections to the distinctive doctrines, Polity, and usages of the Methodist Episcopal Church; and sixth month’s lecture on the solemnity and importance of the act by which a person becomes a full member of the Methodist Episcopal Church Such lectures may be delivered over and over again to successive classes, and it would be a good thing if all other Church members were encouraged to attend them. After each lecture, questions may be asked, and the minister is thus enabled to instruct his flock in doctrine, government, and usage.
- Make the event when people are let into the church a very impressive public service. Have a date fixed in advance that every probationer can look forward to for six months. Announce it from the pulpit at least three weeks in advance. Call the attention of all to it. Let a sermon be preached, the General Rules be read, proper hymns be sung, and, when the probationers come forward for public acceptance, let the examination prescribed by the liturgy of the church be carried out in detail. See that each probationer is supplied with a copy of the Discipline, which he has himself read during the six months and may make use of during the ceremony. At no point in one’s life is more impressive than the moment when he fully identifies himself with the Church of the living God! The solemnities of the baptismal service and the holy communion gather in such an hour as this! How should the church be made to feel its responsibilities! What an opportunity is afforded to impress upon the children and young people of the congregation the necessity of personally confessing Christ! What an opportunity it gives also for reminding mature Christians, who have long been identified with the Church, of the vows that are as fresh as though made today and for the observance of which they may need a new consecration.
- Following this public recognition, pastors, class leaders, and all fervent Christians should follow, watch, guard, and help these young saints, so that they are constantly reminded that probation and public recognition were only steps in a long journey, to which they must—
“Watch, and fight, and pray,The battle ne’er give o’er; Renew it boldly every day,And help divine implore.”
By J. H. VINCENT
Updated 2023 Nathan Zipfel