Helping New Converts Connect

Helping New Converts Connect
By Rebecca Barnes

The most awkward part of the first day of school, the first day on a new job, or the first visit to a new church, is watching the other people who already know each other. I have often been the new person standing alone and silent, gawking at groups who are talking and laughing together.

Churches develop and implement greeter programs, classes and small groups to help welcome new people. They want to encourage outsiders to come in. Sometimes these programs are very effective. Sometimes they are just as awkward.

“In the pit of the stomachs of most church leaders I know, there is this gnawing sense that Christian community has to be more natural, spontaneous, and life-giving,” writes Randy Frazee. A former teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Ill., Frazee is now working with Max Lucado as senior minister of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. Frazee’s book “The Connecting Church, Beyond Small Groups to Authentic Community” may have been the catalyst for changing the way many congregations look at groups. Church leaders today are looking beyond what Frazee calls the “overprogrammed and contrived” models of community.

Going Organic

Joseph Myers, who wrote “Organic Community, Creating a Place Where People Naturally Connect”; and “The Search to Belong,” gives some definition to the overly programmed models as they contrast to a more organic order.

For example, neither he nor Frazee is suggesting churches dismantle small groups programs. However, churches that use small groups as a one-size-fits-all approach to discipleship, should re-consider. A church that mandates small group participation, for instance, may create only an artificial community which simply takes away precious time for believers to experience authentic community.

“Forcing connections among people is awkward and uncomfortable.” Myers writes. Instead, Myers advocates churches to look at the ways their congregation naturally connects and to encourage those gatherings, groups and locations. But, he cautions churches against trying to mass produce a natural connection that has proved effective in smaller circumstances.

“We cross a line when we attempt to prescribe small groups as the answer for everyone and for every season of a person’s life,” Myers writes.

That resonates with me. I’ve been in those awkward small groups.

Myers says instead of congregations trying to assimilate people into church life, churches should be assimilating Christian life into the lives of people. Spiritual assimilation.

If the church is successful it will become part of people’s lives when they are not physically attending a worship service. They will take Christian principles with them to work, to play, to their families; thus integrating the church into their lives.

“It is not the primary purpose of a church to have small groups,” Myers writes. “Rather, I believe it is a primary responsibility of a church to help people live whole, healthy lives. And as a part of the whole, the church could help people make healthy connections with those they encounter everyday”.

Other Hurdles To Connecting

Even with ineffective church programming out of the way, the issues of people’s everyday lives often become a hurdle in developing connections. Frazee points out the dilemma of the rushed and fragmented American lifestyle as it inhibits community. Frazee outlines the obstacles specifically as: individualism, isolation and consumerism.

What can churches do to change the culture? Broadly Frazee calls churches back to the description of the first church in Acts, where believers held everything in common.

Here is Frazee’s quotable definition of church community: “The development of meaningful relationships where every member carries a significant sense of belonging is central to what it means to be the church.”

Accomplishing this in the frenzied post-modern world is a unique challenge.

Church consultant Lyle Schaller has said: “The biggest challenge for the church at the opening of the 21st Century is to develop a solution to the discontinuity and fragmentation of the American lifestyle.”

Frazee exhorts churches to offer people a way to simplify their lives rather than putting more on their plates by way of church programming, etc.

Consider Programs Carefully

The bottom line, and the one with which most growing churches struggle, is that much of the spiritual growth, discipleship, fellowship, ministry, prayer, and evangelism in a church simply cannot happen during the weekend gathering of a large group of people. Smaller group gatherings have to be part of a healthy church. This is why so many churches implement a program for groups.

Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, who wrote “Simple Church,” ask church leaders to consider their programming carefully and to ask whether their churches are making disciples or just making everyone busy. Streamlining church discipleship is their answer, based on extensive research of more than 400 evangelical churches.

“Many of our churches have become cluttered,” Rainer and Geiger write. “So cluttered that people have a difficult time encountering the simple and powerful message of Christ. So cluttered that many people are busy doing church instead of being the church.”

That is much messier and more difficult to track than a program with numerical data and spreadsheets. But asking church members to grow in Christ is ultimately a more meaningful request than asking them to join a group, class or program.

According to Church Central’s Church Health Encyclopedia, “a church that does a good job in disciplining its members does not assume that discipleship is accomplished through a few books and programs.”

Just as Christian discipleship is not a program, but a way of life; the church should not be a building where people attend functions, but a group of believers living in community.

This article ‘Helping New Converts Connect’ by Rebecca Barnes is excerpted from Church Central Newsletter, Aug. 2008.