Strengthening the Group Life of New Converts

Strengthening the Group Life of New Converts
By Lyle E. Schaller

“We’ve tried on three different occasions to start a newer adult Sunday school class for young married couples, and each time it falters after a few months; and within a year or so, it’s dead,” commented a member from Bethel Church.

“We’re having a similar problem with the women’s auxiliary, the men’s group in the church, and other organizations that had been so vital for years.”

These are very important questions for the congregation seeking to build a caring and supportive fellowship for people. These also are very important questions for the church concerned with the assimilation of new adult members. For many decades the adult Sunday school classes, the women’s organizations, and the men’s groups were the most effective means in many congregations for reaching people who were outside any church. These groups and organizations were often a very effective means of reaching newcomers to the community. Thousands of church members were assimilated into the life of what initially was to them a congregation of strangers through one of these face-to-face, small groups.

In addition to providing a very meaningful supportive fellowship for individuals and supplying a comfortable point of entry for the assimilation of new members, these organizations usually offer a variety of very significant opportunities for the personal and spiritual growth of the members. In thousands of churches the opportunities provided by these small groups for the personal and spiritual growth of the members are very meaningful to huge numbers of individuals. With some members these experiences are more significant than corporate worship.

In some respects it could be argued that the strength of these small face-to-face groups has led to the decline of the adult Sunday school in many denominations, to the fading away of the men’s groups, and to the deterioration of the women’s organizations in hundreds and hundreds of congregations. That condition is a perceived rivalry between the small face-to-face groups and the church. Frequently, this is described by statements such as “They’re a church within the church” or “That class is really a small clique that runs this church” or “Decisions here are made at board meetings, but the question of which of those decisions will be implemented is answered at the monthly meeting of the men’s club.”

These comments carry the discussion back to the various responses to pluralism described in the preceding chapter. One of the most important factors in helping a congregation respond effectively to the challenge of pluralism is the quality of the group life. This also may be the most important single factor in that church’s ability to assimilate new members.

Unfortunately, however, many church leaders tend to focus on the negative values of closely knit, cohesive groups rather than seeing them as foundation stones for the evangelistic outreach of that congregation and in the assimilation of new members. Too often these small groups are seen as cliques, rivals, power blocs, and closed clubs. The ironic part of this is that the more meaningful membership in that small face-to-face group is to the persons in it, the more threatening it often appears to be to the individuals not in it. This frequently includes the pastor, denominational program staff and specialists, and other church leaders with a predominantly functional, rather than a relational, view of the church.

How to Kill a New Sunday School Class for Young Couples

In addition to this widespread and slightly paranoid fear of strong and meaningful small face-to-face groups, many congregations have developed a very high level of competence in killing off emerging new groups. This can be illustrated by looking at the unintentional procedures that have been developed to stifle the emergence of a new Sunday school class for young married couples. By reflecting on these sixteen points it may be possible to avoid some of the frustrations that have been produced in so many congregations where a serious effort to organize such a new class was undercut by a series of unrelated and well-intentioned, but counterproductive, actions.

1. Ask two or three of the wives who are very interested in organizing this new class to teach a Sunday school class in the children’s department.

2. Ask one or two of the husbands who are heavily involved in this class to accept other responsibilities that will divert their time and energy from the class.

3. Limit the number of social get-togethers to a maximum of four per year in order to prevent the development of strong relational ties among members of the class.

4. Discourage any class project since projects tend to help strengthen the feeling of cohesiveness among members of any organization.

5. Encourage some new younger couples to join older classes in order to bring young blood into these classes.

6. Every four to six months ask the class to move to a different room since attachment to a familiar place can strengthen the members’ ties to that group.

7. If the creation of this class reflects a high priority in outreach and an emphasis by this congregation to strengthen its outreach to adults born after World War II, hide the meeting place for this class in some obscure and hard-to-find room in the building. Encourage the following three classes to occupy the three classrooms that have the highest visibility to a stranger, are the easiest to find, and are closest to the main entrance to the building: (1) a class for elderly ladies, (2) a class for married couples born in the 1920-35 era, and (3) a class for persons born before 1920.

8. Schedule very important meetings for young parents during the Sunday school hour.

9. Discourage this class from identifying itself with a distinctive name. Adoption of a name helps people identify themselves as members of that group or organization. Keep the emphasis on a holistic approach to Christian education and on membership in the congregation, rather than encouraging young couples to identify with this class.

10. Actively discourage the creation of a distinctive name tag to be worn by members. First of all, these symbols create a sense of class unity. Second, name tags help people remember the names of others, and this tends to strengthen the sense of belonging to that group.

11. Instead of using a “both-and” approach be sure to identify the emerging new class as a potential rival of the Sunday morning worship experience. The best method for developing divided loyalties and encouraging a sense of rivalry is to schedule this class for the same hour as the corporate worship experience or to conflict with one of the worship services in the church that offers two worship experiences on Sunday morning.

12. As soon as the class reaches a comfortable size and begins to develop its own identity as a group, divide the class. This can be accomplished by any one of several methods such as dividing the class to form two new classes, by the forced graduation from the class when members reach a certain age, by requiring all adult classes to take a six- or eight-week recess to enable the members to participate in special elective courses, or by reshuffling the membership of all adult classes every year or two.

13. Discourage the class from meeting during the summer. A disproportionately large number of young couples change their place of residence during the summer. By not meeting during the summer months this class can decrease the number of new young members who might find this class to be a good entry point into that congregation. By fall the backlog of young couples who moved into the community may be large enough that this class will not be able to assimilate more than two or three of the young couples who have come into this congregation during the previous three or four months. Most classes of this type find it difficult to adequately assimilate more than one new couple every six to eight weeks. Thus some of the September visitors from the summer backlog probably will be discouraged from coming back Sunday after Sunday.

14. Keep the emphasis in the class on education and on learning content. Discourage anything, such as a coffee, rolls, conversation period for fifteen minutes before the class begins, or parties, outings, and social events that would reinforce the interpersonal relationships and the friendship ties among the members.

15. Vigorously encourage the concept of a unified budget for the entire congregation and discourage individual classes from having their own treasuries. A person’s heart follows, as well as leads, his or her treasure. When members make financial contributions to their own class treasury, it reinforces a sense of loyalty to that class.

16. Prohibit the selection of a gifted, attractive, and skilled permanent teacher during that first year. Bringing a collection of individuals together under the leadership of a talented permanent teacher has proved to be one of the most effective means of developing a cohesive group. This list should be taken very seriously. Every item on it has been tested by the experience of many different congregations. Any congregation willing to follow even eight or ten of these procedures can almost guarantee that it will be impossible for anyone to successfully launch a new Sunday school class for young married couples. On the other hand, if your congregation is interested in organizing new adult classes it might be informative to discover how many of these tested procedures are being observed unknowingly or unintentionally.

Is There a Future for the Men’s Fellowship?

Perhaps the most widespread source of frustration in nurturing and strengthening the group life of the typical congregation is the difficulty encountered by those who are seeking to build a strong men’s group. This appears to be the program area filled with the largest number of struggling groups, corpses, recollections of formerly strong organizations, frustrated dreams, and unfulfilled visions. In looking at those congregations where there are healthy and vital organizations for men, several characteristics stand out repeatedly. While there is no guarantee that observance of all these criteria will produce a strong men’s group, they are worthy of consideration. There are enough congregations with vigorous men’s fellowships to suggest they still meet a significant need in many churches.

First, most of the strongest men’s groups have a central purpose of mission and/or service. The vital groups rarely are built solely around entertainment, fellowship, or nostalgia.

Second, the healthiest organizations for men usually include one or two men who are effective leaders, work hard at this job, take it very seriously, and are convinced of the value of a separate men’s organization.

Third, the pastor believes in the concept, is very supportive, and usually attends every meeting of the group. This is as important for the female pastor as it is for the male minister. One of the most effective means of killing off a men’s organization is for the minister to be opposed to it.

Fourth, the group usually has at least one annual project which requires people to work with their hands. This may be constructing a new sidewalk around the church property, painting one or two Sunday school rooms every year, rehabilitating a house for a low income or a refugee family, holding an annual barbecue to raise money for missions, putting a new roof on the church building, remodeling the parsonage, pursuing a Lord’s Acre project in a farming community, or having a quarterly meeting to clean the church building.

The annual project always requires more hands; therefore, it is an easy entrance point for newcomers, for shy and less articulate persons, and for persons with special skills. It is a community-building experience. It provides a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment for the men when it is completed. It offers a chance for husbands to brag to their wives. It requires the use of creative skills. It can be carried out during spare hours.

Fifth, in one form or another there is a strong emphasis on meeting the spiritual needs of the men. The most common example of this is the men’s Bible study and prayer group that meets at an early hour one morning every week.

Sixth, there is one social event annually to which wives and sweethearts are invited.

Seventh, the value and legitimacy of the group is recognized by its being listed as one of the official organizations of the church.

Eighth, on a regional or a state level there is an annual inspirational event for men sponsored by the denomination. The central thrust of this event is the spiritual growth of the participants. It is not a promotional or educational or recreational or church-business event.

Ninth, there is at least one person in the regional judicatory of the denomination who has the portfolio for men’s work and who personally is a proponent of strong and vital men’s fellowships.

Tenth, if the men’s group is in recreation or sports, it is more likely to do this as an outreach project for others (children, couples, neighborhood youth, etc.) than for the members themselves.

Eleventh, the vital men’s group almost invariably has its own treasury and thus is able to respond to specific needs directly and unilaterally without giving through the official machinery of the church.

Finally, but not last in importance, the men’s group eats together at least eight times a year. One of the most effective means of killing the men’s organization in a church is to eliminate the opportunity for the men to eat together.

There are enough vital men’s organizations in the churches today to counter the widely heard observation that such groups belong to the past. Most of the healthiest groups display eight to ten of the characteristics identified here. That may not be a coincidence.

What’s Ahead for the Women’s Organization?

In many congregations the women’s organization has been the most effective of all the educational operations. Frequently, it also has been the most missions-oriented organization, the most progressive social-action element, the group most sensitive to the needs of neighbors, and the most meaningful channel for the personal and spiritual growth of individuals in the entire congregation. Yet, despite this very impressive record from the past, the women’s organization in many congregations is beginning to wither away. Why? Perhaps in examining two responses to that Why? Some clues can be found that will be helpful in creative planning for today and tomorrow.

In several denominations the original focus of the women’s organization was the support and expansion of the missionary work of that denomination. Frequently, the word “missionary” was a part of the official name of the organization. As a result, for years, or perhaps even decades, the women’s organization in each congregation had a clearly defined, highly visible, specific, usually measurable (How much money did we raise for missions this past year?), and unifying central purpose. In support of this purpose of furthering the missionary outreach of the denomination, the members of the local women’s organization in each congregation spent considerable time and energy in Bible study, prayer, the study of missionary work, money-raising endeavors, meeting and talking with missionaries on furlough, and in fellowship with one another. These activities, however, were not the basic reason for the existence of the group, but rather were supportive of, and fringe benefits of, the central purpose. For decades in several denominations the women’s missionary auxiliary was either the only, or the major, supporter of the foreign missionary work of that denomination. These women knew that what they were doing was more than important; it was absolutely essential to the continuation of the missionary work of that denomination.

Eventually, however, in many denominational families this basic responsibility for foreign missions was shifted from the women’s organization to a denomination-wide organizational structure which turned to the congregation, rather than to the local women’s auxiliaries for the basic financial support of missions.

The result was (1) the elimination or the reduction in importance of the distinctive purpose of the women’s auxiliary in each congregation (what had once been “our” responsibility was now a shared responsibility) (2) the elimination of the very unifying sense of purpose that had been a part of each local auxiliary for so long, and (3) the elimination of that meaningful task (the support of missionaries) which not only had been the glue that held each auxiliary together but which also kept the door wide open for newcomers to come into that auxiliary. The old saying, “When you know you are needed, you know you belong” gradually became less applicable as the basic purpose of many local women’s auxiliaries turned from missions to fellowship.

A second basic reason for the decline of the women’s organization in many congregations was identified in the previous chapter. This is the increasingly pluralistic nature of American society. There are at least three dimensions to this that have relevance here.

First, how should the local auxiliary be organized into circles or sub-groups? Most responses to this question fall into one of three categories. At Church A there are three circles. One meets in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. At Church B there are five circles. One is a Bible study circle; a second is responsible for dinners, wedding receptions, etc.; a third circle is composed of women who call on shut-ins; a fourth circle manages the annual bazaar; and a fifth carries out the responsibilities of the altar guild, which was transformed into a circle in the hopes of attracting younger women. At Church C there are six circles. One is made up exclusively of young (under 30) mothers, a second is composed of older retired women and began years ago as a circle for business and professional women, a third consists of women of various ages and marital status who seek to be part of a weekly Bible study and prayer group, a fourth includes those women who are interested in arts and crafts, a fifth is for mothers of young (pre-first grade) children, and a sixth is for women who have a strong interest in various forms of community ministries.

In summary, at Church A the circles are organized around when they meet, at Church B the common organizing principle is what that circle does, and at Church C that structure is oriented toward the persons who constitute each circle. Which is the best organizational principle to follow? The right answer in a pluralistic congregation is “yes, all three.” The basic organizing principle should affirm all three approaches. The use of only one, and particularly of either of the first two, will tend to reduce the number of choices and narrow the degree of participation.

Second, there has been a growing wave of sentiment that the role of women in the church should not be limited to any one organization, but rather that they should have complete equality with men and be eligible to hold any office in the church. This is a commendable goal, and in recent years significant progress has been made in achieving it in many congregations. Unfortunately, however, this of ten has been presented in either-or terms rather than in both-and terms, with the implication that the existence of a women’s auxiliary represents a major barrier to full equality for women. This is an elitist approach. An affirmation of pluralism approach would begin by eliminating that very common sexist, but usually irrelevant, statement that “every woman member of this congregation is a member of the women’s organization” and affirming the rights of women to hold any leadership position in the congregation, and also affirming the rights of women to form and manage their own organization. In an intentionally pluralistic church some women will prefer to devote their time and talents to congregational leadership responsibilities, some will prefer to work within and through the women’s organization, some will do both, and others will not be interested in either. The members of this last group will not be made to feel guilty about their choice.

Third, there is a recent increase in the proportion of women employed outside the home. In 1947, there were 29.9 million husbands and 6.5 million wives in the labor force. By 1977, the number of working husbands had gone up 31 percent to 39 million, but the number of working wives had increased 224 percent to 21 million. In 1948, one-fourth of the mothers with children age 6-17 were employed outside the home. By 1977, that proportion had doubled to 51.2 percent. In 1977, only 7 percent of all families in the United States were composed of a husband and a wife, living together with children under eighteen at home and the wife not in the labor force. Ninety-three percent of all families did not meet all three of those criteria, yet in many congregations the program and schedule is developed on the premise that the typical family does meet them.

The women’s organizations in the churches were founded in the era when relatively few women had an income of their own. Meeting times, program-planning, money-raising projects, and opportunities for personal and spiritual growth were developed to reflect that era. Today’s women’s organization needs to be able to be responsive to the needs, schedules, and resources of women who are not employed outside the home, to those who have jobs, and to those who go in and out of the labor force at irregular intervals.

The future of the women’s organization in the churches may be determined by their success in redefining a unifying definition of purpose, by their response to pluralism, by their ability to resist the normal pressures to become exclusionary, by their capacity to set new goals that are meaningful to a new generation of women, by their refusal to become an issue-oriented organization (which almost invariably is very divisive), by their emphasis on the relational rather than the functional dimensions of life, and by their resistance of the institutional temptations that have killed many organizations in the churches.

Other Alternatives

The emphasis here on these three organizations is not intended to suggest they are the only channels for strengthening the group life of the congregation or for opening new doors for the assimilation of new members. Each one is important; and in many congregations the Sunday school, the women’s organization, and the men’s fellowship, together with the youth program, constitute the heart of the group life in that parish.

There are several additional alternatives, however, for reinforcing and expanding the group life of a congregation. Among these are prayer circles; the Bethel Bible classes; Yokefellow groups with their discipline of Bible study, prayer, and outreach; the pastor’s class for new members; therapy groups; choirs; drama groups; marriage enrichment classes and retreats; quilting circles; the Fishermen’s Club, which carries out a ministry of visitation evangelism; athletic teams; groups built around the expression of creative gifts in crafts and in the arts; Bible study groups that meet during the evening; and groups for special categories of individuals such as the recently widowed, the families who have experienced the death of a child, single parents, single young adults, mature adults, and travel groups. Many of the principles, cautions, and considerations identified earlier as factors in the Sunday school class, the men’s fellowship, and the women’s organization will apply to other types of groups.

Four Caution Signs

In planning for the reinforcement of the group life of a congregation there are four caution signs that merit special emphasis here.

First, if at all possible, avoid a forced division of any existing class, group, choir, or circle. Create a new group. Some members of an existing group may decide to become a part of this new group. New groups tend to be more open to new people than do the groups which are a product of dividing long-established groups. In general, change by addition is more creative and less traumatic than change by division or subtraction.

Second, an annual review of the group life of the congregation should be conducted to evaluate the balance. This is both a balance in terms of groups for all segments of the congregation and a balance between the personal and spiritual growth of the individual and the outreach of the congregation to people and needs beyond the membership.

Third, recognize and affirm the fact that some groups become closed fellowship circles, and it becomes very difficult for these groups to receive and accept new members. Instead of harassing the members in these groups who value this supportive fellowship, start new groups.

Fourth, view with great skepticism any proposal for creating new groups on a functional or geographical basis or in response to the institutional needs of the church.

The most widespread example of this is the “zone plan” or “undershepherd program” or “parish group” which divides the member households on the basis of lines drawn on a map. The program usually is designed to facilitate the care of the members and improve communication between the church and the members. While some churches have been successful in making this plan work and it has produced the desired results, a far larger proportion have encountered major frustrations and disappointments. In general, the larger the congregation, the greater the difficulty and the larger the amount of staff time required to maintain the network. In general, the longer the system is in operation, the greater the burden of maintaining the zone-plan network. In general, the greater the compatibility of the structure of the zone plan with the total life of the congregation, the fewer the difficulties in maintaining the system.

In reviewing the experiences of scores of congregations which have established zone plans or parish groups or undershepherd plans or some other variation on this basic idea, several points repeatedly appear.

1. Some members do not want to be a part of any group.

2. In many congregations perhaps one-fifth to one-half or more of the resident members already are actively in a group which can, and often does, provide the oversight and care desired. Do not disturb these by asking the members to be in some other group.

3. People tend not to live in geographic neighborhoods. Rather, their social interchange and interpersonal relationships usually are on a nongeographic basis. (In other words, use a “map of interpersonal relationships, not a street map, in establishing new groups.)

4. Select the leaders. Do not broadcast an appeal for volunteers.

5. Train all group leaders.

6. The ideal size of a group is between eight and seventeen persons.

7. It is unrealistic to assume that because a member expresses a willingness to serve on the board, that member has a gift for calling and the pastoral care of people. In the denominational families where each member of the governing board oversees one zone or group, the elders or deacons are chosen primarily for these gifts in pastoral care. It may take four or five years to institutionalize this concept.

8. Some people have a gift for visitation-evangelism calling but not for pastoral oversight, and some people have a gift for calling on members and friends but not on strangers. Serving as a leader in this program and serving as a caller requires two different sets of gifts.

9. In any training program there usually tends to be a 60 to 80 percent drop-off in effectiveness when the individual who is trained for a responsibility goes out to train someone else in that responsibility.

In summary, the zone plan or undershepherd program is really a highly functional concept, and most people live, think, function, and act in terms of relationships. That is not only a basic caution in establishing a zone plan, but it also is a very useful principle for any effort to strengthen the group life of a congregation.

Questions for Self-Examination

1. Do you have a class for young married couples? If you do, ask the members (or the leaders) of that class to take the checklist in the first part of this chapter and discover what has happened, or not happened, to that class. How many of these sixteen points apply? If you no longer have a class for young married couples, did it die or fade away? Were any of these sixteen items important factors in its demise? If they were, who has the responsibility to do something about it?

2. Do you have a men’s fellowship group? If you do, ask the leaders to review the checklist for that organization. If you do not have such a group, are these some of the reasons for its absence?

3. Ask the leaders of the women’s organization to read the section directed to that group.

4. How many new circles or subgroups are planned for this coming year? Describe the specific characteristics of the people this new circle will seek to reach.

5. What proportion of the women in your congregation are employed outside the home? What proportion of circles or subgroups in the women’s organization are intended for women employed outside the home? How do these two percentages compare?

6. In your congregation who has the basic responsibility for evaluating the group life of the congregation and for suggesting the creation of new groups?

‘Strengthening the Group Life of New Converts’. By Lyle E. Schaller.

‘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.’