Build Pathways of Belonging
By Gary L. McIntosh
Newcomers don’t come with Velcro already applied. It’s up to the congregation to make them stick.
A number of years ago I accepted a new job at a company that was good at welcoming its new employees. When I arrived at my new job, the vice president of the company met me warmly t the reception desk and personally escorted me to my office. He told me to take about thirty minutes to get settled, put a few things in my desk, and then meet him in his office.
When I went to his office, he proceeded to take me on a walking tour of the entire facility”. Along the way he introduced me to every employee from management to mailroom personnel. He answered any questions that I asked and generally gave me a superb introduction to the company.
We went to lunch with the president and two other vice presidents of the company. During lunch they casually shared their basic values and philosophies of work. My entire first day was given to meeting people and getting acquainted. Nothing about my particular job assignment was even mentioned until the second day.
What took place on my first day on the job would be beneficial to all newcomers to a church. The vice president who led me throughout the day was building pathways of belonging for me. Churches should do the same for their guests.
Pathways of belonging are strategically designed ministries that assist new people in gaining a sense of being part of your church. In a broad sense, building pathways has been the focus of this entire book. Recognizing that people are living without salvation in Jesus Christ and outside the church, we want to help them walk along a pathway – that leads to Christ. The pathway began when the\- first became aware of your church, which led to their initial visit, then to their feeling well served through your various ministries, and finally to their involvement in the church.
There are, of course, many pathways of belonging. Sonic happen without much planning. A new person meets someone at your church and they discover a common interest, which draws them together. I saw this take place once when a new person who was visiting my church met another man and they began talking about their love-computers. From that point on, it was quite common to find both of them together discussing sonic aspect of bits and bytes of computers that the rest of us could not understand. A pathway of belonging had developed quite naturally.
In this chapter we are talking about pathways that lead people beyond the first visit into ownership of your church’s vision, values, and ministry. This means helping them understand what the church is all about, meet new people, and become involved.
A staff reception is held in a room set aside in the church where new guests may come for light refreshments and to meet the pastor or pastoral staff. For the best participation, the room for the reception should be close to the worship center, as well as in the natural flow of traffic. If the reception is, held in another building, in a faraway corner, or down a long hallway, few guests will make it to the reception. It is helpful if displays are available in the reception room that highlights the various ministries of the church. Brochures, pamphlets, and other information about the church that guests can take home are also helpful.
An invitation is extended from the pulpit, in the program, and by greeters and others who meet guests throughout the morning. The staff reception is designed to give new people an initial acquaintance with the leaders of the church. The atmosphere should be warm and welcoming with casual conversation. No teaching or lecturing takes place. Newcomers come and go as they desire.
A staff reception for new guests helps people gain some basic knowledge of the church and staff. In smaller churches a staff reception can be offered once a month, while in larger churches it could be a regular Sunday morning event.
The Pastor’s Dessert
A good way for a guest to start out on the pathway to belonging is through a pastor’s dessert. If there are many guests coming to your church, the pastor should reserve one night a month for this dessert. If your church has few guests, the pastor’s dessert can be held every other month or perhaps quarterly.
For the sake of illustration, let’s say your pastor designates the third Tuesday of every month for the dessert. On that evening guests are invited to the dessert, which may be held at a home or at the church facility. It begins between 7:00 and 7:30 p.m., giving people time to eat and relax after work for a little while before arriving for dessert.
The purpose for the occasion is to welcome those who have attended the church a minimum of three times. Thus attendance at the dessert is by invitation only. No announcements or invitations are given publicly. Instead, a nicely printed invitation, similar to a wedding invitation, is mailed to each person who has been identified as visiting at least three times. Ask guests to RSVP and to dress casually.
As people arrive, they should be warmly welcomed. After they have finished their dessert, the pastor gives a formal welcome. Then he briefly discusses the mission of the church, its key values, and larger vision for the future. He should introduce the rest of the staff and/or other church leaders who are present. In a small church all leaders may be at the dessert, but in most cases only a few selected leaders will be present. After introducing the staff, the pastor asks the guests to introduce themselves and tell how they first heard about the church. If time permits and people have questions, these can be asked at the end. Before everyone leaves, the pastor extends a personal invitation to the orientation class.
Someone should take careful note of the ways new people say they heard of the church. These statements will let you know how well your ad, mailings, and word-of-mouth advertising are working.
My son went to work for a home-improvement company, and his first two weeks on the job were spent attending an orientation course. He was given a copy of the company’s policy manual and for two weeks was instructed in the culture of that company. Not only was he told the policies of the company, which we might expect, but more important he was instructed in the attitudes and actions the company expected from its employees in serving its customers.
We need to have an orientation course in our churches also. Throughout the years, churches have offered a new members’ class. When people wanted to be members, a new members’ class told them how to become one. Instructions were given on the differences in denominations, and the church’s bylaws were reviewed with special emphasis on the section having to do with church membership. The class assisted people who came from a different denomination to understand the new church and its polity. In most instances, if a person came from the same denomination, he or she bypassed the class.
Though there continues to be a need for a membership class, the purpose of an orientation class is to introduce people to your church culture, rather than stressing membership. Thus everyone must attend. An orientation class encourages people to buy into your church’s mission, vision, and values from the beginning. Giving people an in-depth look at your church lets them make a well-informed decision about whether this is the church for them. Some people, having heard your philosophy of ministry, will decide it’s not the church for them, and this discovery is important. Ultimately whatever decision people make about staying, everyone hears the same message, and they get started off on the right foot.
The pastor must be the teacher of this class in small churches, but in larger ones a staff member can do the job, following the senior pastor’s invitation given at the pastor’s dessert function. Since some people in our era do not particularly like the idea of church membership, it is good not to name the class a “new members’ class.” Find a name that communicates a different value, such as Meet Hope Community Church or How to Belong or Discovery 101. Churches find that four to six hours is enough to get the job done. An orientation class offered on a Saturday morning or afternoon for three to four hours or perhaps an hour on Sunday morning for four to six weeks works well. Experiment with different time schedules until you find the one that seems to work best.
The following should be included in the class:
* A brief history of your church, highlighting your core values
* A review of your church’s mission or purpose statement
* A review of your church’s philosophy of ministry
* A review of your church’s vision and goals for ministry
* Small-group discussion to get acquainted with each other and form new friendships
* Introduction to the various ministries and how people may serve others through them
* Introduction to selected ministry leaders
* Information on the next steps for getting involved, including how to become a member
First impressions are lasting, so take extra care to make this class an exciting introduction to your church. It should be fun! Take the class on a tour of the church facilities and make sure they meet the main staff. Once or twice, host the class at a party at someone’s home or at a local restaurant. Instead of lecturing all the time, use small groups to help the new people get to know each other and discover their values, philosophies, and anticipated role in the church.
Throughout the class, refer to your church as “our church.” If a person begins a question with “Your church” correct him or her in a lighthearted way and have the person start over, saying, “Our church …” Help the new people gain ownership from day one.
The Worst Welcome
Here’s a fun activity that helps newcomers express themselves and alerts you to dangers you can avoid.
In your next orientation class, divide the class members into three or more groups. Ask them to think of the worst experience they can remember when first visiting a church. Have them select a case and embellish it, making it as ugly as can be.
Then, if people are willing, have each group act out their experience as a skit in a fun sort of way. They get to vent their frustration and you get to see what not to do in your church. Once they all finish, ask them to return to their groups and remake the story into a positive one, improving on it in any way possible.
Then they perform the good experience in skits. When they are done, tell them you want your church to be like the good skits.
Ask them to help you make the church a place where people have good experiences not poor ones.
Gaining ownership in a church takes place as people make friends and participate in a class or group. Of course, being part of a class or group is a good way to make friends. You may want to consider continuing the orientation class as an ongoing small group or Sunday school class. New people find it easiest to make friends with other new people, so they will probably want to continue to develop friendships that began in the orientation class. Ask the class if they would enjoy continuing on together as a small-group meeting on an evening or on Sunday mornings as their own class. If they desire to do so, you will have established a new class or group and further assisted the new people to gain ownership in your church. You or some other leader in the church may need to lead the group at first. Try, however, to turn the leadership over to someone in the group as soon as possible.
Taste of Small Groups
Participation in a small group is one of the very best ways for guests to make friends and connect with a church. When newcomers do not understand the value of small groups, or perhaps have never been exposed to them, there is a natural anxiety about joining one, especially if a long-term commitment is expected. Taste of Small Groups is a way for churches to encourage newcomers to join a small group for the first time. It’s another pathway for guests to travel as they become connected at a deeper level in your church’s ministry.
On the Sunday you choose to offer Taste of Small Groups, set up a number of tables in the back of your church auditorium or some other room fairly close to the auditorium. Each table should be able to seat eight to ten individuals. On each table place a sign indicating the geographical area represented by the table; for example, the sign might have a zip code number or the name of a particular housing track on it.
Trained leaders should be prepared and seated at each table to welcome guests and introduce them to one another. Provide each leader with a small-group roster and a children’s puzzle that has eight to ten pieces.
Focus the Sunday’s message on the importance of small groups in the life of a church, specifically emphasizing developing friendships. Dismiss the worship service fifteen minutes early, and ask those who are interested in joining a small group to make their way to where the tables are located and sit at the table that has a sign indicating a geographical area near where they live.
After people have been seated around the table and introduced, the leaders briefly share that Taste of Small Groups is a way to discover what small groups are like, without a long-term commitment Initial commitment is for six weeks, after which everyone will be free to decide to sign up for another twelve weeks or not to remain involved. Group leaders should fill out the small-group rosters on the spot, determine the best time of the week to meet, and give each person or couple one piece of the puzzle. Before dismissing the group, leaders should remind everyone: “If you don’t show up, you’ll be a piece of the puzzle that is missing!”
It may be that the new people will not want to continue the orientation class as a small group or Sunday school class. In that case, yon need to be ready to help them move down some additional pathways of belonging. One process that has worked well is what has been termed “dinner eights” or “dinner sixes.” Briefly, three or four new couples or individuals agree to alternate hosting a meal at their home. Once each month for three or four months, the group moves from one home to another for a meal. Sharing meals provides opportunities for the people to get to know each other better.
In a smaller church, it often works well to have the pastor or another church leader be one of the couples or individuals along with a new family and a regular church member. This helps the new family get to know church members and feel like they arc a part of the church. It’s always best if groups can be formed from people with similar interests.
New Believers’ Class
There will be some new people who need teaching in the basic doctrines of your church and the Christian faith. Thus a new believers’ class is another pathway for some people to follow. The purpose of this class is to teach people the basics of salvation, assurance of salvation, and other beginning aspects of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Also this class serves to explain the differences in church distinctives that some may have an interest in knowing. Everyone will not need this class, thus it is usually not required of every new person but only those who are new to the Christian faith or have unanswered questions. Participation in this class should be open to anyone who wishes to attend.
Recent studies point out the importance of membership in churches. For example, after researching high-expectation churches, Thom Rainer relates: “When membership does not matter, the members will care little about their levels of commitment.”
In a study of Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Free, Weslevan, and independent community churches, church growth researcher Chuck Lawless found 73 percent had a membership class., And it is most interesting, as his research points out, that more churches are requiring membership classes today than were doing so just eight years ago (up from 18.2 percent of churches in 1997 to 31 percent today). Not only do membership classes provide orientation to church ministry, but they assist potential members to develop relationships within the congregation.
To attract the highest attendance, it is best to stress participation in the membership class rather than membership itself. Once people are in the class, they naturally become interested in the deeper involvement in the church that actual membership includes. The curriculum of a membership class often includes some, if not all, of the following:
* Introduction to the mission, vision, and values of the church
* A clear statement of the church’s expectations
* Overview of the church’s beliefs and structure (including denominational affiliation if appropriate)
* Review of how one becomes a Christian (evangelism)
* Step-by-step instruction on how to become a member
* Information on next steps after the membership class joining a small group, class, or ministry
A key aspect often found in a church with a solid involvement strategy is the ability to position people in a place of service. The most successful way to recruit new people is through a personal interview process. The orientation class will have introduced people to the various ministries your church offers. Some new people may have taken the initiative to become involved in a ministry on their own. For those who have not, an interview should be scheduled in which their gifts, talents, previous experience, and ministry desires are discovered. Following the interview, a ministry counselor from your church should offer several possibilities of ministry and put them in touch with the director of the ministries they select. A concerted effort to interview and place new people will pay rich dividends.
New people are the easiest to recruit for ministry, since they come into your church with a sense of excitement and a willingness to be involved. Does anyone ever join a church with a bad attitude? Well, occasionally there are bad transfers, but in most cases people who join your church have a great attitude about your church and want to be involved in ministry.
Despite this desire to be involved, the fact remains that competition for people’s time and energy has never been as intense as it is today. Work schedules, youth activities, and leisure activities compete head-to-head for people’s time. So how can churches get people involved in ministry? One way is to be sensitive to the expectations of those who want to serve.
1. People expect a personal invitation to participate in ministry. Once upon a time, a pastor could simply announce a church’s need for help from the pulpit, and people would respond. In today’s competitive environment, however, people expect a personal invitation to serve.
2. People expect to be prepared and equipped for ministry assignments. Invitations to serve must come with the opportunity to receive training for the job. People resist taking positions that they don’t know anything about.
3. People expect follow-up, encouragement, and recognition. Once a person accepts a new assignment and begins working, he or she looks for regular evaluation and encouragement People do not like “Lone Ranger roles” with no contact from leaders.
4. People expect service opportunities that fit their schedules. People respond to ministry opportunities that provide a choice of times. While they want to serve, their commitment must fit into their already busy schedules. The more choices of time and day you can offer, the greater the chance people will become involved.
5. People expect that their unique skills and personality will contribute in a meaningful way. People understand that God has uniquely gifted them, and they desire to use their gifts. Thus the more your church can tie invitations to serve to people’s spiritual gifts, the greater the likelihood they will agree to be involved in ministry.
6. People expect to make a difference in their church, community, and world. Serving in a significant way is important to people. They make decisions on how to use their time, in part, based on the perceived value of the opportunity. The church has the greatest mission in the world, but leaders must communicate how each ministry opportunity fits into the Great Commission. The more people can see the important value of their role, the more likely they are to serve.
7. People expect to build relationships. After more than thirty years of research through numerous studies of church participation, it is clear that the number one reason people participate in ministry is the friendships they develop through serving. Building teams around the numerous areas of service in your church is a good way to bond people together for fruitful ministry.
8. People expect to grow spiritually and personally. Ministry burnout is something to be avoided at all costs. People who agree to serve in your church’s ministry want to experience spiritual and personal growth through their service.
9. People expect to have their personal needs met. Leaders who oversee ministry workers must be sensitive to the needs of those who serve with them. Leaders must be shepherds not just managers. Caring for workers involves listening to their hurts, problems, and needs. The more you care for your workers, the more they will care for the work.
Effective churches spend more time caring for others than for themselves. This means, among other things, they build pathways of belonging for the new people coming their way. What can you do to encourage your guests to become involved in your church? What pathways are available now that new people may follow to establish ownership in your church? When you answer these questions carefully and then follow them up with action, you’ll find that people develop a loyalty to your church and move beyond the first visit.
Mission or purpose statements are found commonly in churches. It is also a good idea to write an exit statement.
Visualize an impartial person standing outside your church asking each person who leaves this question: “How would you describe the treatment you just experienced in this church?”
Write down exactly what you hope their responses would be.
Insight: If you want your guests to feel a certain way after leaving, you can ensure that feeling by the treatment you give them when they’re with you.
Questions to Ask and Answer
1. Which of the pathways noted in this chapter is your church already using?
2. Which pathways appear to be having the best results? Why?
3. What new pathways could your church begin to use in the coming year?
Article Build Pathways of Belonging excerpted from Beyond the First Welcome Visit. Written by Gary L. McIntosh.
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.