New Converts in Various Sized Churches


Finding a home in a congregation, discovering what part of the Body of Christ one is called to be, is a process that begins before newcomers first visit the congregation. It can begin when they drive past the church building and like what they see. It can begin when they read about the congregation, listen to discussions about it, and are interested in what they hear. Many people, though not as many as formerly, are first attracted to a congregation by its denominational label. Most people begin to form their impressions and expectations of a church before they participate in any activities. Usually these impressions are positive, or they wouldn’t bother to visit! It is the congregation’s responsibility to build on these hopeful attitudes.

A recent Gallup Poll tells us that 75 percent of us consider ourselves shy, inarticulate, uncomfortable around strangers, and hesitant to place ourselves in new situations.

For 75 percent of us, attending a congregation’s worship service for the first few times can be difficult, even terrifying experiences. Every congregation will want to take this situation seriously. The very least we can do is to welcome our newcomers warmly and make follow-up calls to get to know them better. It is the congregation’s responsibility to show the newcomers that the congregation can help them strengthen their relationship with God and that they can find friends in the congregation who will support them and challenge them to grow.

It is not the purpose of this booklet to explore specific ways of attracting newcomers and of helping them make the decision to join the church formally. Such information is available. However, to talk about nurturing people, helping them mature as Christians once they have become members of the congregation, all the while ignoring what has happened in their lives as they were arriving at the decision to join, is much like ignoring all the growth and development that takes place in the life of the baby the nine months or so before the baby’s birth.

Some babies benefit from a loving, careful prenatal environment; other babies are born with handicaps or deficiencies because of a careless or destructive prenatal environment. So, too, some new church members have grown stronger in faith and fellowship as they were deciding to become formal members of the congregation. They may be quite easy to incorporate into the life and ministry of the congregation since the process has already begun successfully. This, of course, is the ideal situation and the one all of us strive for in our congregations; but it does not happen without a great deal of planning and effort. In fact, many of our new members have been wounded by their reception from the membership, or they haven’t yet found the spiritual nourishment they seek. When they decide to join the congregation despite negative experiences they may be “at risk” as they approach that ever-present crossroad of deeper participation versus increased inactivity.

One of the biggest mistakes we make is to assume that once newcomers have become members, everything is fine with them and that they don’t need our careful attention any more. Every congregation needs people who sense the call to be close to new members as they move into a fuller relationship with the congregation. All of us who are concerned about closing those back doors in our congregations, through which hurt or neglected members flow, should work closely with those in our congregation who reach out to attract new members and with those who are committed to helping new members get well planted in the congregation’s life and ministry. People drop out of active participation in church life for a wide variety of reasons, but most people drop out because they never got firmly settled in a congregation. Either their spiritual needs were not met, or they didn’t find the deep friendship they wanted, or they weren’t equipped to identify and use their gifts in God’s service.

Some church sociologists estimate that between one-third and one half of all members of Protestant churches in the United States are not comfortable with their church affiliation. Many do not feel that these have been welcomed into the fellowship except on a very superficial level. They feel marginal in the life of the congregation and they stand on the edge of inactivity.

To be sure, church members can be neglected during any stage of membership and can elect to leave the church at any time. This book concentrates on the new member and on that particularly vulnerable first year of membership, but many of the strategies suggested for helping new members find their place within the congregation can be – should be part of a congregation’s overall membership care plan.

New church members share a number of common experiences and hopes; however, the ways in which these hopes can be met depend, to some degree, on the size of the congregation, since the dynamics involved in attracting and incorporating new members vary somewhat in congregations of different sizes. Categories are seldom discreet, however; therefore readers will do well to read the descriptions for all categories; then choose the suggestions that fit their congregations.


Congregations of this size are sometimes called single-cell churches, which describe how the congregation functions. In single-cell churches everyone knows everyone else and everyone takes an active interest in the lives of the other members. Someone has joked that in a single-cell church all the members would know not only that the Hatchers’ son Mark is away at the state college, they would also know about his grades and the name of the girl he dates.

Carl Dudley, a keen observer of congregations this size, calls them “intimate communities.” They are communities of people who depend on each other, a network in which everyone has a place. The community feels incomplete and uneasy whenever someone is absent without explanation because the network’s pattern is then disturbed. These congregations are seldom interested in “issues” or societal “problems,” but they are intensely concerned about their own hurting people. And when their people are hurting, they organize to get something done.

Carl Dudley says that anyone can be “one of ours” is the connection between the person and the congregation can be made clear: e.g., a picture of a suffering South African plus a notation that the sufferer is a United Methodist also.

An intimate community is always larger than the number in attendance because it extends to those about whom the members care. When any of these hurt, the whole body hurts. In fact, much time is spent finding out how everyone is, having a “body check” so that individual members can know how they themselves are doing.

A small membership church that wants to grow would do well to look at these extended relationships (Who comes to weddings, funerals? Who brings food and comfort when members are sick?). These people are already part of the family and probably are kindred spirits as well. Some of them may attend church functions already. Some who may never be willing to join the institution would be happy to support the congregation with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service, if only asked. Indeed, congregations serious about helping their people grow as disciples will not be forgetful of their extended family.

A single-cell church or “intimate community” functions like a large family and is almost always controlled by a strong parental figure or two, commonly referred to as the church matriarch or patriarches – the head of the family. The matriarch or patriarch may or may not hold an official office in the church structure, but no decision is made without the approval of this figure. Actually most church decisions are made in informal settings and only ratified in scheduled meetings.

Again Carl Dudley reminds us that the leaders of these congregations are not leaders because of their training, skill, or office. They are the leaders because the other members trust them and are convinced that the leaders know and care about them. It is felt that like literal parents, the leaders know what’s good for members, and they know what’s going on with members even without being told, because they hurt when others in the congregation are hurting.

For many people, even the unchurched, a church building symbolizes God’s presence and is, in some sense, a sacred place.

This is especially true and evident in smaller membership churches. So much of the lives of members is related to the building and to the congregation’s history that the building, grounds, and many objects in the church take on holy significance. Births, marriages, funerals, baptisms, countless acts of confession and commitment are relived as members interact. People sit where they do in order to be near people, some of whom are no longer alive. The atmosphere is rich with memories. Places and history are extraordinarily important in the life of the congregation.

The pastor of a congregation this size is hardly ever the head of the congregation. Usually the pastor serves more than the one congregation, is a student or other short-termer, and cannot be with the congregation enough to earn the role “head of the household.” The pastor can play a very influential role in the congregation’s life, however, by serving as chaplain or spiritual guide for the members. The pastor should also function as a gentle commentator on congregational life with comments such as, “I see . . . and . . . happening in our congregation. Is this what we want to continue to happen?” The gentle approach will be expedient as the pastor realizes there is an increased amount of bickering in this size congregation. Remember, brothers and sisters who are quite pleasant in public may spend all their time at home fighting with each other. Home is the place where they know they are free to fight, that they will not be thrown out for expressing their feelings. The same may be true in small membership congregations, since only close, intimate communities can risk conflict.

If the pastor is able to win the respect of the matriarch or patriarch, he/she can work with these leaders to discern God’s will for the congregation and can encourage and support the leaders as they guide the congregation.

New members usually join the small church because: (1) they have married a member or have close ties with some member; or (2) they have a strong denominational loyalty; or (3) the congregation is an important community institution, and the new member is highly committed to the community; or (4) the congregation is engaged in some distinctive ministry or service in which the newcomer wants to be involved. However, no matter what attracts new members, they cannot make a place for themselves: They must be adopted by the “family” in spirit, as well as in name, if they are to feel that they really do “belong.” Only the laity of the church have the power to decide that the new member is now truly one of us and to make a place for the newcomer in the life and work of the congregation.

Incorporation in this church requires a great deal of intentional effort, and usually it doesn’t happen quickly. Some people have been members of churches this size for years and years and still wonder if they are really part of the family. Anyone who has married and who has struggled to feel a part of his or her spouse’s family can understand this new member’s situation and feelings.

Newcomers Needs

In congregations this size, newcomers’ needs, in addition to their spiritual concerns, include:

* Knowledge, heritage, and traditions of the congregation. A congregation this size often is more concerned than most with its past. The newcomers are likely to feel lost in many discussions until they begin to know some of the “family” history, legends, and important figures. Over the years, these stories can be picked up, just as the children in our biological families learn our family stories by hearing them repeatedly, by looking through picture albums, by spending time with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members. However, adult new members of small membership churches seldom have the patience to wait the years and years it takes to learn informally the church’s history. They need some immediate and specific help in this area. Furthermore, new members want to connect their own histories with the story of the congregation, to make the congregation’s history their own and to have the congregation’s history rewoven to include them.

Native American peoples have a “sacred bundle” which contains objects, symbols of significance. Whenever a person is initiated into the tribe, the bundle is untied, and the sacred objects are examined and explained. Then the newcomer adds an object and the bundle is retied. Histories are interwoven. Congregations can be sure newcomers know the congregation and are known themselves. Congregations can give newcomers opportunities to tell the congregation’s stories and to find a place for themselves in the stories.

* A mentor. New members also need someone from whom they can learn more about other church members: Who is related to whom? Why does Mr. Murray seem to care so much about the altar flowers? Why do “Aunt” May and Mrs. Cory try to ignore each other? and so on. The relationships in churches this size are deep, often complicated, and usually confusing to newcomers. If they have someone with whom they can “safely” share their questions, and observations, they will understand the congregation more quickly. Often the pastor can serve as this person for the new member and also can help them work through their feelings about their new “brothers, sisters, uncles, and cousins.”

* Contact with the leadership. Since the natural leaders of the congregation, the matriarch and/or patriarch, can cast the determining “vote” in whether or not to “adopt” new members into the family, it is very helpful if the newcomers are able to have gradual, intentional contact with these influential members. Often these contacts have to be engineered by someone who is trusted by the matriarch/patriarch and also is committed to helping new members find a place of belonging. These relationships will take time to develop. Trust must develop. Since the matriarch or patriarch embodies the congregation, newcomers won’t be part of the congregation until they are known by the matriarch or patriarch. When heads of the congregation feel free to tell the newcomer their stories, and when they know that the newcomers have heard and share their pains and joys, then they will be ready to adopt them into the family.

* Outside fellowship. Since these congregations are sometimes comprised of just a few family groupings, and since deep relationships that involve all aspects of the members’ lives are always important, new members need to have contact with other members in settings beyond the church. When the church is the focal point of the members’ social lives, these contacts may develop naturally. But if the church is in an urban area, if members do not live in one area, or if the new member was initially attracted by some ministry of the congregation, an intentional effort may be needed to orchestrate opportunities for the new member to spend time with other members other than at worship or Sunday school.

* Use gifts and talents. In healthy families, all members feel that they are important and that they can contribute to the family’s welfare. This is true in church families, too. In addition, in church life, people are concerned about discovering their God given talents and about using these gifts to serve God, their neighbors, the church. When a new member has a gift the church has been needing, and when the new member will not replace a long-time member who is not yet ready to step aside, there is no problem. Unfortunately, situations usually are not so simple. Especially in congregations with fewer members, jobs tend to belong to specific people. No one can imagine anyone else doing them. All of this can be very frustrating to new members who feel frozen out of opportunities to serve and who, then, soon feel unneeded and unwanted by the congregation. The pastor or a sensitive, trusted layperson has to be attuned to: (a) the newcomer’s gifts and callings, (b) to opportunities within the church and in the community where these gifts can be used, and also (c) to the feelings of longer term members.

Pastors Role

The pastor of the congregation does not have the power to admit the newcomer into the family, but the pastor can:

* Be a friend, by specifically offering himself or herself as a spiritual guide and confidential friend. The pastor can say clearly and appropriately, “When you run into difficulty or uneasiness as you move into our church family, please let’s talk about it. I’ll be confidential and I’LL support you as we work through the situation.”

* Identify mentors, by noting which members are likely to help new members move into the fellowship circle of the church and by enlisting those people to be “special friends” of new members.

* Observe the leadership, by watching to see what usually happens that tells new members, “You are one of us.” Is it when the new member is asked to be an usher? To help the women in the kitchen? Teach the adult Sunday school class? Help mow the lawn? Serve as a trustee? Most congregations have ways of showing people they really belong. Since this sort of behavior is largely subconscious, it takes someone like the pastor, who is also an outsider to a degree, to be able to see the dynamics. A trusted pastor can help some of the members see some of their unarticulated customs and can encourage them to include newcomers in some of the formerly closed activities.

* Identify the “storytellers” of the congregation – those people who know the history of the congregation and who are interested in telling the congregation’s “stories.” As the pastor visits the members, it will be easy to identify these people. The pastor who will engineer meetings between a storyteller and the new member will do both a great favor.

* Educate the family and/or close friends of the new member so they are aware of the ways congregations of this size receive and relate to new people. These people may have been part of the congregation their entire lives. It may never occur to them that the newcomer doesn’t automatically feel accepted or comfortable. The pastor, or alert lay person, can ask these relatives or friends explicitly to help the new member get acquainted and learn about the life and ministry of the congregation.

As said before, it is the laity who have the power to include or exclude, to tolerate or to adopt. In a church this size, organizational structures are less important, while relationships are everything. It would be counterproductive to formally organize an incorporation committee, but it is important that an intentional effort be made to ease the new member’s way into the congregation. The pastor may be able to see what needs to be done, but, by and large, the work will have to be done by the lay people who are trusted by the other members of the congregation.

Churches with 50 or less at worship

General Characteristics
* Single-cell, intimate community, a complex network of relationships.

* People-oriented, not issue-oriented.

* Includes an extended family to which could minister more directly.

* Church is a sacred place, filled with sacred objects and history.

* Leaders take care of the family.

* Pastors can be spiritual guides or loving commentators on church life.

* Network of relationships is jarred by newcomers.

Incorporate by
* Adoption, being given a place the family, in the network.

Possible Strategies
* Identify storytellers, link to newcomers.

* Annual events at which history relived.

* Mentors for newcomers.

* Identify rituals that say, “You belong.”

* Explain sacred objects.

* Identify gifts and callings of newcomers; use them.


This size range includes widely varying congregations. Congregations that fall on either end of the spectrum may want to look at the descriptions given for churches in the next closest category. Read about the smaller membership church because much of that description also applies to this size range. Several additional observations also can be made.

Most congregations in this category have two or three cells. Each cell functions somewhat like the single-cell church, and the congregation still experiences strong family-like ties. But the church is now more like a large extended family. There are usually several matriarchs and patriarches, and congregational life needs an organizer and some structure. The pastor moves to the center of the leadership circle, but since relationships are still the key ingredient in congregational life, leadership remains pastoral and relational. Because everyone expects a lot of attention from the pastor, and because all the members want to stay in touch with each other, there are a lot of existing relationships to manage. There isn’t much energy left over for newcomers. This size congregation frequently congratulates itself on being a “friendly church.”

Visitors often comment that the members may be friendly to each other, but they certainly aren’t friendly to the stranger. The fact is that most members don’t even see visitors because they are so busy trying to see and to keep up with each other. The church’s history continues to be important, and the building(s) and furnishings are sacred objects for many members. Newcomers may not need to know all the stories but they, like newcomers in single-cell churches, do need to be sensitive to these issues.

It sometimes happens that members of churches on the upper side of this size-range have subconsciously decided they don’t want their church to get any bigger. There are already more people than they can know well, and it is important to them to know all the other members. With this attitude, growth and successful incorporation of new members is very difficult.

On the other hand, the two- or three-cell church that does want to grow has several strong advantages: Personal, family-like ties are valued and encouraged; members can expect a lot of attention from the pastor; and there is more programming and small group life than in the one-cell church. These congregations do not revolve around their programs, but they usually do have more than one or two entry points into their fellowship circle.

Newcomers Needs

Newcomers are attracted by the strong relational nature of the congregation. Most people hope to deepen their relationship with God when they become part of God’s church.

People who are attracted to churches of this size tend to fee] that they are most likely to find God’s presence and love in their relationships with others. They, too, will expect a lot of attention from the pastor; indeed, the pastor is most likely to be the person who brings them into the Life and ministry of the church. Some new members may marry into the congregation, some may first visit the congregation because it is a neighborhood institution, or because of denominational loyalty. Most will stay only if they are able to experience some of the relational closeness valued by congregations of this size.

In addition to their spiritual needs, newcomers need:

* Careful nurturing by the pastor coupled with purposeful attention by several people. New members do not need to know everyone as they would in the single-cell church, but they do need to know quickly, and be known by eight to ten people. Loving attention by a few lay people tells the new members that the congregation’s claim to be a caring fellowship is not an empty one, and that there may indeed be places for them within the fellowship.

* History. New members will also want to know some of the history of the congregation. While this will not be quite so crucial as in the single-cell church, it is quite important for the new member to know why the congregation does what it does and what the congregation views as its current mission. New members also want to understand what the congregation expects from them.

* Ports of entry. Newcomers will need help in discovering the groups and/or service opportunities that best fit them and their gifts. Groups in congregations in this size range may function much like the single-cell congregation, but since there are multiple cells, newcomers have more opportunities to find one that suits them. And unless the congregation has decided not to grow any more, it may be receptive to beginning a new group in an effort to meet the needs of the new members.

Churches with 50-175 at worship

General Characteristics
* Several cells, several interrelated networks, several points of entry.

* Relationships still paramount.

* Pastor, a focal point, expected to know all members.

* Good communication important.

* May not want to grow bigger.

* Some programming, maybe.

* Willing to begin new groups.

Incorporated by
* Recognize, welcome newcomers.

* Developing relationships with pastor and several lay people.

* Sharing history.

* Placing in a group or network.

* Identifying and using gifts.

Possible Strategies
* Develop system for greeting, welcoming, following up on newcomers.

* Spiritual formation visits, groups.

* Connect members with gift of hospitality to newcomers.

* New member classes.

* Orientation classes.

* Orientation programs.

* Plant newcomer in a group.

* Identify and use gifts of newcomer.

* Careful record keeping.

* Fellowship events.

Pastors Task

The task of the pastor in the process of incorporating new members into the life of the congregation must be considered carefully. Congregations this size tend to see evangelism and visitation with newcomers as the pastor’s job. After all, the lay people have their hands full keeping up with all the friends they already have in the congregation. The pastor may be agreeable to this situation and even may find that it is the newcomers who are most receptive to the pastor’s dreams for the congregation.

The pastor does know the congregation well and is able to guide the newcomers as they try to find their places. This responsibility takes a great deal of time. Most pastors can recruit and manage the incorporation process for only six to ten people a year. Furthermore, when the pastor, who has been giving a fairly recent new member a lot of attention, must switch some energy and attention to potential members or to other new members, the former recipient of the attention may feel rejected and lonely. Unless the pastor has recruited and trained several people to accept some of the responsibility for developing relationships with new members, the number of people who can be incorporated per year into the life of the church will be small, and there may be a number of members whose loyalty is to the pastor rather than to the congregation.

Those who discover that they have a gift of hospitality and are willing to help newcomers move into the fellowship circle should not become an administrative group. The responsibility for and power of admitting new members into the fellowship still lie with the whole congregation. Those who agree to assist the pastor should be chosen for their relational skills and commitment to helping newcomers develop supportive relationships within the congregation.

In short, the role to be played by the pastor in congregations in this size range include: (1) being intentional about recognizing newcomers, about welcoming them, and about helping them become part of depth relationships; (2) being aware of which groups are likely to be open and welcoming to newcomers and to help establish new groups if they are needed; (3) provide an orientation for new members to both the history of the congregation and the current goals of the congregation.


Many congregational types have been lumped together under this category. A church averaging two hundred at worship obviously is quite different from the church with eight hundred at worship, which is different in many ways from the congregation that has several thousand at worship. However, once a congregation reaches a certain level of structural complexity, there are some common trends in the ways new members move into the life and ministry of the church.

The life of large membership congregations tends to revolve around worship and programs. Worship may be inspirational, even awesome, with outstanding choirs, liturgies, and preaching. Programs frequently are extremely well conceived and executed, which strengthens the belonging of the participants in such programs. Newcomers are attracted by the quality of the programs and worship service. A lot of people enjoy being part of something that feels significant even if for no other reason than that so many other people seem to find it meaningful.

Personal relationships and friendships are much harder to develop in large churches and may have some characteristics that differ from friendships formed in churches with fewer members.

Relationships usually form as people participate in small groups. Some of these groups will be long-term ongoing groupings such as Sunday school classes or women’s circles or choirs. Other groups will be more short-term and spontaneous and may even spring up almost overnight to address a current issue, meet some need, or field a church athletic team. There are likely to be some study courses which have definite time lines, and there are always layers of organizational groups which manage the business of the congregation. In all of these settings people may develop significant relationships. In large membership churches there can be quite a large number of functioning groups. Unfortunately, the new member may not know about the groups or may not know how to go about becoming part of one of the groups.

Even when new members do participate in some of the groups, they often find it hard to develop friendships that become significant and relevant outside the walls of the church. Members of large membership churches tend to treat the congregation like a spiritual supermarket from which they can obtain a little of this, a little of that, as the need arises. Furthermore, since it is obvious that there are so many people available to do the administrative work of the congregation and to be involved in its outreach ministry, it is quite easy for people to assume they aren’t needed. And again, since congregational life is so complex, it can be perplexing to understand its inner workings. The result too frequently is that church activities may be handled in very functional ways: “Let’s do what we came to do and get out of here.” This attitude, so prevalent in our over-scheduled world, makes developing and nurturing significant friendships very difficult, and people who do not develop significant friendships within their church associations are at risk of becoming inactive members.

It is easy to be lost in a large membership church. It is easy to hide in a large membership church, to feel no obligation to participate in any activity other than worship. In fact, some people join large membership churches because they hope to be anonymous and to be lost in the crowds. Often these folks have worked themselves to burnout in other congregations, and they want a rest. Others are shy and hesitant to push themselves into visibility. All churches do well to learn as much as possible about their newcomers and to honor their needs.

This does not mean that churches should ignore those who want to rest or who are slow to participate in activities other than worship. Regular, intentional contacts can be made so that the congregation can know when the person is ready to move more deeply into congregational Life. Those who are lost and those who are hiding are likely to find that back door leading to inactivity if they are left totally unattended. Many vital large membership churches keep very careful records of the participation level of all their members so that they can respond when attendance and participation patterns begin to change.

Many churches this size find that it is not hard to attract new members, but it can be very hard to incorporate them into the life and ministry of the congregation.

Newcomer Needs

Newcomers to large membership churches need very intentional and specific assistance in moving into active participation and are helped particularly by:

* A packet of information on the congregation, including the congregation’s mission statement with a description of current and planned ministries; a diagram of the church building; a listing of ongoing groups (for all ages) and their meeting sites; a description of current and planned programs; pictures of the staff and membership of the congregation.

* An ongoing organized program of incorporating new members which welcome, gather visitor information, follow up with visitation, provide opportunities for orientation to the congregation and denomination, help newcomers find small groups, identify their gifts and match their gifts with opportunities for ministry.

* A new member sponsor program which ensures that new members are befriended by a lay person who is committed to helping the newcomer find a comfortable, yet challenging, place in the congregation and who will be careful to introduce the newcomer to other people in the congregation with whom friendships might develop.

* An ongoing system of monitoring the participation pattern of new members which lets the new members know that they are missed when absent and that the congregation is concerned when they encounter difficulties. In large membership churches it is very easy not to notice that a person is participating less and less until that person is “gone for good.” A system of monitoring attendance and of responding to changing patterns of attendance is one way to say “we care.”

* A clear statement of how the congregation expects to help the newcomer grow in ability and willingness to receive God’s love and to respond to God’s love in service to others. Such a statement would also state as clearly as possible the church’s expectations of the new member.

The laity of the large membership church are the ones who must manage the process of incorporating new members. In most churches a special task force will be required and a specific step-by-step program will be developed and administered. The clergy of the church, of course, will want to be involved-perhaps in teaching new member classes, hosting new member luncheons or dinners, writing letters of welcome, etc. New members seldom expect personal friendship with the senior minister, but they will want to think that such a relationship is possible and especially that the senior pastor and staff will be with them in times of trouble or stress. People do not join churches if they do not like or admire the staff, but in the large membership church it is the laity who will provide the significant welcome and nurture.

Churches, more than 175 at worship

General Characteristics
* Worship and programs at the center of congregational life.

* High quality of worship programs.

* Complex organizational and administrative structures.

* Good communication essential.

* Dynamic group life.

* Easy for newcomers to get lost or to be forgotten.

Incorporated by
* Having an intentional process that creates a path through the maze of congregational life and ministry.

* Placing in a group.

* Identifying and using gifts.

Possible Strategies
* Task force to manage processes.

* Develop and use a packet of information about the congregation.

* Spiritual formation visits, groups.

* New member classes.

* Orientation opportunities.

* New member sponsor program.

* Small group participation.

* Identify and use gifts.

* Neighborhood/shepherding program.

* Church-wide events.