Assimilating New Members Through Ministry with Families
Jimmy Hester is design editor of undated resources in the Adult Discipleship and Family Development Department, Sunday School Board, Nashville, Tennessee.
Robert and his two teenage children joined a downtown church not because of Robert’s need for a new church but because his two boys needed a strong, healthy peer group. Robert visited several single adult Sunday School classes but never felt comfortable mixing with young single adults or divorced single adults with no children. Then Robert discovered the class for him.
Six months before Robert’s family joined, the church formed a Sunday School class for single parents. When Robert joined the church, one of the teachers approached him about coming to the class. Reluctantly, Robert visited. The class members received him with open arms and carefully nurtured him into the church. This was for Robert the group within the larger church family that became family.
Basic to family ministry is the building and strengthening of relationships. Whether the family is a mom and dad with two children, a single mom with a preschooler, an unmarried single adult, a retired couple, or a newlywed middle-age couple; family means relationships. In the biological family, it means strengthening the most intimate of all human relationships: husband-wife and parent-child relationships. Even single adults have parents, and senior adults may be parents and grandparents.
Translating that to a church setting, family ministry means helping family members become the family of God as they grow as Jesus did “in wisdom, stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Said another way, church leaders need to help people in the congregation relate to one another as family to create a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging moves beyond organizational ties. Paul and Peter used the terms “the household of faith” and “the household of God” (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15) to express the spiritual dimension of the relationship Christians have in the church family.
An image that portrays this is the entrance of a new person into a family. Consider the birth of a child. After a baby is born, bonding occurs. The bonding is effective when adequate time is spent with the baby and the baby grows to realize that these folks care about her, are there to meet her every need, and will give her the space she needs when she needs it in order to become her own person. In this realization, she becomes part of the family and adds her unique contributions to the life of the family.
Assimilation into Relationships
Assimilating new members into a church family involves assimilation into relationships not just assimilation into an organization. The question to ask new members is not, “To which organizations in the church do you want to belong?” but, “How can this church family help you grow in your relationships with God and with others?”
To help your church assimilate new family members into the family of God, think in terms of practical ways your church can address the needs of family members. If you will think logically about the needs of families instead of placing a high priority on organizational needs, new members will be drawn to your church and effectively assimilated into the life of your church.
For example, do you know what kinds of families make up your congregation? How well do you know the needs of these families? One minister identified the various family types in his church. He asked representatives from those family types what the church could do to minister to their needs. People who had been members 25 years and those who had joined in the past year were included. He then led the church family to implement various events, activities, programs, and processes required to address those needs. One outcome was to match a new family with an established church family for a period of time. Another outcome was to have a different family share as a worship service feature something about their family. The church’s organization served as a means to an end and not an end in and of itself.
Another example of thinking logically about family needs is being sensitive to the family as a unit and not always to family members as individuals. Viewing families as units provides a different perspective and challenges traditional approaches to doing church. For example, consider your church’s schedule. What is your regular schedule doing to the family as a unit? A friend shared his frustration that his church’s Sunday afternoon schedule was such that he delivered his teenager at 4:00 p.m., his elementary-age child at 5:00 p.m., and he and his wife were expected to be at the church at 5:30 p.m. to begin their activities. This meant that mom or dad made two trips to deliver children and later returned when their activities began. And it didn’t end there. Every other Sunday evening, the teenager had an after-church fellowship that meant someone had to go back to the church later to pick him up. What does this communicate to the family?
Along with the schedule, consider what happens to families when they come to church. How many opportunities do they have to do things together as a family? In most churches they may be able to sit together during worship services (unless dad or mom ushers, sings in the choir, or cares for young children). But most of the time they scatter once they reach the door and are not together again until they get in the car to go home.
Once you begin to think in terms of the needs of family members and family units, new opportunities will present themselves that will enhance your church’s assimilation process. When a new family comes into your church and feels that the congregation is sincerely interested in addressing their needs as opposed to using them to fill a spot in the church’s organizational structure, true assimilation will take place. Remember the analogy of the newborn baby. After a baby is born (a new family enters the church), bonding is effective when adequate time is spent with the baby and the baby grows to a realization that these folks care about her, are there to meet her every need, and will give her the space she needs when she needs it in order to become her own person. In this realization, she becomes part of the family and adds her own unique contributions to the life of the family.
Assimilation of a New Family
Some means (not ends) can assist the church in assimilating a new family. Many of these suggestions may not be new to you and your congregation’s ministry. Church leaders use them all the time. We suggest that these means can serve in assimilating new church members because:
* They create a sense of belonging to a family of believers interested in living the Christian faith in all areas of life.
* They provide opportunities to bring new church members together with those who have been members for some time, creating friendships within small groups.
* They provide ways to strengthen family relationships in both the biological family and the church family.
* They challenge new members to find their place within the church family and use their gifts to minister beyond themselves and their families.
Consider using the following ideas as means of assimilation. These ideas will likely trigger others that apply to your church family.
Barbara has just gone through a painful divorce and feels out of place at church. Bob works Saturday nights as a security guard and sleeps on Sunday mornings, missing many of the activities at the church he recently joined. Connie works as a full-time nurse during the week and part-time on Sundays in order to make ends meet as a single parent.
These three situations point out the importance of providing through-the-week programs for single adults, especially new church members whose circumstances do not allow them to participate in the traditional meeting times on Sundays and Wednesdays. Two books can help you create and evaluate through-the-week ministries: ‘Single Adult Ministry in Your Church’ and ‘Single Adult Ministry Leadership Notebook.’
Other single adult ministries helpful in assimilating new church members might focus on specific needs, such as a divorce recovery workshop or a loss recovery workshop.
Upon retirement, Ernest not only discovered freedom from the business world; but he also discovered his need to be active in a family of believers. He joined a nearby Baptist church. The senior adults encouraged Ernest to join them in weekly Bible study, on a trip they were planning to the mountains, in the senior adult choir, and in their weekly luncheons. The friendships he established and the things he learned about senior adult life helped him feel a part of his new church family
Bible study, trips, music groups, mission and ministry opportunities, and regular fellowship times are a few ways to assimilate senior adults into the life of the church. Two books can help you evaluate your senior adult ministry: ‘How to Minister to Senior Adults in Your Church’ (Broadman, #4232-22) and ‘Senior Adult Leader’s Notebook’ (Convention, #5131-88).
Margo and Juan were new in the community. They got involved in a couple’s Bible study in a neighbor’s home that led them to join a local Baptist church. During the first few months they attended a Covenant Marriage course where they became friends with several other couples. That resulted in an ongoing couple’s support group that now meets monthly in their home.
Marriage enrichment retreats and conferences, Bible studies, marriage festivals, and extended studies offer opportunities for new couples to become friends with other couples in the church. Several courses and books can create an environment for assimilating new couples into the life of the church: ‘Covenant Marriage: Partnership and Commitment Couple’s Guide and Leader’s Notebook’ (also available in Spanish) and ‘Communication and Intimacy: Covenant Marriage Couple’s Guide’ (#7803-02) and ‘Leader’s Notebook’ (#780402).
Home Life magazine also carries ideas for couple’s Bible study and couple’s support groups.6
Leslie and John were new parents and new church members. They wanted to be the parents God intended them to be. The young couple also wanted to feel the love and support of the new church family they had joined. Soon after they joined, Leslie and John became involved in a Parenting by Grace study group. Group members were all parents of preschoolers. What a blessing! Leslie and John learned to be better parents to their young son and also grew to feel a responsibility, as did others in the group, for the care and nurture of other children in the church family.
Parent enrichment courses, conferences, and support groups provide opportunities for assimilating new families into the church. Some resources include: ‘Parenting by Grace: Discipline and Spiritual Growth Parent’s Guide’ and ‘Leader’s Notebook’ (also available in Spanish); ‘Christian Self-Esteem: Parenting by Grace Parent’s Guide’ and ‘Leader’s Notebook.’
Also see ‘Living with Preschoolers’, ‘Living with Children’, and ‘Living with Teenagers’ for ideas for parent’s support groups.
Intergenerational ministry is growing in many churches. Intergenerational ministry involves bringing together members of different generations to help all ages grow in their relationships with God and one another and to provide opportunities for ministering to others. ‘Uniting Generations: A Resource Manual for Intergenerational Ministry’ provides a rationale and a resource for intergenerational ministry. It contains more than 50 ideas to stimulate your thinking on how intergenerational ministry can be used to assimilate new families into your church.
Becoming the family of God requires as much love, forgiveness, encouragement, and time as it does to maintain a biological family. Welcome new families into your church with as much interest and enthusiasm as you would care for and love a new baby.
This article ‘Assimilating New Members Through Ministry with Families’ was excerpted from the book After They Join, compiled by Truman Brown and James E. Hightower. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
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.’