Assimilating New Members Through Discipleship Training
By Ralph Hodge and Marian Seward
Ralph Hodge and Marian Seward are consultants in the Discipleship and Family Leadership Department, Sunday School Board, Nashville, Tennessee.
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the third century, wrote to his friend Donatus: “It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and good people who have learned the great secret of life. They have found a joy and wisdom which is a thousand times better than any of the pleasures of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. they have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are Christians . . . and I am one of them.”
Our society has been described as people who have awakened in the morning feeling that something is terribly wrong. Faced with daily news of serial killings; drive-by shootings; drug use; rocketing suicide rates among children and teens; deterioration of traditional values; and general disarray in many institutions of education, government, and leadership, people have a sense of living in “an incredibly bad world.”
Many people come into our churches seeking hope for life in our world. Discipleship Training is designed to provide resources and opportunities that provide reason for people seeking balance and help to come into a church. Discipleship Training can provide many entry points for finding their place in the life of a church.
A program that fulfills real spiritual and emotional needs will create a buzz in the community. ‘A buzz’ is what public relations professionals call word-of-mouth interest around a product or service. One of the finest examples of this is the Kingsland Baptist Church in Katy, Texas. Tim Sledge realized a need in his own life to resolve inner conflicts created by growing up in a home with an alcoholic father. After receiving professional help, he announced to his church that he would preach a series of sermons based on his pilgrimage resulting from life in a dysfunctional family.
The church’s attendance tripled during this series. They did not advertise. The increase resulted from a buzz created by people excited about the help they were receiving. This church has continued to grow and broaden this ministry.
Tim Sledge was then asked to write Making Peace with Your Past to minister to people suffering from problems of having lived in dysfunctional families. This was the first of a series of biblically based LIFE Support resources designed to address readers’ needs and to help them develop spiritually.
A recent Kingsland newsletter informs that, ‘leaders for Kingsland’s Guardian Angel groups met all day last Saturday to prepare to receive into their care children in grades 1-5 who have experienced traumatic losses. For 12 weeks, these facilitators will give their time and love to minister to children from families fractured by death or divorce.’ Another says, ‘Recovery Class to Address Grief’On February 9, Dr. Sledge will begin a four-sermon series dealing with grief.’ And ‘Kingsland’s recovery ministry will begin another series of Face to Face support groups.’ The newsletter promotes the beginning of other courses such as, Disciples’ Prayer Life, Experiencing God: knowing and Doing His Will, and Step-by-Step Through the Old Testament.
Christians have been assimilated into a church when they feel that they are a part of the church. People want to have this feeling without having to be perfect or meeting all expectations. They want to be a part of the people on a spiritual journey, seeking to find God’s presence, will, and power for living in a world like ours.
An estimated 33 to 50 percent of all church members do not feel a sense of belonging to the congregation of which they are members.
One survey estimates that 5 to 7 million people in America attend more than one church each week. They apparently do not feel that they belong to any church.
Faith Popcorn said that people are becoming a part of organizations and seeking any means that helps them find balance. Popcorn revealed a trend for people to entrench themselves in the home, their fortress. The protection of the home makes us feel safe. People venture into churches for safety from mistakes in parenting, in marriage, and help in being successful as human beings.
People move toward their hope. Thousands of people visit and never join a church. Many join and soon drop out. The prominent reasons are that the church was not friendly, they did not like the pastor’s preaching, they did not get enough attention, or they felt the programs were inadequate. The reasons for staying away from a church are usually far deeper. The hope that brought them to church goes unmet.
Millions are driven by a hope for balance in their lives, for parenting in a world that seems bad, help with inner conflicts, help with relationships including marriage, and help with spiritual growth and depth. George Hunter described secular people as being like blind people groping along a wall trying to find the door. They can’t find it, and they want help.
Rick Warren said he was surprised to find that the vast numbers of unchurched people in the area where he led the founding of Saddleback Community Church were not atheists nor even unbelievers. Most of them had simply concluded that church was not relevant for their needs. Discipleship Training provides help for Christians to have spiritual understanding and skills to open the door for fulfilling their hope.
Discipleship Training resources are designed for use in small groups. Groups can meet anywhere and anytime in church facilities, homes, offices, commuter buses, or wherever is convenient. Small groups growing in spiritual life and skills for a healthy and effective Christian life provide opportunity for bonding and strengthening relationships that bring about the common vision, understanding, and care resulting in the ties of church membership.
If a mission culture is defined as a place where most people are unchurched, then most of us in America live in a mission culture.Whether people coming to our churches are unbelievers or disillusioned Christians, living in a mission culture means that they are going to be aware of felt needs more than spiritual.4 All people have two kinds of needs’those they feel and those of which they are unaware. Their spiritual needs often fall into the latter category. Experienced Christians may know that a person’s most profound needs are spiritual, yet that person may be oblivious to them. He or she may be concentrating entirely on specific physical or emotional needs. “Good missionary strategy begins with the needs that are felt or admitted, and gradually works from them to the deeper needs that have often been repressed.”5 Discipleship Training provides a multitude of entry points for Christians and non-Christians to begin finding the fulfillment of the hope that brought them to the church.
New Hope Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky, was faced with rapid growth with many new members who had little or no church experience. George Hunter referred to this kind of new member as people who “aren’t even church broke.”6 The young pastor, Brad Johnson, knew that the church must provide a way for people from diverse backgrounds and different or no church experience to have unity of doctrine, disciplines for spiritual growth, and understanding of what it meant to be a part of that particular church.
This congregation created “a buzz” in the surrounding area. They are known as a place where people will be accepted as they are and given gentle guidance in discovering Christ, and then given guidance to grow toward becoming a responsible church member. A resource, Learning and Serving, was chosen as the best balanced resource for them. At this time more than 1,100 people have completed the Learning and Serving book for their age group.
Discipleship Training is designed to bring the person into the life of the church not just into friendly relationships. A person can be brought into the discipleship development process at any of five major areas of training. People drawn to attend church by the promise of finding fulfillment of their hope require understanding. This hope can be as varied as a place to meet friends or a need to know how to become a Christian. The hope may be to provide spiritual and ethical influence for their children or to fulfill some perceived religious requirement to solve a problem or secure a job.
Research indicates that most people attend a church for the first time because they are invited by friends or family. Research also indicates that people sharing similar hope invite others holding that same hope. A Christian single woman recently said of her first visit to a church: “It felt like college without the drinking. . . . At the time I was a world-class partier, and my concern with church was ‘I’m not gonna have fun.’ But it was so much fun I took all my friends with me, and I have seen people’s lives literally change.” Her perceived or felt need was for church to not be void of fun. Her deeper hope is probably revealed in her comment about seeing lives changed.
`The five major entry points for which Discipleship Training has designed resources are new church member training, gift and ministry discovery, leader training, spiritual growth, and personal ministry and outreach. The new Christian, new Baptist, or developing Christian is given opportunity to enroll in the area appropriate for his or her particular need at the time. They can easily participate in two or more areas at the same time.
Ted Depee and Jean Leeds drove from Twin Lakes, Idaho, to at-tend a conference a few miles away in the Spokane Valley of Washington. They were introduced to Basics for New Baptists’ Ted and Jean recognized their congregation’s need to understand basic doctrine, missions, and evangelism. They discussed this conviction with their pastor and planned a course using Basics for New Baptists. A year later nearly every member had completed the study. Soon after the first group began meeting on Sunday evenings, a second group asked to begin meeting on Sunday morning. The business meetings, fellowship, dreams, and ministry of the people have taken on new cohesiveness. They share a new understanding of what being Baptists really means.
David Evans, pastor of University Baptist Church in Ames, Iowa, searched for a way to draw and keep people in a university community. He and a layman, Phil VandeVoorde, developed Discipleship University. The university theme reflected the way of life of most people in the area. A course catalog was produced. After a few months nine groups completed Experiencing God, Master life, Wise Counsel, Discovering Your Spiritual Gifts, and Disciple’s Prayer Life. A support group and marriage and parenting study began meeting on Friday evenings. Others determined that their need was for basic understanding of what being a Christian means and for information on forming disciplines for spiritual growth. These people completed Survival Kit for New Christians, followed by Disciple’s Prayer Life, and then Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God.
This church has 150 members in an area where evangelical churches face huge obstacles. Evans said: “Discipleship helps grow churches. Our church has grown by about 35 percent since we began Discipleship University. Sunday school enrollment and worship attendance have also increased. People have come to Christ and been baptized as a direct result of Discipleship University. Even the choir has grown!”
He said, “Quality discipleship builds commitment. We find the LIFE courses to be particularly suited to the Discipleship University concept. Discipleship builds leaders. Members have come forward to ask for and accept additional responsibilities as ministers and church leaders.
“Discipleship helps develop Christ-centered vision. One of the Experiencing God groups was made up of the long-range planning committee. They have since renamed themselves the Helping UBC Observe Where God Is at Work Committee!
“Discipleship increases faith. This church has been here for 15 years. We have prayed for an effective ministry to the more than 26,000 Iowa State University students since the church began. We called a full-time campus minister who works with students and helps our members learn to reach and minister to them. He believes that if UBC hadn’t been involved in Discipleship Training this past year, the people would not have been willing to take this enormous step in faith. Discipleship Training resources are designed to bring persons to life-changing decisions reflecting faith to follow Christ.”
Churches create expectations in new people who come to church. Gary McIntosh and Glen Martin have discovered what is dominant in the minds of people visiting a church for the first time. “New people to your church come with a number of questions on their minds. As they drive into the church parking lot, they wonder if they will easily find a place to park. Entering the front door, they wonder if they will be warmly welcomed. Sitting in the auditorium, they won-der if they will be embarrassed.”
McIntosh and Martin wrote that people “have more crucial questions than these on their minds that your church must answer in a positive way if they are to assimilate into your church: Am I liked? Am I valuable? Am I accepted? Am I challenged? Am I growing?”13 Carroll Townsend, associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Slidell, Louisiana, is working to answer these questions in a positive way to help assimilate new members through Discipleship Training. After some years of rapid growth, the church reached a time of plateau in growth. The congregation decided to reach out into the community though caring ministries. They chose to create home cell groups for Bible study and growth in discipleship. A program was begun called HEART (Home Encouragement and Relationship Time). One night a week no activities are planned at church so people can meet in home groups.
The new member committee attempts to guarantee that every new member feels welcome and a sense of belonging to the congregation. A 10-point process leads new members through all steps of assimilation. Care group leaders are trained to try to meet all members’ needs.
The Discipleship Training program is called College of Christian Training. Carroll said: “Most of our people now desire small-group Discipleship Training. The LIFE courses have done extremely well. People will come to the small groups.” The new members coming through the new member 10-point process come with a desire for personalized discipleship development for which the resources of Discipleship Training are designed.
Discipleship Training has moved ahead in providing for the trend of baby boomers’ demanding choices. Boomers often are unwilling to become members of groups and activities with open-ended time commitments. This need has been met by designing most of the re-sources for 6 to 13 sessions.
A noticeable characteristic of churches losing members is the lack of balance in providing opportunity for study and relationship building. Discipleship Training provides that balance. The resources pro-vide in-depth material for study. The study involves relationship building and interaction of ideas and application in small groups.
Eddie Hammett, an associate in Discipleship Training for the North Carolina Baptist Convention, served as a minister of education for several years. He developed a new member training plan for his church called, “A Relational Model for New Member Orientation.” He said: “The relational model was designed to facilitate relation-ships between the established members and the newcomers, as well as build community among the newcomers themselves. As relation-ships are being developed, we also wanted to communicate basic new member orientation information as the newcomers are success-fully and meaningfully assimilated into the life of the congregation.”
The statement around which the program is built forms an acrostic, CARING:
Consistent contact.’A 15-minute video produced by laypersons and church staff welcomed new members, introduced church leaders, and presented the vision and mission of the congregation. Audio-tapes were available for those who chose to listen while driving or at another more convenient time. Follow-up contact was often made by computer modem when new members were already using on-line programs. Using a computer in a program intended to establish relationships may seem incongruent. But people highly interested in home use of computer technology often bond through a shared interest faster and more effectively than many other methods of building relationships. Some leaders used fax machines which brought ex-cited responses from those contacted this way.
Accommodating needs.’Many members were mobile, so re-sources for new member training were placed on audiotapes by volunteers. These tapes came in an album easily carried wherever a per-son needed to have them. Many adults and youth used the new Trauma Center tapes that provide guidance in dealing with questions and crises for youth, parents, and leaders of youth.
Retreats were planned for those who participated more effectively when time could be isolated with a group for a prescribed period of time. These retreats were designed for new members with enough leadership from experienced members to help with the sessions and serve as a bridge for the new members to be assimilated into the larger congregation. The retreat included a study of Discovering Your Spiritual Gifts.
Real and relevant.’The church provided a training plan for individuals based on profiles determined from interviews, observation, and anecdotal information of friends. Each new member was assigned to a mature Christian who served as an encourager. The new member might enter into training with the need to understand what it meant to be a Christian and learn basic doctrine and principles of Christian discipline. (“The Encourager Plan for New Christians” is described in a pamphlet free from the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville, Tennessee. The Survival Kit for New Christians is often used for new Christians. Basics for New Baptists may be used for more experienced Christians coming into the church.) Each member was eventually led to a series of courses that helped develop the knowledge and skills for personal ministry and discipleship in the church and daily life.
Individuals were enlisted to become a part of a group of similar needs or interests. The training resources were chosen from Church Study Course books and from Discipleship Training resources.
Interesting.’Training was not just to encourage new members to participate in the life of the church. The goal was for every member to be effective in the work of the kingdom where they work and live. Care was taken to help them understand Southern Baptists’ role in missions, evangelism, and doctrinal integrity. Southern Baptist Distinctive,, The Baptist Faith and Message, and Basics for New Baptists were our primary resources for study.16 Training that is immediately applicable to daily life stirs high interest.
Networking.’Interests, personality, or other influences such as family and friendships often bring new members into a particular group. New groups were frequently initiated to provide for needs. A group might form as a support group for victims of dysfunctional families, alcoholism, divorce, single parenting, business, job, or professional interests. Fellowship was one of the goals of guiding members into small groups but not the only objective.
God centered.’Care was taken to provide guidelines and re-sources to base training and group relationships on biblical principles for spiritual growth and discipleship development. Care was also taken to focus on helping members to grow from commitment to Christ to becoming responsible church members who witness and develop a personal ministry.
This article ‘Assimilating New Members through Discipleship Training’ compiled by Truman Brown and James E. Hightower is excerpted from the book After They Join.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, ‘Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.’