NEW CONVERT CARE STRATEGIES
There are two key periods during which assimilation can and should take place. The first is the time before the individual actually unites with a congregation, and the second is the first six months thereafter. There is research to suggest that the first of these is generally more effective. Schaller writes: “The ones least likely to become inactive members are . . .the individuals who become part of a group, where membership in that face-to-face small group is meaningful, before formally uniting with that congregation. Common sense confirms for us the importance of getting a head start.
The time period before formal membership in a congregation can be divided into two segments: the time before the person decides to join, and the time after the person makes that choice. The most important part of assimilation during the first time segment before formal membership is the ministry of the congregation to its visitors. Assimilation begins with the first visit to your worship services. Although most visitors never join the church they visit, assimilation actually begins at that time for those who do.
Win Arn suggests that churches strive for a 3:10 visitor ratio. For every ten people who visit your church, three should be actively involved within a year. Some churches have learned that about four of every ten local visitors come back a second time. A strategy that focuses on these second-time visitors can result in
about three-fourths of them joining within a year, hence the 3:10 ratio. Plateaued or declining churches see approximately 5-12% of their first-time visitors eventually join, a figure which normally only offsets the average loss of members through transfer, death, and backdoor losses. Congregations would do well to assess the welcome they give their visitors. A tool for that purpose has appeared in The Win Arn Growth Report, No. 1, pp. 3-4.
Before Formally Uniting
Below you will find a smorgasbord of ideas, programs, and opportunities for assimilating new members before they formally unite with your church. Read and select from this list those activities you wish to implement in your church. Try to do a few well rather than many poorly.
1. A written philosophy of ministry (a broad description of the ministry of your congregation) and statement of purpose (a concise paragraph explaining your reason for existence). A sample statement of
purpose comes from Prince of Peace, Carrollton, Tex.: “In his Great Commission, Jesus’ gracious mandate is to make disciples. We believe a disciple is an informed, enlightened, thoroughly dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. According to the Bible, a disciple a) has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, b) is regular in church and Holy Communion attendance, c) is involved in some form of regular group Bible study with the church, d) is involved in giving time, talents, and treasures to serve the Lord through the local church and support its growth, and e) demonstrates the presence of Christ by his lifestyle. Two resources, both listed in the bibliography, that will help your church develop both a statement of purpose and a philosophy of ministry are the “Pastor’s Planning Workbook, Part Two” and Kent Hunter’s book, Your Church has Personality (pp. 215 and 217).
2. Starters’ Packet (cf. “Creating a New Member Welcome Packet” in Chapter 6 of this book). In addition to the suggestions there, congregations may want to offer suggestions for personal family devotions and Bible reading. The church constitution, a membership directory, a worship schedule, information on educational opportunities, denominational distinctives, welcome letters from the pastor(s) or the congregational president or others, a list of officers, fellowship and service groups, budget, offering envelopes, a copy of the philosophy of ministry, a floor plan of the buildings, when to call the pastor, a time and talents survey, a devotional booklet, name tags or buttons, a summary of Biblical beliefs, church customs, a list of common abbreviations used at your church and their meanings, a pictorial directory, guidelines for ushers and greeters, procedures for arranging a baptism or wedding, and a host of other distinctive local offerings may be included in this packet. See the list of various tracts that are available from your denomination or from your favorite tract society.
3. Adult Class. The pastor’s Adult Instruction Class begins the assimilation process in two ways: by thoroughly teaching the basic truths of the Bible and by involving current members in the classes. Current members may wish to refresh their understanding of basic Christian doctrine at the same time that they meet potential members. Kent Hunter suggests that half of the participants in every Adult Class should be members of the church and that 20 of the time of the class be set aside for fellowship around coffee and doughnuts. If there are no current members retaking the Adult Class, then arrangements should be made for at least two people to attend one session each. This will enable friendships to be established between current members and new members. The pastor can invite the president of the congregation and the chairpersons of various boards and organizations to attend a specific session and give a brief discussion of his/her board and its function in the church.
4. Orientation meeting(s). These will be tailored to fit the needs and programs of the local church. The Starters’ Packet can be given out. Meetings may deal with stewardship, customs and practices of the church (e.g. , how you are ushered up to Communion, procedure for arranging a wedding, baptism,
confirmation, or funeral, etc.), conflict resolution (how to deal with those inevitable snubs without dropping out), organizations and officers of the church, the importance of Bible study, service, etc. Brief addresses from various church leaders may also be incorporated here. The people most able to tell you what to include are those who have become members in the past two years. However, do not simply cover factual material. W. Charles Arn writes that “the most important goals for your new member program should be 1) building strong relationships with other members, and 2) involvement in a meaningful role or ministry in the church. Some churches may want to hold these meetings prior to reception into membership, while others may hold them after formal membership begins.
Churches may want to produce a video cassette or slide presentation on the history and ministry of the congregation.
Always provide opportunity for evaluation by new members. This will guarantee that the meetings are truly serving their intended purpose. Ask people to rate each session on a 1-6 scale. Then ask five questions: (a) What did you find especially helpful? (b) What was included in the orientation meetings that you felt was unnecessary? (c) What could be added to the orientation meetings to improve them? (d) Among the things presented, what could be improved? (e) How?
However you accomplish this orientation, it needs to be done! In his booklet “When You Join the Church” Ben Johnson suggests a New Member Brunch. Some churches also gather the new member group together on the anniversary of their membership.
5. Sunday school and adult Bible class. In most churches the adult Bible class is the place where attenders of the early and late services meet. It not only provides opportunity for members to get better acquainted, but it provides potential members the opportunity to meet current members. Fellowship time before and after (and perhaps during) such classes is important, for both youth and adults. However, most of all, it provides opportunity for spiritual growth, as people study God’s Word together.
6. Any small group, e.g. Men’s Club, ladies’ organizations, home Bible studies. Remember, this opportunity occurs before formal membership. Why should small-group involvement always be restricted to members? Churches that permit only members to participate in sports teams, for instance, are missing both outreach opportunities and assimilation opportunities. Some churches are deeply concerned about the junior confirmands, i.e., those eighth-graders who complete confirmation classes and frequently drop out. They require as a part of the confirmation experience that each junior high schooler become a part of some small group. During this time each youth becomes acquainted with some active Christians, comes to understand how the congregation operates, and becomes involved in meaningful service to the church and community, such as shut-in visitation, evangelism calls, etc.
7. Night with the pastor(s). A Texas congregation invites new members to join all other interested members in attending one of these meetings. They are held monthly except for July and December. After about 15 minutes of fellowship and refreshments, a formal time begins with singing, introductions,
welcome, and explanation of information packets (their Starters’ Packet). The small-group ministry of the congregation, evening adult courses, evangelism, and discipleship are presented with the use of audiovisuals. Members may choose from the morning Bible classes such topics as “Family Financial Freedom,” “Disciplines of a Beautiful Woman,” “Help! My Child’s a Teenager,” and others. The primary purposes of this activity are to get people acquainted with the pastor and to involve new members in Bible study and service.
8. Potlucks, picnics, etc. These are excellent assimilation opportunities, since there is plenty of time for
casual conversation. However, it would be helpful to schedule some intentional icebreaker activities, so that the same groups don’t continue to associate only with one another.
9. Breakfast after Bible class. Members who enjoy going out to brunch after Bible class would do well to invite a visitor to join them.
10. Hospitality time after worship. Light refreshments may be served after one or more worship services. This is especially helpful in churches with small entry areas or narthexes, when the weather is too cold to permit extended conversations outside.
11. Christian schools. Many people become Christians as a result of contacts with the church that began when their child was enrolled in a parochial school. Interaction with other parents and with teachers begins the assimilation process, even before conversion takes place.
12. Sponsorship program (see Sponsor Folder). This is more appropriate after formal membership has begun, although it can begin beforehand (see below).
13. Support groups of various kinds. There can be AA, Weight Watchers, a youth coffee house, groups for those who have experienced bereavement or divorce, a stress seminar, etc.
14. Interest groups of various kinds. Groups can serve the interests of those who enjoy knitting, quilting, travelogs, card playing, etc.
15. Worship registration. Some churches call it Our Moment of Fellowship, or Our Friendship Ritual. Time is taken in the worship service to have members and guests sign a pad of paper in each pew. As the pad is passed down the pew and back, people learn the names of those with whom they are sitting. This
also provides the church with names and addresses of visitors.
16. Visits from various members. Especially helpful are visits from the Sunday school teacher of the child(ren), the president of the ladies’ organization, youth group officers or counselors, etc.
17. Job descriptions. Churches should develop a job description for each role in the church and should review these at some point during an Adult Class.
18. Interviews by new members. Instead of interviewing new members, Win Arn invites churches to assign 3 to 5 names of members to each new member and have them find those people and complete a
personal profile on each person for the next Adult Class.
19. Church mailing list. Once a person has announced his intention to join the church, he should receive most or all of the mailings, even if the formal reception into membership is some months off.
20. Application for church membership (a sample is included in Chapter 6 of this book). Some churches have new members write out a statement of personal faith. Biographical information may or may not
be included here.
21. Pastor and elder/deacon interview/visit. The elder/deacon to be assigned to the new family and the pastor may visit the family in order to discuss personal beliefs and the importance of church membership. A talk-piece may serve as the basis of the discussion. A sample has been included in Chapter 6.
After Formally Uniting
1. Reception of new members in the worship service; reception for new members after the service. An important principle in assimilation of new members is to make the date of reception into membership as meaningful as possible. Those joining by transfer, profession of faith, and baptism/confirmation all need to be part of a public reception in a worship service. At an appropriate time in the service they are asked to step forward as a group. The pastor speaks words of welcome, asks questions regarding their intent, and then formally welcomes them as members. On the same date, sponsors can be assigned, a certificate given out, a news item can appear in the bulletin on each family, a name tag and a flower can be supplied each new member, and other things may be done to help make this a special event.
Following the worship service there may be a reception for new members in a fellowship area, so that current members can meet new members. Light refreshments may be served. A gift could also be given to the new members at this time, such as a one-year subscription to the denominational periodical, a devotional magazine, or, for the new convert, a Bible. A congregation in Michigan has a special Commitment Service as the last session of the confirmation classes. Congregations may choose to do this in place of or in addition to the reception of new members.
2. Three-month visit (see “Hospitality Calls” in Chapter 6 of this book for sample format). This visit determines the degree of assimilation that has occurred, enabling the church to head off a problem before it gets too serious. It encourages the new members to be involved in the congregation, and it enables the church to discover possible barriers to assimilation. Furthermore, it builds friendships between the visitor and the new members.
3. Other visits: pastor, elders, deacons, others. Prior to the beginning of formal membership, a member of the youth group may call on young people in the new family, or a member of the men’s club may visit the man of the house. Sponsors (see below) may want to ask organizations to contact the new member(s) about joining their particular group. Evangelism and Stewardship Committee members and Sunday school teachers may visit.
4. Letters from the church staff (other than mailing list). This is a series of letters providing information from the pastor, principal, or another staff person on family devotions, prayer, special events, holiday schedule of services, etc. A letter on the anniversary of the member’s reception into the church could be sent on the first-year anniversary.
5. Personal greetings via the mail. Our church sends a welcome note to new members during the week following their public reception into membership. This is a ministry in which shut-ins could participate. Birthdays, anniversaries (including anniversary of reception into membership), holidays, weddings, confirmations, as well as hospitalization or bereavement will also be occasions for a card or letter.
6. Elder shepherding program. In many congregations new members are assigned to an elder or other layperson for visitation, encouragement, and other forms of personal contact.
C. Peter Wagner writes about the assimilation ministry at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Ala., under the leadership of Pastor Frank Barker. Twelve elders of the church are responsible for a geographical area, and each elder has several “area presbyters” under him, each of whom shepherds a group of families in that area. The area presbyter is to contact every member of his group at least once a month. He is to hold regular meetings to promote fellowship. He is also responsible for the assimilation of the new members in his area. He meets the new members at the fourth class of a six-week membership class, goes over the starters’ packet for new members, discovers the interests and spiritual gifts of the new member, and explains the opportunities for service at Briarwood. He is also responsible for the new member becoming a part of a home Bible study and the Sunday Bible class.
7. Election to Office. Win Arn suggests that one of every five board members be members of the church less than two years. Maintaining this 1:5 ratio will encourage openness in the power structure and assure that the church remembers its real mission. If your congregation’s constitution prevents new members from being elected to office until they have been members for a minimum period of time, change the constitution! A congregational president, however, generally should have been a member for several years or more.
8. New small groups (see 13 and 14 in previous list). We have already written about the importance of starting new small groups, particularly small groups that meet needs within the congregation, e.g., a single parents group, a group for widows and widowers, etc. W. Charles Arn writes: “If your strategy for integrating new members into groups and classes means integrating them into existing groups and classes, it will most likely fail.” He goes on to encourage us to start new groups for new members.
9. Name tags at various functions. Some congregations purchase permanent name tags for all their members. This helps new members to get acquainted. It also enables large congregations to identify the visitors in their midst on a Sunday, if all members wear their tags. Win Arn suggests printing the name tags in different colors to represent the longevity of the member: “red: less than one year; blue: 1-4 years; white: 5-10 years; green: 10-25 years; silver: 25-40 years; gold: 40, years.” Then he adds, “Have a special ceremony to present ‘graduates’ in each category with their new colored pins. Plastic name tags with the name printed or written on a piece of paper and inserted into the tag are also popular. Members take their name tags home with them, but extras are kept at the church for those who forget.
10. Spiritual gifts analysis. One of the characteristics of St. Paul, Trenton, Mich. , is the full-time staff person in charge of helping members discover, develop, and use their spiritual gifts. The gifts of new members can be matched with areas of ministry in the church. New areas of ministry can also be created for new members to use their gifts, thereby increasing the number of small groups. It is better to find a job for every person than to find a person for every job.
11. Transfers out. When a member moves to another city, we can aid the assimilation process at the new congregation by encouraging the new member to transfer. A letter to the nearest congregation or two, including some pertinent information about your member, will help even further. Congregations that keep files on members will send some of the information from their files, including such things as worship and Communion attendance, involvement in Bible study, service on boards, etc.
12. Certificates of Membership. This is given during the reception of new members. The certificate may contain statements of faith and the member’s vows, a picture of the church, etc.
13. Bible Study. The best assurance against dropping out is the sustained study and reading of God’s Word.
14. The Lord’s Supper. Participation in the Lord’s Supper is likewise crucial to one’s spiritual health. In receiving Christ’s body and blood, participants are strengthened in their faith.
15. Pictures of new member families, with names and addresses, may be posted in the church narthex.
16. Two-month follow-up phone call. “How are things going for you at the church? Is there anything we can be doing to make the church more helpful to you? Do you like to play softball? Have you visited the __________________ group yet?”
17. Sponsorship (see “Sponsor Folder” in Bibliography). A good time to assign sponsors is during the reception of new members. Some congregations have the sponsoring family come forward and stand behind their new member family.
18. Spiritual health chart. This form records church and Communion attendance, involvement in Bible studies, committees, and other church activities. It enables the congregation to monitor assimilation.
19. Phone calls. Phone calls or personal contact from Sunday school superintendent, church secretary, choir director, secretary of the Church Council, from the young adults group, sports teams, etc.
20. Prayer chain. Give the names of your new members to your prayer chain and ask them to pray for the new members for one month or for any period of time you choose. In addition to the blessings God gives as a direct result of their prayers, this activity makes new members’ names familiar to the members of the prayer chain. What an encouragement it would be for a new member to hear, “I’ve been including you in my personal prayers.”
21. Personal Invitations. Bulletin announcements just don’t cut it! A face-to-face invitation from your small groups will accomplish much more. However, don’t just invite; offer to bring.
22. Table 8. This program brings together four couples or eight singles or a combination thereof for a potluck meal once a month for four (or eight) consecutive months, rotating from one home to another.
23. Retreats. Bringing current members and new members together in a retreat setting for a day or a weekend results in almost instant assimilation.
24. Annual new-member potluck. An alternate suggestion comes from Win Arn, particularly for larger churches that receive many members annually. He writes, “Have a `One-year old’ birthday celebration each quarter during worship to honor members who have been in the church for one year.” J. Ellsworth Kalas, pastor of one of the parable churches in Chapter 5, follows the custom of an anniversary visit one year after the member joins.
25. Interviews. A member of the Assimilation Committee calls each new member family and asks questions about interests, occupations, family, etc. These may appear on paper in various church publications, such as a bulletin or newsletter.
26. Various welcomes. The Sunday school teacher and adult Bible class leader should introduce the new members to the class. A brief fellowship period would allow members to get acquainted with newcomers informally.
27. Pictorial Directory. This will enable new members to remember names and faces.
Besides seeing the many opportunities for assimilating new members, we ought to look at things that can be done to stimulate “assimilation consciousness” in the congregation. A congregation may hold an assimilation or incorporation seminar in their church or area. They may choose to show the film See You Sunday (cf. Bibliography).
Something more needs to be said about a sponsorship program, “the best single assurance of good assimilation for those received into the Christian fellowship, for “the rewards of the efforts are beyond all measure.”
A sponsorship program involves the assignment of a member family to each new member family for anywhere from three months to a year. During that time the longtime-member family will pray for the new members, get personally acquainted with them, and seek to involve them in congregational activities.
First, someone needs to recruit sponsor families, sufficient in number to allow the coordinator of the sponsorship program to do some matching of family size, ages, interests, occupation, and perhaps even geography.
Second, potential sponsors can be invited to a meeting for information and training. An hour and a half with all potential sponsors will provide time to acquaint families with the importance and the responsibilities of sponsorship, an overview of the program, the responsibilities of sponsorship, the length of service, the amount of time involved (perhaps 1-3 hours per month), and give information about the annual sponsorship dinner. These meetings can be repeated annually to provide a constant supply of sponsors.
Since you will need approximately two to three times as many volunteers as the number of families received into membership in an average year, not all sponsors will be used the first time. This may prove discouraging to some, unless they are forewarned at the training meeting. They should also be invited to the annual sponsorship dinner. At this dinner those who have sponsored can give testimonials about their experiences, and new members can share the blessings of being sponsored. Another solution to this inactivity on the part of some sponsors would be to assign co-sponsors, i.e. two sponsoring families, to a new-member family, particularly if any sponsors would otherwise not have the privilege of sponsorship for two years or more.
The success of the program depends entirely upon the initiative of the sponsoring families. Therefore it is wise for the Assimilation Committee to schedule several activities, such as a potluck, game night, square dance, an evening of bowling, or a trip to the ballpark, the county fair, or some other place, so that sponsors can plug in directly with their new-member families. The committee arranges the potluck and calls the sponsors to invite them. The sponsors call and bring the new members.
There is plenty of time for fellowship, and the committee can plan some type of program to acquaint the new members with some aspect of the church or to build relationships. It is also possible to ask sponsors to fill out one of the report forms at such an activity. One congregation plans one such activity every three months-three potlucks and a church picnic.
It is also wise to conduct a “sponsorship check-up” twice during the early months of sponsoring, perhaps at the six-week and three month marks. A phone call from the sponsorship director will find out how things are going and provide encouragement to additional activity.
Third, the personal acquaintance between sponsors and new members may be initiated by a visit in the home of the new family and by an invitation to the new family to come to the sponsoring family’s home for a meal. Sponsors should be specifically asked to do one of these activities during the first month and the other during the second month. Procrastination can be the death of the program.
As a further solution to the problem of procrastination, the Assimilation Committee may want to limit the length of sponsorship to four months. When sponsorship lasts for a year, it’s too easy to think, “I’ve got plenty of time. There’s no hurry.” When it lasts four months, sponsors know that they need to begin right away.
The personal acquaintance may also be initiated on the Sunday the new people are received into membership or sometime during the Adult Class. At congregational activities the sponsor seeks out the new member, in order to make the new member feel comfortable.
Perhaps one of the best ways to assure the perpetuation of a sponsorship program is by asking sponsors to attempt to recruit the new family at the end of the sponsoring year as sponsors for some future new member family. Those who are relatively new members understand well the difficulties others may have in getting acquainted in new surroundings.
One would hope that the seeming artificiality of a sponsorship program would be overcome by the genuine friendships that are established in the spirit of Christian love. No doubt many of the friendships established in such a program will continue after the formal period of sponsorship is over.
Dawson C. Bryan tells the interesting story about a family of three-two parents and a teenage daughter-who joined a particular church. They were assigned by the pastor to a loyal church family of three-two parents and a teenage son. Little did the pastor realize how seriously the son would take his sponsorship until he was asked several years later to officiate at the wedding ceremony of those two young people. While this instance is unusual, it illustrates the fact that lasting friendships are often the result of a sponsorship program.
Additional Activities for Sponsors
1. Participate in Table 8 with the new members.
2. Discover their needs and talents. Meet the former and use the latter. You may be able to find an area of service for your new member and actually provide the training.
3. Where appropriate, offer tactful guidance on Christian habits, e.g., family devotions and church attendance.
4. Contact neighbors of your new family, where neighbors are also members of your church. Ask them to drop in, possibly with a gift of food.
5. If it seems appropriate, share your faith.
Orientation-Training Meeting for Sponsors
October 7-8, 1985
Introduction of Assimilation Committee Chairman
Overview of Sponsorship Program (Chairman)
1. Explanation of director’s role;
2. Relationship of sponsors and new members, announced or not;
3. Time involvement per month ( 1-3 hours), length of commitment (4 months);
4. Number of sponsoring families needed and why;
5. Matchups with new members, some not assigned;
6. You may request reassignment, may assign two sponsor families;
7. Reporting form, report every three months, how to do so;
8. Annual testimonial dinner (potluck);
9. Introduction of director of sponsorship program.
The Specifics of Sponsoring (Director)
1. Knowledge of the congregation (flow chart, list of organizations, officers, staff, etc.);
2. Walk through “Sponsor Folder”;
3. Not policing or “snooper-vising,” but genuine concern;
4. We hope that friendships will continue after the year;
5. Recruitment of sponsorees as new sponsors;
6. If you find that this is not for you, you may choose not to sponsor again;
7. Walk through Sponsorship Commitment Form.
Completion of Commitment Form
Sponsorship Commitment Form
All information on this form will be considered confidential and will be used only for the purpose of the Sponsorship Program. Please be thorough. Thank you.
Family Name:_____________________ Address:___________________________
City: ___________________________ Phone: ____________________________
First Names and Ages:________________________ ________________________
____________________ ________________________ ________________________
Occupation(s) of all employed family members:
Family Interests and Hobbies (indicate for whom):
Church Activities and Small-Group Involvement (indicate for whom):
Are there special living circumstances (e.g. summer home) that would take you out of the area for months at a time?
Which worship service do you normally attend? (circle one)
7:00 p.m.., Saturday 8:00 a.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m., Sunday
Today’s Date :
I (and my family) will make every effort to carry out my (our) responsibilities as sponsor(s) and to report at the appropriate times to the sponsorship director.
Office Use Only
Sample Bulletin Insert for Recruiting Sponsors Almost Anyone Can
Almost anyone can be a friend to a new member. Almost every new member needs someone to help make him/her feel at home in our church, to befriend him/her, to answer questions and provide information.
What does it take? Christian love. Very little time. No money. Almost no training. The ability to enjoy other people. In short, it takes the willingness to be a friend to another person. The Assimilation Committee is initiating a Sponsorship Program this fall. This program will assign a current member family or individual to a new member family or individual, matching them by age, occupation, family size, interests, hobbies, and the like, for the purpose of making new members feel at home in our church.
In order to explain how easy it is to be a sponsor to a new member, the committee is holding two identical Orientation Meetings on October 7 and 8 (you attend only one) from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. to acquaint you further with the purpose, organization, and operation of the Sponsorship Program.
By signing your name below and passing this page to an usher with your worship registration card, you are agreeing only to come and learn more about the Sponsorship Program. You are not signing up for the program, only for the Orientation Meeting.
The Assimilation Committee
Training for Group Representatives
According to many clergymen, psychiatrists, and social scientists, the number-one problem of our age is loneliness. In one study 27 percent of the unmarried women and 10 percent of the married women expressed intense loneliness, while 23 percent of the unmarried men and 6 percent of the married men expressed the same. Nearly half of the widows over the age of 50 living in one large metropolitan area said that loneliness was their worst problem. Researchers say that loneliest of all are elderly men who live alone and are infirm.
According to Craig Ellison, technology, television, urbanization (especially the mobility of our population), and the acceptance of the values of independence, individualism, freedom, and competitiveness have all contributed to the problem of loneliness. It is in part because the churches are not providing meaningful friendships that people turn to the cults, the eastern religions, drugs, alcohol, and the like. It is sad that one of the needs that churches should be best capable of meeting is not being met, in many cases, within the body of Christ.
Within the Christian congregation a person certainly ought to find a sense of belonging and people who understand him/her, but unfortunately this is frequently not what he finds. Christians have forgotten that new members can feel intensely lonely even when they’re with others in a worshiping congregation or in some fellowship group or organizational meeting.
Therefore, when people visit your organization, your Bible study, your basketball night, or even when they are elected to your board, they need to be wanted, to be included, to be welcomed, to be understood. They need people who will be friends to them.
How well I recall the first time I played basketball in our new church home on a Monday night. It was like pulling teeth to learn a few names. When I asked (no one volunteered a name or a handshake), I got first names only (as though they didn’t want to fill me in completely). “Do they know I’m a pastor? Is that why they are trying to be careful about what they say? Perhaps they really don’t want me breaking in on their group.” How I would have appreciated it if one person had introduced himself to me, spent a few minutes getting acquainted with me, and then introduced me to the others that he knew!
They could have acted otherwise, if someone had trained a representative or two of their group to receive newcomers. What follows is some suggested information that can be shared in a one-hour meeting to train group representatives to welcome new people. Many groups have new members attend their meetings, never to return again. By sensitizing old and new groups to the needs of the new member, we will help the groups function better, grow in membership, and meet the needs of the new people.
Each group in the congregation, both large and small (both congregation and cell, in church growth terms), sends to the meeting at least one person for every 10-15 people in average attendance. This will permit a sufficient number of people to be trained for the number of newcomers that may appear. Such a training session should occur annually, allowing more people to be sensitized to the needs of their newcomers and providing replacements for those who move, are not reelected to a board or committee, or channel their spiritual gifts elsewhere. A sample agenda is included.
When people come to a particular group, they are looking for several things (depending upon the purpose of the group). In my case I was looking for friendships and exercise. In most cases people are looking for information and for the establishment or continuation of involvement with others. We must provide both, not just the former. Those who come to a training meeting such as this must accept the responsibility to make that new person feel welcome. To do so, they must aim at the third of three levels of communication.
The first level is entertainment. This is the level at which communication takes place at a baseball game. Spectators are watching and listening, but they expend relatively little effort paying attention. They can carry on conversations with those around them, and they can make a trip to the concession stand without losing touch with the game.
The second level is information. When I watch the news and weather reports at six o’clock, I am taking in information at this level. It requires some effort, particularly when I realize that the weather forecast for tomorrow has just been given and I wasn’t paying attention!
The third level is understanding. People seek to hear and understand the newcomer’s words. They understand the difficulty some new people have in breaking into a group. They ask questions, probe for information, and reflect back what they have heard to check for understanding. This level requires much effort.
In their book Contact: The First Four Minutes Leonard and Natalie Zunin contend that every human relationship begins with a 3- 5 minute conversation (the average, then, is their book title), during which both people decide either to part ways or to continue the conversation and the relationship.
If they are correct, the first four minutes of a newcomer’s visit to your group are the most important factor for determining whether he/she will come back to your group, join it, and become actively involved. Someone needs to be aware of this and capitalize on it. Someone in your group needs to make that new person feel at home for four minutes and beyond.
Some suggestions are in order for topics that can be discussed during that short span of time, since many people will say, “I’m just not good at chit-chat.” The following subject areas are relevant to this purpose:
1. Name, family, occupation. This category is self-explanatory.
2. Hobbies, interests.
3. Personality and feelings. How do you like the weather in this part of the country? How welcome have you felt at our church since joining? Do you enjoy coming to groups like this one? What do you hope to gain from this evening?
4. Compliments. Where possible to do so genuinely, the one-person welcoming committee offers a compliment about the newcomer’s appearance, desire to come to the group, or the like.
5. Surroundings. Here the welcomer mentions something about the room where the meeting is being held (the temperature, the background music, the furniture, the snacks or coffee), or about the community (shopping centers, proximity to a major metropolitan area, well-known restaurants, the local high school’s football program, etc.).
6. The world around us. Those who read newspapers and news magazines or watch the six o’clock news can ask the newcomer’s opinion about a recent national or international event. They can discuss space exploration, the stock market, sports, cars, houses, the economy, medicine, the upcoming elections, religion, etc.
7. Mutual interests or acquaintances. If the two people discover that they have a common friend, they can talk about that friend. If they happen to discover, as they talk about category 2, that they both enjoy table tennis or snipe hunting or skydiving, they have a natural topic to pursue.
8. Humor. A funny story about your child, a friend, or yourself, if your remarks are in good taste, can smooth the way for further contact beyond those four minutes.
9. Courtesy. Invite the person to sit next to you when the meeting starts. Offer to get her a cup of coffee. Introduce her to other members of your organization. “Let me show you where to hang your coat.” “The rest rooms are over there, in case you need to know later.”
10. Recent book or movie. If you are one who makes it a habit to take in several of the most popular movies in a given year or to read a best-selling novel that everyone is talking about, it may be appropriate to bring up the subject. Most people, if they have not read or seen what you have, will at least have heard about it and ask your recommendation on the matter.
In addition to using the preceding subject areas in your conversation, some general suggestions are in order.
1. Remember the person’s name. Use it several times in the conversation. Ask the person to spell it, if you didn’t quite catch the name or aren’t sure how to spell it. Being able to visualize a name in your mind will aid you in remembering it.
2. Be sincere, warm, and accepting.
4. Listen actively. Give the person your total attention.
5. Don’t make assumptions about what the other person is thinking or why he is there. If appropriate, ask.
6. Avoid asking questions that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” Don’t ask, “Do you like the Miami area?” Ask, “What do you like most about the Miami area?”
7. Be willing to talk about yourself. Most people are interested in hearing about you.
8. However, be more willing to talk about the other person. Most people’s favorite subject is themselves and their family.
9. Remember that body language (gestures, posture, etc. ) speaks, especially the eyes. If you keep looking at your watch, the other person will probably think you are anxious to end the conversation.
10. Continue the conversation in your next contact.
After working through the 10 subject areas and 10 general suggestions in your training meeting, it may be helpful to roleplay. Put people in groups of six to eight. Have two people designated as the conversationalists, one the welcomer and one the newcomer. These two should be people who don’t know one another well. Give them four minutes to converse, while the other four or six people observe. After the conversation, observers make comments about the welcomer, noting the positive things first. Constructive criticism may also be offered after all positive comments have been made, provided that too much criticism is avoided. After this has been done, two other people can roleplay while the rest observe. Rotate so that others have a chance to roleplay, as time permits.
In a training situation, leaders should roleplay at the start, modeling both how not to make the new person feel at home and how to make the newcomers feel truly welcome. Evaluation should be made by observing the topics that were discussed and those that could easily have been, but were not. Body language, the level of attentive listening, and the appearance of the welcomer may be assessed. Finally, observers may want to give the person an overall number grade on a scale of 1 to 10.
Training for Group Representatives
The Problem: Loneliness
The Purpose: To meet the needs of people for companionship
A. Three Levels of Communication
B. The First Four Minutes: Conversation Areas
1. Name, family, occupation
2. Hobbies, interests
3. Personality and feelings
6. The world around us
7. Mutual interests or acquaintances
10. Verbalizing the nonverbal
11. Recent book or movie
C. General Suggestions
1. Remember the person’s name
2. Be sincere, warm, accepting
4. Listen actively
5. Don’t make assumptions about the other person
6. Avoid asking questions that can be answered with a yes or no
7. Be willing to talk about yourself
8. Be more willing to talk about the other person
9. Be conscious of your body language
10. Continue the conversation in your next contact
Assimilation Through Service to Christ
Christian leaders have long recognized the importance of the exercise of spiritual gifts in service to Christ (1 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 2:10). Most have also understood that the new member who gets involved in some aspect of the church’s ministry will become well integrated into the life of the church.
In most of the assimilation opportunities listed above, the new member is being ministered to. However, one of the major signs of an assimilated member is that person’s participation in Christian service. One of the secrets of D. L. Moody’s success with new converts is said to have been to put the new convert to work. Likewise, there is an old adage that says, “If we don’t use them, we may lose them.” Many a major league baseball player has told team management, “Play me or trade me.” New members need to be utilized, and in most cases they want to be involved. Christian service is a natural response of the Christian to the Gospel.
It is in service to Christ that a Christian has the fulfilling experience of making his or her life count for eternity, of laying up treasures in heaven, of meeting what Maslow calls self-actualization needs.
Those who join must be helped to see that church membership means active participation. A layman in Chicago told what a shock it gave him, at the meeting when he joined the church, to have the pastor say to him, “Our church has all the members it needs and, unless you intend to take an active part, we do not want you. What part do you expect to have in the service of this church?” The man believes that his whole career as an active church member was started at that time. The pastor’s method may have been blunt, but the idea was a good one.
Indeed, new members bring a fresh perspective that the church needs, and the church ought not stifle that freshness. The Assimilation Committee may be the best place for some of these new members to serve, since they know from personal experience the difficulty that new members sometimes have in being accepted into a congregation. Many longtime members are not even aware that there is a problem.
When Admiral Perry planted the American flag at the North Pole, he used his dog sled, three Eskimos, and one other man. That man was Matthew Henson, a black American. Years later a magazine carried a story about Henson and the belated medal he had received from Congress. The medal carried the inscription of Perry’s reason for selecting Henson. Inscribed on the medal were the words, “I can’t get along without him.”
God is in the business of bringing people into a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ, and in His wisdom He has chosen to work through people. He does not work alone. He has left the responsibility in our hands, and He says of each Christian, whether recent or longtime Christian and church member, “I can’t get along without him.”