Can a Congregation Receive New Members?
W. James Cowell
Can a congregation receive new members? The point of this rhetorical question struck home to me when I assumed a new pastorate in Utah. The attendance pad used in the sanctuary to record Sunday worship attendance included several options to check: member, visitor, attend regularly, desire a call, and wish to join. I soon discovered that almost every week a person or family would check the box “wish to join.” In the follow-up pastoral call, I learned that what persons really wanted to join was the fellowship, not necessarily the membership roster of the congregation. Unchurched persons were saying, “I wish to participate and belong. I may eventually become a member.” This raised the question for our congregation, “Are we really receiving new people?”
Many congregations across our land are, in fact, not receiving new persons into the membership or the fellowship. Congregations focus on all kinds of outreach techniques, induding telemarketing and direct mail advertising, yet they still fail to receive new persons. Other congregations do receive new persons initially, but find that those persons soon exit by the “back door.” Studies confirm that many new members received into mainline protestant denominations become inactive within one year of joining a particular congregation. If persons are not incorporated into a community of faith, then, in reality, they have not been received!
What Keeps a Congregation from Receiving New Persons?
Many congregations do not have the right spiritual climate to receive new persons. Climate is the overall atmosphere or spirit of a congregation that is conveyed to even a first-time visitor. Factors that impact climate include the love and acceptance of the membership for each other, the sense of expectancy, trust between pastor and laity, and a congregation’s attitude toward change. A direct correlation exists between a positive congregational climate and the ability to receive new persons.
Generally, there are ten reasons why congregations fail to receive new persons.
1. Some congregations become self-satisfied. Someone has said, “The smallest conceivable package is a person all wrapped up in himself/herself.” A small congregation, in contrast to a small membership congregation, is one concerned only for those persons presently meeting within its “four cozy walls.” Intentional outreach is stifled.
In one congregation that I know of, the pastor repeatedly challenged the administrative board to become involved in missions and intentional outreach. Every effort to lift the vision of the congregation was rebuffed. Finally, at a board meeting, a lay person said to the pastor in front of the whole group, “Pastor, you haven’t got the message yet. The only thing I’m concerned about is that the roof over our heads tonight will last as long as I live.” The pastor soon left that appointment.
When a congregation becomes satisfied with the status quo, it is extremely difficult for ideas to be heard from new persons, even if new persons have somehow found their way into the congregation.
2. Some congregations have a poor self-image. People can be so critical of themselves and their future that all efforts to incorporate new persons are dismissed as nonproductive. In one declining congregation in the Midwest, a consultant sought to provide motivation to reach out to the unchurched. The consultant was told, “When you are in a sinking boat, you are not too anxious to invite your neighbor to bring his pail and help bail out the water.” When despair reigns, new persons will not be approached, much less incorporated into a congregation.
3. Some congregations have inadequate ports of entry for visitors. The process of incorporation into a congregation begins with a person’s first contact with that congregation. Indeed, the incorporation process may begin before a person even enters a church building. Through such activities as sports teams, round-robin dinners, and home Bible study groups, newcomers establish contacts with church members that eventually lead to membership in a specific congregation. Some congregations create ports of entry by inviting on a certain Sunday all firefighters or teachers or police officers or some other group to attend worship together. The sample notepad pictured on page 3 lets teachers know they are especially welcome. Forming casual friendships with a few persons before participating fully in a community of faith is analagous to the woman who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment before totally understanding the significance of Christ for her life. All congregations should provide ports of entry that allow persons to reach out toward Christ.
4. Some congregations have inadequate follow-up for visitors. For most persons, the incorporation process begins, and sometimes ends, with the first visit to a local church. Usually persons who visit a congregation for the first time appreciate some personal contact from the pastor and/or laypersons during the week following that first visit. Many congregations short-circuit the incorporation process by failing to adequately follow up with first-time visitors by giving them information about the congregations outlining programs, activities, and possibilities for involvement in congregational life.
5. Some congregations fail to provide any opportunity for structured new member orientation. Congregations that take membership seriously usually provide one or more membership orientation classes. Sometimes such sessions are called pastor’s classes or inquirer’s classes. In such sessions, denominational beliefs and history, the meaning of membership, and ways to find one’s niche in the congregation are discussed. Such occasions provide opportunities for newcomers to raise questions and/or to volunteer to participate in various activities. Membership orientation classes will be described in greater detail in Chapter 4.
6. Some congregations are understaffed. Studies have shown that there should be one full-time program staff person for every 150 persons in average worship attendance. The pastor is the staff in a small membership congregation. In a congregation with 275 average worship attendance, however, one pastor cannot provide the coordination needed for a full range of Christian education opportunities, fellowship events, training days, newcomer visitation, etc. Neither does a music director fill the leadership gap. Someone needs to give attention to programming beyond music endeavors, such as the starting of new Sunday school classes or other small groups that are entry points for newcomers.
If a congregation is understaffed, newcomers may continue to join, but the average worship or Sunday school attendance will show little increase. When persons are involved only in attending worship services, they are likely dropout candidates. Missing is the opportunity to become involved in small, face-to-face groupings.
7. Some congregations are not adequately structured to incorporate new persons. There may be a lack of small, face-to-face groupings even in a multi-staff congregation. Church growth studies indicate the need for seven small groups for every 100 persons in worship. Many small or medium membership congregations make the mistake of having only one adult church school class to meet the spiritual needs and interests of several generations of persons. Simply starting a second class can enable new persons to feel included.
In a large membership congregation, smaller “sub-congregations” will exist within the congregation. For example, one congregation of several thousand members offers a 7:30 A.M. Sunday worship service that attracts an average of fifty persons. A number of these persons go out to breakfast together following the service. The smaller worshiping fellowship has continuity of participation and is a distinct alternative to the 8:30 A.M. and 11:00 A.M. services. Likewise, Sunday school classes and/or the women’s or men’s organizations can be congregations that enhance incorporation within the larger congregation.
8. Some congregations lack fellowship opportunities. A major denomination asked a number of persons in two different studies the following question: “Why do you come to Sunday school?” The two top responses from the first group surveyed were: (1) fellowship, and (2) Bible study. The second group of respondents answered: (1) Bible study, and (2) fellowship. What is true of persons responding to a Sunday school questionnaire is true of church seekers in general. People desperately want fellowship in a Christian environment.
Fellowship is more than fun, games, and food. It is a chance for persons to know others well enough to be able to “be themselves.” In large metropolitan cities, persons can become lost in the crowd. Singles worship services followed by a coffee time, a weekday lunch break, dinners for eight, and monthly church-wide social events (such as a dance or family retreat) are not only options, but social necessities required to incorporate persons into Christian communities of faith.
9. Some congregations lack adequately trained lay leadership. Paid staff can never perform all of the necessary tasks in a congregation. Laypersons must supplement staff performance. In a small membership congregation, the absence of persons who have skills or training in small group dynamics, leading music, working with youth, teaching a class, etc., may hinder program development that could enhance the reception of new members. “Borrowing” leadership persons from other existing congregations has sometimes been at least a temporary solution.
In some growing congregations, volunteers experience “burnout” and frustration because they know what needs to happen in programming, but realize training opportunities and paid staff support are limited. Coordination that provides a sense of cohesiveness and focus is lacking. Consequently, volunteers abandon their positions prematurely with no one to fill the vacancies. Programs suffer and incorporation procedures falter.
10. Some congregations live in the past. Long-standing traditions can discourage the reception of new members with new ideas. A pastor friend, John Ed Mathison, speaks of a “dirt road church in an interstate world.” Robert Dale, in Keeping the Dream Alive, asks, “What are the characteristics of a plateaued church and its leaders? How do they act and feel?” Dale then mentions several major factors.
“A custodial climate develops. But what do these churches have custody of? Their heritage. That means leaders are often seen as (and frequently see themselves as) heirs. It’s their right to lead; their mandate as leaders to preserve the tradition. . . . Decision making is often a closed loop. The same power brokers with the same ideas and the same histories stifle the future. Leaders are given authority; followers are given orders or the gate. Plateaued congregations function on administrative autopilot. They’ve worn their ruts deep. The ruts guarantee that the church will move slowly in the same direction. Additionally, ruts frequently mean that getting stuck is just a matter of time.2
A rut is nothing more than an open-ended grave!
What Does It Take to Receive New Persons?
Not long ago, I visited a United Methodist congregation in Oklahoma City called the Church of the Servant. The narthex contained one of the strangest sights I have ever seen a ten-gallon, galvanized garbage can with green plants growing in it. After the worship services, I spoke with the senior pastor, Norman Neaves, and various staff persons about their congregation, especially about the incorporation of new persons. They stressed that the congregation emphasized “belonging ministries.”3 I learned that the garbage can in the narthex is a symbol of the church! I also learned that persons who attend this congregation several times are given the symbolic gift of a garbage can a small, crushed pottery garbage can with a green plant growing in it. An explanation accompanies the gift: “No matter what kind of garbage there has been in your life in the past, tomorrow can be better than today, and you can bloom where you are planted.” I still have my plant which I water faithfully! The metaphor of the plant suggests several things that are necessary if a congregation is to receive new persons.
1. Discern where people are in their spiritual journeys. People are at different stages in their spiritual journeys. Some have barely taken the first tentative steps toward God, while others have journeyed with God intentionally for many years and have reached new levels of spiritual maturity.
People bring much “trash” or “garbage” with them on their journey. It’s the baggage they carry. The church is called upon to reach out to persons as they are, not as we wish they were theologically or even ethically. This does not mean that the church is indifferent to a person’s beliefs, actions, or attitudes. It does mean that the church helps people confront their past and seek healing and forgiveness where necessary. New life begins as people turn from the mistakes of the past toward the all-embracing grace of God. The “garbage” that has accumulated must be dumped cast into the sea of forgiveness, acceptance, and grace in order for people to appropriate new life. This is really what it means for someone to be incorporated into the Body of Christ which is the church.
2. Help persons bloom where they are planted. Persons must become actively involved in a congregation if they are to bloom and bear the spiritual fruit described in the New Testament.
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5).
In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4).
To bloom to bear fruit means using all our skills and spiritual gifts for ministry in the church and in the world. To be incorporated into a congregation means that a person is bonded together with other Christians in Christ in order to gain the spiritual sustenance necessary to make the most of each opportunity to be a servant to others. Ken Medema, a blind songwriter who composes lyrics for many contemporary Christian pieces of music, has a song about the church which includes these words:
If this is not a place where tears are understood, then where shall I go to cry?
And if this is not a place where my spirit can take wings, then where shall I go to fly?
If this is not a place where my questions can be asked, then where shall I go to seek?
And if this is not a place where my heart can be heard, then where, tell me where, shall I go to speak?
Norman Neaves, pastor of Church of the Servant, commenting on this song, says so poignantly,
The church means many different things to many different people of course! But at least the church ought to be a place “where tears are understood” . . . and “where my spirit can take wings” . . . and “where my questions can be asked” . . . and “where my heart can be heard.” It is that kind of “service,” at least in part, that we are called to provide week after week each year.
I especially find it meaningful to think of the church as a “station.” What is a “station”? It is not a place where people go and stay, is it? It is not a place at which people stop to simply sit down and take it easy, is it? It is a place where we go to get something we need in order to continue on our journey. It’s a place that keeps us moving, a place that gives us what we need to continue moving toward our destination. It is a temporary place, an intermediate place, but not our final destination at all.
Certainly that’s what the church is a “station,” a “service station” to be more exact. The church is not our final destination, the end of our spiritual quest, but rather a place where we can pick up what we need as we move on in the great flow of life and head toward our destination. Sometimes we need a place where we can cry and deal with our inner hurts . . . but only because ultimately we have a need to get on with our life and we need to get rid of the garbage in our lives before we can really move on. Sometimes we need a place in which we can catch a new vision of the meaning and purpose of life . . . but only because we need precisely that kind of perspective if we are going to be able to live effectively day-by-day out in the world. Perhaps we need a place where we can find inspiration and guidance and a sense of direction . . . but only because we don’t want to meander through life and not really live our life.
3. Enable persons to focus on their future. “Tomorrow can be better than today,” the Oklahoma church proclaims to each newcomer. Spiritual vitality and vision are communicated through Christ-centered worship and forward-looking leadership. When a person is incorporated into a community of faith, he/she is able to focus on his/her own pilgrimage with Christ surrounded by the love, acceptance, and encouragement of other Christians. The future is open-ended. Like Paul, the spiritual pilgrim can say,
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached that goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own . . . but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lied ahead. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:10-14).
Lloyd Ogilvie, senior pastor of Hollywood Presbyterian Church, in A Future and a Hope, states
There is no emeritus status for people in whom the Lord is molding a hopeful character. We are never retired to an honorary position with no responsibilities. Hope presses us on to ask and answer some crucial questions that define His next steps for our growth:
*In what ways do I need to grow in Christlikeness?
*Where is the Potter seeking to place His hand on the clay of my character?
*Who in my life needs hope? To whom am I called to communicate unqualified love and unreserved forgiveness?
*Are any of my relationships taut, frayed or broken? What is my hope for reconciliation?
*What are the Lord’s next steps for the deepening of my marriage or friendships? If I threw caution to the wind, what would the Lord have me do about it?
*If the Lord had His way with my church, what needs reformation and renewal? What is the boldest hope the Lord has given me for the church in America? My own local church?
*Which one of the major social problems of my community am I called to confront and become involved in solving with the Lord’s guidance and courage?6
Questions such as these can be asked and answered when a person has the support of a concerned group of fellow Christian strugglers who themselves are seeking to lean into the future.
Receiving new persons depends upon the ability of a congregation to recognize the distinctiveness of each person and to help guide each person on his or her unique spiritual journey. Indeed, the primary task of a local church can be defined in terms of “faith development.” To gain spiritual stamina for living amidst life’s crises is a challenging task. Whenever a church helps a person gain the necessary spiritual fortitude for meeting each day creatively and responsively, the congregation is fulfilling its role in society. Such a congregation is, in fact, receiving new persons into its membership and its fellowship circles.
The above article, “Can a Congregation Receive New Members?” is written by W. James Cowell. The article was excerpted from the first chapter of Cowell’s book Incorporating New Members.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.