14 Trends in New Convert Care
By David Drake
A group of new convert meets on a Tuesday night to work through a passage in the Bible. They’ve been going through this book for some time now under the leadership of the new member’s director. So far, their retention rate among new members is at 100%.
Several church workers gather together in Europe for a retreat. One of them begins to train them in what seems like a way to pray. After a few minutes everyone notices that the method of worship appears very Pentecostal. Before they can express their concerns the leader reveals that this way of praying was first developed by the Christians in the early church. The group enters back in to the prayer time with a deeper connection to God through heart-felt verbal worship.
A church with around 3,000 in attendance reorganizes its entire discipleship and small group department in order to divide people into different neighborhood groups. They’ve heard of a church in Texas doing this and that Willow Creek and many other churches are radically changing their small group ministry because of this model. Instead of driving 30 minutes across town to do a Bible study with people they only see across the huge auditorium on Sundays, they start doing life with their neighbors and having more informal connection times with them whether they go to their church or none at all. They are growing and housing development associations begin to almost look like a Church extension program.
These are just a few of the varied current trends in spiritual growth formation. The spiritual formation discussion no longer revolves around the perpetual question: new members class or small groups? The experiences and debate now run the gamut between reinstituting traditional forms for older generations all the way over to practicing heart felt spiritual disciplines in order to grow closer to God.
Spiritual growth, like worship and preaching, is always a moving target. However these days spiritual growth seems to be moving in many different directions at once. It’s hard to get a pulse on where everything is headed because every other thing seems to be heading in the opposite direction of each other.
Here are a few places Christian Spiritual Growth seems to be going, not as a group, but as small pockets discovering what it means to be the church and make new life disciples.
The Spiritual Serivce Trend- This fall Christianity Today did a cover story on this relatively fresh trend diving deep into the old waters of community service. These 21st Century churches are still somewhat diverse, but most all of them contain some element of Christian service in the community to help the poor and disadvantaged. The movement is small but noticeable and gaining influence. They have found that as new converts become more involved in helping others, they grow steadily stronger in their Christian faith.
The 24-7 Prayer Trend – The English birthplace of the Methodists, the Salvation Army and the Beatles has given birth to yet another movement taking the world by storm. The 24-7 prayer movement is an international youth-culture movement that is calling people around the world to pray in large groups at all hours of every day all year round. Prayer rooms and prayer boiler rooms are springing up everywhere in locations as diverse as Church storage rooms. Emerging churches are trying to catch the wave and some super-churches are noticing too. If you can involve new members in prayer ministry, the results are powerful.
The Neighborhood Community Trend – Pantego Bible Church in Texas decided to scrap its traditional small group program and instead build community completely limited to and focused on each of the sprawling suburban developments where most of its members lived. In short order the neighborhood community model was birthed and the Pastor of that church, Randy Frazee, has gone on to become the apologist for the model. The concept is simple: organize old and new members together and target a neighborhood or small community with evangelism, service, and support. Willow Creek even signed on to the concept, hiring Frazee on as a teaching pastor and champion for their own transition in this direction. As we’ve send before, when Willow decides to do something they often become the neck that turns the head of evangelicalism. Many are looking to South Barrington to see what to do next.
The Internet Spirituality Trend-With so many innovatively produced web-sites out there, many Christians are now going online for direction in their spiritual formation journey. Many of these efforts are very individualistic efforts with a few exceptions that actually attempt to create community online for members and new converts. Some web-sites are even advertising themselves as spiritual growth centers. One Christian web-site here in West Michigan provides information and learning from the Bible that is targeted to the unique needs of new Christians.
The Spiritual Walk Blog Trend-In a similar vein to the internet spiritual growth trend, many people are using their online web-logs or blogs as a personal spiritual formation instrument for new Christians. There are two primary ways this is happening: 1) some treat their blog as a public form of spiritual motivation and direction. These personalized accounts turn what has been a long held private discipline into a very public confession. Also, some use their blog to 2) ask deeper spiritual questions and invite new converts to comment on them, thereby creating a spiritual growth community with one person submitting the articles and moderating the discussion of the new Christians. Blogs are such a recent phenomenon that there is a lot of uncharted territory here. New convert blogs have taken off in just the last 6 months, for instance, where multiple people join together to create a topical blog on spiritual growth issues.
The Centralized Simple Group Trend-With all the materials, conferences and training out there on new convert small groups it can be tough to sift through it all. Many churches have moved toward a simpler support program of new converts by matching individuals who are then cared for by volunteer staff members assigned to mentor them. This modification of the meta-model structure is best advanced by Bill Willits and Andy Stanley’s book entitled, Creating Community.
The Future Trend-As churches seek to re-think their mission, many have determined not to re-invent the wheel when it comes to innovative new convert care. In place of weekly training classes or the use of self-paced work books, many new convert care leaders are now in search for a more reverent and holy experience of God. But it has moved beyond Sunday Worship centered training. Many new Christians these days are fascinated with rediscovering ancient spiritual disciplines such as fasting, prayer hours, and calls to ministry service. They have found the more you challenge the new Christian, the stronger their commitment becomes.
The Special Interest Group Trend – In a desire to turn the small groups of church into an evangelistic strength, many churches are encouraging their people to start small groups with their golf buddies, knitting groups, book club or softball team. The idea is to engage church members in their interests with other new convert Christians. Sometimes called interest groups this trend is extremely effective. More of a philosophy than a program, this trend was most widely communicated by Ted Haggard’s book Dog Training, Fly Fishing, And Sharing Christ In The 21st Century.
The Deeper Teaching Community Trend-Some churches are asking: why do people think that new convert spiritual growth is a 10 lessons on Sunday Morning thing? With this question in hand, some more churches have centered their new convert teaching on a longer and more detailed search through scriptures. Best popularized by Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church in Seattle, Washington, these churches have tapped into a more educated group of converts that simply want to learn more about the Bible before they become involved in other activities. Popular with College students in a learning mindset and converts looking for deep apologetics instead of simple steps, these churches view the teaching as the key spiritual formation moment of the week. The rest of the week is devoted to individually working out what they heard on Sunday. You might claim that all evangelical churches are rooted in their Sunday teaching, but with this trend it’s going to a whole other level.
The Missional Group Trend-Some churches, most notably Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, are reworking their new convert care ministry to move their central task from the traditional Bible teaching and training to serving. Serving small groups are nothing new. Willow Creek has long advanced a sub-ministry within small groups that encourages people to serve and do life together in community. But this new trend takes that concept and expands it to claim that all new convert groups should be serving groups. The idea is that serving is not just one of the functions of new convert community; it is the primary function of community. The claim is that the very act of serving is the essential key to spiritual growth, and serving together achieves a community being spiritually formed.
The All Church Journey Trend-Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last 3 years, you’re already aware of the 40 Days of Purpose journey centered on Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life. While most of the attention that campaign has garnered has centered on Warren’s record breaking sales, the use in new convert instruction has been largely unnoticed. The brilliance of the 40 Day journey for new converts is this: the entire new convert group is on the same page for an entire 40 day period, literally (in that their reading the same pages of a book the same day). The all new converts unity sought for in the 40 Days of Purpose journey and its more recent application is the real spiritual formation trend. The converts of all ages in these evangelical churches are being trained in spiritual matters at a level that cares for them and that trains them at the same time.
The Sunday Schools aren’t dead yet Trend-Some research in the recent decades has suggested that Sunday school remains a very effective tool for not only discipleship, but also assimilation and evangelism. While the Sunday School is for Only Children era is certainly passed, many within the small group movement too quickly dismissed the effectiveness of Sunday school for discipling new converts. Part of the trend here is that most churches are not large. In a church of 200 people or less, 10 Sunday school classes or 5 Adult Bible Fellowships (mid-sized teaching classes used in conjunction with small groups) may be much more effective at achieving spiritual growth goals than small groups by themselves. In some churches a quiet balance of half the church going to Sunday school and the other half going to small groups exists, and everyone seems happy.
The Small Groups aren’t dead yet Trend-Last year I sat around a table eating pizza with 5 other small group’s pastors, all of us from large churches. We were discussing many of these trends and the way the new convert spiritual growth movement is splintering into a dozen or more different directions. There was a sense in the informal meeting that the day in day out job we all had was slowly being out-moded by new and different (and to be honest, more innovative) kinds of spiritual formation. At one point when the conversation stalled, I asked, Hey everyone, is there a chance that we’ll all be sitting here in 15 years, older and stuck in our ways, looking at each other and wondering why everything has passed us by? Is there a chance that we’ll become just like those New Convert Care Committees that fail to meet convert needs? Everyone awkwardly looked around, considering that fear for a moment. Then one of the pastors spoke up: I’ve just seen so many lives changed by getting all our converts into a strong caring fellowship ministry. I still believe that despite all these trends, new convert group ministry just plain work! For what I consider the best strategic book on the traditional style of small groups, see: The 7 Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry by Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson.
I’ve offered you 14 trends. There are likely 14 more current trends I haven’t spotted yet and 14 more that will start in the next 5 years. What am I taking away from these trends?
Overall I think we need to expand our definition of new convert care, broaden our concept of spiritual formation, and entertain all kinds of innovative ways of helping converts grow. The spiritual formation trend is actually just a broadening of what we already know that works. In these modern times we will see these small pockets, tribes almost, of spiritual formation. None of them can claim to be the only way to be transformed by the renewing of the mind. But each of them seems to be working for the churches that are doing them. I suppose the key is to be a part of at least one, if not a few, to ensure our new converts are indeed becoming more like Christ every day.
From: www.churchcentral.com July 2008