Fellowship and Community For New Converts
By John Fealmore Jr.
Research has identified that a disproportionately large number of new members drop out of the church within the fifth and sixth month after joining. According to Orr, these newcomers did not find satisfaction in one or more of the following questions: Can I develop friends in this church? Where do I fit in? Am I needed? (6). Churches are often initially friendly but don’t seem to follow through with the friendliness that was initially projected. It’s almost as if newcomers have to sign up for future friends and wait for an opening. This is largely the result of that fact that existing members who have been in the church for a couple of years or longer have all the friends and relationships that there is time and energy to handle. What can be done? (Anderson 136-137).
Assimilating new people into the church takes place naturally when you assist them in developing a circle of friends, joining a group or class, and finding a meaningful way to serve others (McIntosh Exodus 146; Martin Incorporation; Orr 6; Schaller Assimilation 76-77). Hunter illustrates the urgent need for vital Christian fellowship, my interviews with people who once believed (but now believe no longer), reveal that people who drop out of the church are vulnerable, in time, to the breakdown and loss of faith because Christianity is a communal faith (Unchurched 48).
Small group involvement should be one of the first concerns of the church for its new members. It is also important to remember that new members often find it easier to become active in new groups rather than trying to break into existing groups (Arn 154; Schaller Networks; Towns 231). The most effective way to help new people make friendships in the church is to connect newcomers with newcomers in new groups. Newcomers usually have the desire, ability, time, and energy to develop new relationships (Anderson 136-137). Slaughter states, We have found that people can find their way quickly out the back door of the church, if they don’t become established in a small group after the process of membership. People stay in a church because they find fulfillment through significant relationships and responsibilities. Relationships are not formed in a crowd! (Slaughter 74).
Hunter indicates that some congregations, which he calls new apostolic churches are rediscovering that a fulfilling experience in the Church requires involvement in both corporate worship and the small group (Unchurched 48). Howard Snyder affirms the value of small groups for today’s high-tech society. Without them he believes that church members will miss true, rich, deep Christian soul-fellowship, or koinonia. He suggests that most churches of today need to rediscover what the early church knew: Small group meetings are essential to Christian experience and growth (150; Hunter Unchurched 48; Comiskey Harvest 97).
Finding a meaningful place of service answers the third and final question asked by new people within the church, Am I needed? (McIntosh Exodus 146; Martin Incorporation; Orr 6; Schaller Assimilation 76-77). It is critical for newcomers to become involved in the church’s ministry as quickly as possible. Otherwise, until newcomers assume some ministry responsibility, they won’t feel emotionally part of the church. They will think of the church in terms of them rather than us (Ratz 45). How soon should the church involve new people in service? One church determined to offer church responsibilities to newcomers by their third or fourth visit (Bird 123).
User friendly churches champion involving people in real ministry. They avoid becoming ingrown, focusing on the needs and concerns of current members. Instead, they value mobilizing people for ministry that is outreach rather than inreach focused (Barna 46). These user friendly churches have a much higher level of volunteer involvement. The key to this large pool of laborers is communicating the New Testament principle of servanthood and the responsibilities that followers of Christ have. Ministry in these churches is understood as a give and take proposition (Barna 162). The pastor had best not do anything that the body itself could do. The pastor’s primary task is to equip the body, not try to do everything for the laity (Oden 156). The biblical emphasis is not on an omnicompetent clergyman but on a multigifted body of Christ (Ogden 75).
To be a servant of Christ means getting in the trenches of ministry and doing what needs to be done to further God’s kingdom using the gifts God has given us. To be part of the church means to accept the responsibility to be a minister on behalf of the church. It also means that the church has the responsibility to help its members discover their gifts and help them find the right place of service (Barna 162-163). Every member needs to find a ministry. At Saddleback Community Church members are assisted in selecting a personal ministry by first discovering their unique SHAPE: S = Spiritual gifts; H = Heart; A = Abilities; P = Personality; E = Experiences (Warren 370).
Having the right people in the right place determines 60 to 80 percent of the success of any organization (Maxwell 153). Also, people should spend 80 percent of their time doing the things that require their greatest strengths and abilities (Maxwell 90). To assist new people in finding the best fit, a church can provide a Christian Service Counselor who can help match their strengths with ministry opportunities (Church Dynamics 17).
Once a ministry is selected, the volunteer is matched one-to-one with someone who is experienced in that ministry (Church Dynamics 17). The best way to equip people for ministry is on-the-job training (Church Dynamics 17; Slaughter 89; Warren 387). Ideally, every new lay minister will have the opportunity to serve as an apprentice to a layman who is skilled in the area of service they are seeking to learn (Garlow Partners 105). The process of training lay people for ministry involves five distinct stages. First, association is simply being with the one you are training. Effective lay ministry training begins with the bonding of a close relationship between the equipper and the one being equipped (Garlow Partners 92). Second, impartation is the actual training the how-tos of a particular ministry.
The third stage is demonstration, where the lay person has the opportunity to watch the ministry being done successfully. Fourth, delegation is where the ministry is handed to the volunteer with a full sense of responsibility. The final stage is supervision. At this level accountability is established so that encouragement and assistance can be given as needed (Garlow Partners 92). Maxwell offers a similar five-step process for training people: Step 1, I model; step 2, I mentor (perform the task explaining the how and why of each step); step 3, I monitor; step 4, I motivate; step 5, I multiply (99-101). Finding a way to fit into the structure of the local church is essential for new people who are joining the church. Those who find secure and significant places of service within the ministries of the church will not easily slip away (Stutzman 130).
As we move into the twenty-first century the largest and fastest growing churches in the world are cell-based churches. Their strategy organizes the church around the cell group and worship celebration services (Comiskey Harvest 19-20). How is a cell-based church defined? Missionary and researcher Joel Comiskey states that a cell-based church is a church that has placed evangelistic small groups at the core of its ministry. Cell group ministry is not just another program, it is the very heart of the cell church (Explosion 17). Because cell-based churches work with a distinctly different paradigm, the literature for this type of church will be reviewed separately.
Cell Groups Defined
Cells are evangelistic small groups that meet weekly to build up and edify Christians and reach non-Christians. The ultimate goal of each cell is to multiply itself as the group grows through evangelism and then conversions. This is how new members are added to the church and to the kingdom of God (Comiskey Explosion 17). A cell group is, a group of people (five to 15) who meet regularly for the purpose of spiritual edification and evangelistic outreach (with the goal of multiplication) and who are committed to participate in the functions of the local church. Those who attend the cells are also expected to attend the worship celebration services. The three major components of all cell groups are: seeking God through worship, prayer, and a study lesson; developing relationships with one another; and reaching out to non-Christians through friendship evangelism, special cell activity, and cell multiplication. In one cell-based church, only the small groups that include spiritual growth and evangelistic outreach are allowed to be called cell groups (Comiskey Harvest 109-110).
Attraction and Evangelism
In cell-based churches the primary concern is cell-group evangelism that results in cell multiplication. The vision of each cell is to be outward focused, not inward focused. Fellowship within the cell is always present, but it is not the primary goal. Static, non-growing cell groups are simply unacceptable? Reaching out to unbelievers and penetrating the neighborhood with the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the rallying cry of each cell group (Comiskey Harvest 48).
In the cell-based church, evangelism and discipleship are shared with the entire church through the cell groups. Cesar Castellanos, Pastor of the International Charismatic Mission (ICM) in Bogota, Columbia, argues that only the cell structure will harvest thousands upon thousands of souls and convert church spectators into active members (Comiskey Groups 43). Perhaps the best example of this in North America is Bethany World Prayer Center (BWPC) in Baker, Louisiana. Since establishing cells as the base of the church in 1993, the church has experienced record growth year after year. From 1994 to 1998, BWPC registered over 5,000 conversions through cell groups alone (Comiskey Harvest 41).
BWPC has learned the hard way, through experience, that evangelism is best accomplished through relationships in small groups rather than through big events (Comiskey Harvest 68). Cell-based churches easily take advantage of the oikos principle?reaching each individuals network of friends, co-workers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives (Arn 41-44; Neighbour 61). The word [oikos] is found repeatedly in the New Testament, and is usually translated ‘household. However, it doesn’t just refer to family members. Every one of us has a ‘primary group of friends who relate directly to us through family, work, recreation, hobbies, and neighbors.
Newcomers feel very much ‘outside’ when they visit your group for the first time, unless they have established an oikos connection with one of them. If they are not ‘kinned’ by the members, they will not stay very long or try very hard to be included before they return to their old friends (Neighbour 61). David Yonggi Cho is pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, Seoul, Korea, the largest church in the world. He says that meeting practical needs, is the reason his church has been so successful in attracting new people. The cell leaders and members are taught to find a need and meet it (59).
We have 50,000 cell group and each group will love two people to Christ within the next year. They select someone who’s not a Christian, whom they can pray for, love and serve. They bring meals, help sweep out the person’s store whatever it takes to show they really care for them. When a person asks, ‘Why are you treating me so well? Our people answer, ‘Jesus told us that we’re supposed to do good to all men, and we want you to know that we love you, and so does Jesus. After three or four months of such love, the hardest soul softens up and surrenders to Christ (George 94).
Cincinnati Vineyard Community Church provides an excellent example of mobilizing small groups for outreach to non-Christians. Every four to six weeks each of the small groups of the church engages in what they call servant evangelism (Hunter Unchurched 116-117). Pastor Steve Sjogren believes that the gospel needs to be proclaimed in both words and actions. The church has been known to give out free soft drinks at Bengal football games, clean car windshields, feed parking meters, rake leaves, mow lawns, shovel snow, and even clean toilets in local businesses. Instead of accepting donations they offer the simple explanation: We just want to show God’s love in a practical way (Hunter Unchurched 144).
From: www.discipleshipjournal.com web site. March 2006