Moving New Converts into Active Membership and Ministry
By Chuck Lawless
Paul attended First Church every Sunday morning. In fact, he had joined the church and was one of the most consistent worship attenders in his congregation. Other church members often commented on how faithful Paul and his family were.
Yet, despite his perceived faithfulness, Paul wasn’t involved in the church’s ministry. He was gifted and talented, but Sunday morning worship attendance was his limit. Paul was what we call in this study an “uninvolved member.”
Sitting across the aisle from Paul were the Staffords, a young couple seeking a church home. They enjoyed the worship at First, and their children were fitting in well in the Sunday school classes. In fact, they were just waiting for someone to explain to them the church’s process for membership. While they waited, they remained only attenders.
Across town, three uninvolved believers sat faithfully in their own pews. Reba was a new member who really wanted to get involved in the church. She was waiting for someone to ask for her help, but no one did. John was a long-standing member who had decided several years ago that it was time “for the younger people to carry the load in the church.” Sterling simply attended the church; actually joining wasn’t in his plans.
On any given Sunday, uninvolved churchgoers sit in almost every congregation in America. In some cases, they are like the Staffords and Reba ready and willing, just waiting for leaders to direct them and give them an opportunity.
Sometimes they are like Sterling. They are faithful to attend Sunday morning worship. They write a check each week to support the church. Ask them about their church, and they’ll gladly tell you, “We go to such and such church.” Yet, they never join.
In still other cases, they are like Paul and John. They have signed the membership rolls of the church. What they don’t do, though, is get involved. Attendance does not lead to action. Church is more about receiving than giving, more about coming than going, and more about being served than serving.
The good news, however, is that these attenders and uninvolved members are potential sitting in a pew. That’s one of the reasons our team wanted to do this study.
I assume you are a church leader who has faced some of these situations. You must want to move people into membership and ministry, because you’ve chosen to read this book. Whether you are trying to develop an effective membership process or simply trying to motivate those who remain uninvolved, this book is for you.
THE BACKGROUND OF THIS STUDY
For the last decade, our research teams at the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth have been studying evangelistic churches in America. Two of these studies, led by Thom Rainer, indicated the significance of membership classes in growing churches.’ This study began as a much more detailed look at these classes and, as you will see, then moved in a new direction.
There were three components to this research project. Our research team, which was led by Brandon Conner at the time, first sent a survey about membership classes to 150 growing churches (see appendix 14 for a copy of the survey). The questions addressed these kinds of topics:
* Does the church have a membership class? Is it required?
* Who teaches the class?
* What curriculum is used?
* What obstacles did the church face in starting a membership class?
* Who attends the class?
Seventy-one churches responded, with fifty-two (73 percent of those responding) indicating they had a membership class (table 1). The churches were primarily Southern Baptist, but four other groups were also represented in the survey responses: Presbyterian, Evangelical Free, Wesleyan, and independent community churches. The Sunday morning worship average attendances were fairly evenly distributed.
Size of the Churches Studied
Size of the
churchNumber of churches
with a new member
class (NMC)Percentage of the
of churchesUnder 10012101 to 2501733251 to 5001325501 to 1,00011211,001 and upl019TOTAL52100
Twenty-one states were represented in the survey, including states from the South, the Midwest, the Northwest, the West, and the East Coast. In most cases, the membership class began under the leadership of the current pastor. All but three of the pastors were full-time, with an average tenure of 8.9 years at the church.
Table 2 lists the names used for the classes in these churches. Though certainly not original or creative, “new member class” was the name most frequently used.
NAME OF NEW MEMBER CLASS
Class Name Number of Churches
New Member Class 24
Discovering__Church/Class 101 16
Basic Christian Education 1
Back to the Basics I
More Than a Member 1
New Christian Study Group 1
Inquiry Class 1
Members on Mission 1
First Class 1
Welcome to the Family 1
Member Information Class 1
CLASS MEMBER SURVEYS AND INTERVIEWS
In addition to surveying church leaders, our research team surveyed seventy-one laypersons who had attended membership classes at their churches (see appendix 15 for a copy of the survey). We asked questions like, “What did you find most beneficial about the class? Least beneficial? Do you believe a membership class should be required for all members? Are you still active in your church?”
These surveys gave us insights the leadership survey didn’t give. In fact, as you will see, sometimes the leaders and class members had different opinions about the classes.
Research team leader Matthew Spradlin sought to get more information from the class members by personally contacting many of them via telephone or email. Their opinions about the classes were fascinating. As an example, consider the words of Deanna, who was a Christian for thirty-four years before she ever attended a membership class: “As a thirteen-year-old [when she became a Christian], I never attended a new member class. . . . [Now, having taken the class] I enjoyed and appreciated the class. I think the new member class should be offered and available for everyone as new members or as a refresher course for any length of time as a Christian. Taking part in this class helps a person feel more like a member or a part of the local church.”
You will see that other laypersons had similar opinions. In fact, all seventy-one class members we surveyed said that potential and current members should attend membership classes.
AN ADDITIONAL DIRECTION
In the course of our study, we heard this question over and over again: “We’ve got a membership class, but we struggle overall with getting other members involved. What do we do about the current members who aren’t doing ministry?” Other pastors who had heard about our study also told us about faithful attenders who simply never joined. So often did we hear these concerns that we knew this study needed to take an additional turn.
Our research team then more specifically investigated how growing churches move attenders into membership and ministry. In some cases, these churches were the same ones that participated in the new members study. We included other churches, though, simply because we discovered they had developed workable systems for leading their congregations to get involved.
Our researchers began to survey pastors, review programs, and interview formerly uninvolved members who decided to move from the pew into ministry. You will read about these findings through-out this book.
A. FEW SURPRISES
Every research team must admit if it’s honest that it begins the study expecting to discover certain things. In fact, bias might be the better term. Our research team was no different. Many of our assumptions were proven correct (for example, we assumed that the pastor’s role in a membership class is significant). Some findings, though, surprised us. Perhaps giving you a taste of the results will whet your appetite to read on.
OPPOSITION TO REQUIRED NEW MEMBER CLASSES SEEMS TO BE DECREASING
Thom Rainer’s 1997 study of church assimilation showed that 72.7 percent of the churches studied either required or expected new members to attend membership classes. Our study revealed almost identical numbers: 73.2 percent of the churches responding to our survey utilized membership classes.
An intriguing shift is apparent, though. The percentage of churches that require members to attend membership classes increased from 18.2 percent in the 1997 study to 31.0 percent of the churches in this study. Correspondingly, the percentage of churches that expected but did not require attendance at membership classes decreased from 54.5 percent to 39.4 percent. Take a look at the shifts (figure 1).
Throughout every component of this study, we saw this trend: more churches are now requiring attendance at a membership class. The Rainer study found that church leaders often faced significant opposition to requiring membership classes, but our study found remarkably little opposition. Indeed, only five of the twenty-two churches with required membership classes indicated any opposition to the change.
RELATIONSHIPS REALLY DO MATTER
In the first part of our study, church leaders were asked to indicate the primary purpose or purposes of their membership classes. Take a moment to think about this question, and try to guess what the results showed us (figure 2).
It is probably not surprising to you that leaders viewed the primary purposes as providing church orientation (average score on a scale of 1 to 5: 4.59), followed closely by teaching doctrine (4.25). Using the class to introduce new members to each other (3.48) and to the church staff ranked the lowest of the options (3.05). From the perspective of these church leaders, the membership class was more about information than relationships.
Class members, however, told us something slightly different in their survey. Using a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = uncertain, and 10 = strongly agree), they responded to fifteen statements designed to evaluate how class participation influenced their lives. Notice the top responses:
PURPOSES OF A NEW MEMBER CLASS
Using a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being not at all a purpose, 3 being some what a purpose, and 5 being a primary purpose, indicates the purpose(s) of your new member class.
______a. providing orientation to the church in general
______b. teaching about the church’s basic doctrine
______c. building relationships among new members
______d. introducing class members to the church staff
______e. offering opportunities for new members to get involved
in the ministry of the church
_____ f. carrying out evangelism sharing the gospel with class members
______g. other: __________________________________________
* I now know the church’s expectations for its members (score: 9.07).
* I know more about my church now (8.39).
* I am more willing to invite friends to church now (8.29).
* I would be more comfortable talking to my pastor now (8.28).
* I know more people in the church now (8.12).
Not surprisingly, these laypersons indicated that, above every-thing else, they gained knowledge of the church and its expectations. The next three highest scores, though, point to the relational benefits of membership classes. This focus becomes more apparent when we see that the five lowest responses to this question were related to spiritual disciplines or doctrinal knowledge, including “I know more about ‘God now” (6.87). Clearly, relationships were important to new members.
Our study also showed us that relationships established in membership classes can be used effectively to motivate even uninvolved members to get involved in ministry. There is more on this finding in chapter 3.
EXPECTATIONS YES, CHURCH DISCIPLINE NO
Thom Rainer’s book High Expectations showed that growing churches tend to have high standards for members. So it didn’t surprise us that in their new member classes, 96 percent of the churches emphasized membership expectations. Nor were we caught off guard by statements like these from class members:
* It [the class] helped us understand what the church wants.
* It was really good because it told us what’s expected of us as members.
What did surprise us, though, was this finding: while 96 percent of the churches emphasized expectations, only 25 percent addressed church discipline in their membership classes. That is, churches raised the bar of membership but failed to talk about what would happen if church members didn’t live up to those expectations.
We will analyze this discrepancy more in chapter 5. For now, however, understand that many of these churches were still working through the details and implications of having membership classes. On average, these classes had existed for five years, yet 80 percent of the survey respondents said they wanted to get their hands on any information we discovered in order to strengthen their classes.
Because many of these churches are continually developing their classes, they had by no means always resolved all of the issues involved. How to address church discipline in a membership class and then, how to implement it when expectations are not met–seemed to be an unresolved issue. Again, we’ll return to this topic in chapter 5.
WHAT ABOUT EVANGELISM IN A MEMBERSHIP CLASS?
Matthew Spradlin, one of the lead researchers on this project, spent many hours analyzing data, crunching numbers, interviewing staff members and laypersons, and offering his own conclusions to this research. In particular, one summary conclusion surprised me: “Usually when we think of new member classes [NMC], we think of assimilation, of incorporating new believers into the church. We don’t typically think of evangelism. But the NMC can be used as a powerful tool of evangelism. There were several churches in the study that used their NMC as a way to reach the lost with the gospel. This study has shown me that, if done evangelistically, a membership class can be an effective tool for leading per-sons to Jesus.”
Matthew’s summary is right on target. Some of the names used for these classes don’t imply evangelism (e.g., New Member Class, New Member Orientation, Members on Mission), but 43 percent of the churches said that evangelism was “a primary purpose” of their classes. Indeed, they ranked this purpose as a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5. Chapter 4 will give more details about this significant Issue.
NOT EVERY CHURCH STRUGGLES WITH ATTENDERS WHO DO NOR JOIN
In the course of our research, our team asked pastors to respond to the concern that people do not want to join churches today. While enough leaders recognized this issue that we’ve addressed it in chapter 6, Pastor Douglas New of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Carrollton, Georgia, expressed our overall findings: “I disagree with that statement. . . . People like to belong if it really means something.”
Indeed, when we asked these leaders about their plan for addressing attenders who never join, few could articulate an intentional strategy. Sometimes the response was momentary silence as leaders were forced to think about many attenders who had not joined.
Remember, we chose the churches in our original survey because they were already reaching people for Christ; attenders were, in fact, joining their churches. Seldom did they face the attender membership problem to the extent other pastors did. To prove that point, the churches with membership classes in our study averaged 106 additions during the year of our study!
Chapter 6 will look at what these churches and others did to encourage membership. They have much to teach churches that are trying hard to get attenders to join.
EVEN LONG-STANDING UNINVOLVED MEMBERS CAN BE MOTIVATED TO SERVE
I hear it all the time from my seminary students: “Dr. Lawless, I’ve decided to plant a church. That way, I can start from scratch, and I won’t have to. deal with members who aren’t interested in doing anything.” There are advantages to starting from scratch in church planting, but this study has shown that even long-standing uninvolved members can be moved into ministry.
Paul was one of those members (remember his story at the beginning of this chapter?). His pastor began to seek ways to motivate uninvolved members, and one simple change in the church’s recruitment process made a difference for Paul.
For years, a nominating committee of three members had the responsibility of enlisting workers at Paul’s church. The committee members were chosen simply because they knew many church members not because they had a passion for the ministries for which they sought workers. The problem is, dispassionate recruiters usually give up easily and settle for anyone when workers are hard to find.
The new process allowed Paul’s pastor and the committee to recommend primary ministry leaders, who were then authorized to enlist other workers for their ministries. The nominating commit-tee’s work was essentially done when the ministry leaders were selected. In this approach, the recruiters were those whose enthusiasm for particular ministries was hard to rebuff.
A zealous men’s ministry leader who, like Paul, once thought he didn’t have any more time to give to the church convinced Paul to get involved. A passionate recruiter and a new process made the difference for this once uninvolved church member.
Paul’s story is only one of several you will hear throughout this book.
THE DIRECTION OF THIS BOOK
This chapter has been introductory, designed to give a general summary of the study. Chapter 2 tackles the scheduling issue: How did these churches fit membership classes into already busy schedules? In the context of this chapter, I also propose one reason why so many church members continue to just sit in the pews,
Chapter 3 examines the importance of relationships in a membership class, including a look at how such a class can motivate other members to get involved in ministry. If you are a pastor, you’ll especially want to read this chapter.
Chapters 4 and 5 address the challenge church leaders most commonly voiced: How can we find good curriculum for membership classes? In these chapters, we describe the content of the classes we studied, while directing you to helpful resources as well. You’ll find interesting examples both there and in the recommended appendixes.
Chapter 6 specifically asks the question “How do we get people to join and to do ministry in the first place?” In some ways, the rest of the book answers this question. Churches that make member-ship matter simply expect people to join and to get to work. Nevertheless, chapter 6 provides particular insights into this issue.
Chapter 7 is a how-to chapter to help you start making membership matter in your church. Several simple guidelines will point you and your church in the right direction. We’ll also deal with two other questions raised during our study:
* What do we do about older members who have never attended a membership class?
* Should there be different classes for new believers and for transferred church members?
Several leaders of growing churches contributed significantly to chapter 8. Here you will find their churches’ specific stories of how they make membership matter. All of these leaders have insights I think you’ll find helpful, if not stretching.
A brief closing chapter offers a final challenge for churches that want to move attendees into membership and ministry. We trust you will accept the challenge.
At the end of nearly every chapter are sections called “Helpful Appendixes” and “Questions for Consideration.” The appendixes, we believe, are among the most valuable components of this book. Don’t ignore these, because you’ll find there many samples of materials used by the churches studied. A list of all the churches that participated in any part of our study is included there as well. The questions are provided to help you reflect, both personally and with your fellow leaders, on the important issues of membership and assimilation in your particular church setting.
Finally, be sure to read the endnotes at the back of the book. There you will find other resources to help you make membership matter in your church.
Not all of the churches that responded to our original survey offered membership classes. One Missouri pastor whose church did not have a class placed a Post-it note on his survey: “Thank you for this timely survey. I just came to this church and see a definite need for a new member class. I would be interested in any material you may have.”
To this pastor I say, “This book is written for pastors and church leaders like you.” Because other pastors told us they wanted help in motivating uninvolved attenders and members, we expanded the research to help them as well.
Our team has been, and still is, praying that God will use this article to help churches empower people including attenders, new members, and long-standing members to serve in their church. Thank you for allowing us to share our research with you.
Questions for consideration:
1. What percentage of attenders in your church have not joined the church?
2. What percentage of your church members are not currently serving in some ministry capacity?
This article The Challenge Moving New Coverts into Active Membership and Ministry written by Chuck Lawless is excerpted from his book Membership Matters.
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.