THE FRIENDSHIP FACTOR
J. D. HECK
One of the most important findings of the church growth movement has been information about how and why people join the church for the first time. By far
the most frequent reason for joining the church, according to the findings of The Institute for American Church Growth, is the influence of friends and
relatives. Some 75-90% of people who join churches do so primarily for this reason. At least one other study has produced similar results. In a 1979 research project on “Oikos Evangelism” at New Orleans Baptist Seminary, Charles Lowry surveyed 400 individuals. He asked them, “Who was responsible for the initial contact [which resulted in your now being a member of the church]?” The results are as follows: Family Member 67%; Friends/Neighbors 13% (80% total for these two); Sunday School or VBS 11%; Pastor/Staff 7%.
Schaller writes that between two-thirds and nine-tenths of the members of a congregation will indicate friendship ties or kinship ties as the primary reason for joining that particular congregation rather than another (not a question of why they are Christians). Not only is this true today, it was also true during the New Testament era. The influence of people within the extended family, or oikos (New Testament Greek word for “household”) was common among those who converted to Christianity.
It must be stated that the only reason a person becomes a Christian is the Holy Spirit’s work in that person’s heart through the Gospel. The Holy Spirit is also the major reason people join churches. However, from a human perspective, programs, people, and activities have an influence on human behavior. The Holy Spirit uses people and programs to deliver the Gospel message, so the new Christian in reality responds to both the Gospel and Christian love, in the first instance by believing and in the second by joining.
Biblical Examples of Oikos Evangelism
Win and Charles Arn define the word oikos as a household, extended family, social system, or sphere of influence-the network of relationships that includes
immediate family, friends, servants, servants’ families, and even business associates. Below are several Biblical examples that are frequently given as examples of oikos evangelism.
1. Mark 2:13-15 speaks of the calling of Levi and his association with other tax collectors.
2. In Luke 8:38-39 Jesus sends the demon-possessed man, now healed, back to his hometown to tell what God has done for him, thereby keeping him within his oikos.
3. Luke 19:5-9 deals with Zacchaeus and his household and the visit that Jesus had with him there.
4. In John 1 :40-41 Andrew brings his brother Peter to Jesus.
5. In John 1 :44-45 Philip brings his friend Nathanael to Jesus.
6. According to John 4:49-53 an official and his entire household believed. ‘
7. Acts 10 tells the story of Cornelius and his extended family coming to faith in Christ.
8. In Acts 1 6 : 12-15 Lydia and her household are baptized.
9. In Acts 16:23-34 the jailer at Philippi and his family believe and are baptized.
10. In Acts 18:7-8 Crispus the synagogue ruler, his household, and many of the Corinthians believe.
In The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples the authors identify eight reasons why a church’s outreach strategy should identify and use the natural networks of relationships :
a. It is the natural way churches grow;
b. It is the most cost effective way to reach new people;
c. It is the most fruitful way to win new people;
d. It provides a constantly enlarging source of new contacts;
e. It brings the greatest satisfaction to participating members;
f. It results in the most effective assimilation of new members (my emphasis);
g. It tends to win entire families;
h. It uses existing relationships.
An assimilated member has many new friends in the church, a significant number of relatives, or both. If people come into the church through some method other than via friends or relatives , the church must consciously seek to build bridges between the new members and the previous members.
The Friendship Factor
This title is borrowed from an article that first appeared in the church growth magazine, Church Growth: America. Author W. Charles Arn begins the article in this way: “Friendship with others in the church is one of the most important keys in binding members to each other and to the church. The stronger and more meaningful these relationships become, the more assured you can be that these people will become or continue as active Christians in Sunday School and church.
This is not a denial of the power of the Gospel. The Gospel “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16), and it is the only such power. The focus on friendships is merely a recognition of the fact that the non-Christian is most willing to listen to a Christian witness when that witness comes from the mouth of a good friend whom the non-Christian respects and trusts. It also recognizes that human beings are social creatures, who need association with other people. The Biblical concept of the body of Christ affirms this fact and has a positive effect on the life of the new member, when fellow Christians show their faith by their love in action (cf. 1 Cor. 12).
Elsewhere Arn and Arn call friendships ” . . . the most important element in whether a person remains active . .” Consequently, congregations need to place a high priority on scheduling potlucks, picnics, and other friendship-building activities.
Richard G. Korthals writes about five adhesives, or nails, that strengthen the bond between the congregation and the new member. Note the emphasis on friendships, the means of grace, and service: (1) Someone who is assigned the responsibility for “hand-holding” during the crucial initial period; (2) A Christian fellowship in which bonds of trust can be formed, sharing can take place, and inner feelings and struggles can be revealed; (3) Friends from within the church who understand, share, and support; (4) Opportunities for the study of God’s Word in a number of different settings and themes, coupled with actively seeking attendance; emphasis on the bonding and strengthening that come through Baptism and Holy Communion; (5) Assistance in finding purpose through discipleship.
George Sweazey tells this pointed story about a young contractor. He had joined the church of a minister whose home he had remodeled, but he dropped out.
Some time later the contractor said this to the minister:
When I came out of the Navy, I was drinking so hard it was breaking up my home and ruining my business. When you talked to me about the Church, I thought
maybe that was what I needed. But it did not do a bit of good. You would have been surprised, when you saw me some Sunday mornings, to know the state I had
been in just a few hours before. So I quit. Then I got into a group called, “Alcoholics Anonymous.” The first night I was there, one of the men said to me, “Where are you eating lunch tomorrow? Can’t we get together?” and one of the women said, “Why don’t you and your wife have dinner with us one night this week?” They really got hold of me, and I haven’t had a drink for months.
Citing a study by Flavil Yeakley, Charles Arn listed the following results of interviews with 50 lay people who were actively involved and assimilated into the life of the church after six months of membership and 50 lay people who had joined the church but later dropped out.
No. of Friends 0 l 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9+
Activities 0 0 0 1 2 2 8 13 12 12
Drop-outs 8 13 14 8 4 2 1 0 0 0
Notice the significance of the number six. Ninety percent of the actives had six or more friends in the congregation (average: 7.3), while 98 percent of the dropouts had fewer than six friends (average: 1.9).
Dr. Warren J. Hartman, member of the Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, conducted a similar study. He asked more than 1,600 lay people
how many of their four best friends were members of their church and Sunday school. Those who indicated a high percentage of best friends active in church
and Sunday school were very active themselves.
In another study two questions were asked of church dropouts: (1) Why did they drop out? and (2) What would most influence their choice of a new church
home? The answer regularly given to the first question was, “Did not feel part of the group.” The response to the second question (nearly 75 percent), was the
“friendliness of the people.”
Longtime members of Christian congregations are often blind to a unique problem among new converts. Frequently, the new convert to Christianity loses many of his former friends when he comes into that new relationship with Jesus Christ and alters his previous lifestyle. This creates a “people void” in the life of this new Christian, and we should be prepared to fill it.
Furthermore, Schaller tells us that “the members tend to assume that when a new member unites with that congregation they have consummated the sale . . .
frequently it is easier to become a member of a Protestant congregation than it is to be accepted into the fellowship of that community of believers.”
Alan McGinnis has authored a book entitled The Friendship Factor, in which he offers five rules for deepening friendships. First, assign top priority to your friendship. Second, cultivate transparency, or openness. Third, dare to talk about your feelings, i.e., your liking for the person. Fourth, learn the gestures of love (i.e., a weekly lunch or golf date, an annual fishing trip, etc.). Fifth, create space in your relationship. Don’t “possess” your friend; give him room to grow. Implementation of these principles will certainly aid the disciple-making process.
Other helpful books on the subject of friendship are Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Ted Engstrom’s recent book, The Fine Art of
Friendship, and Em Griffin’s Making Friends and Making Them Count. See the Bibliography for dates and publishers.
Four Routes to Inclusion
How are churches to go about building these relationships? In his foundational book Assimilating New Members, Lyle Schaller lists four ways that new members are included in the life of a congregation when an adult without any kinship ties joins a congregation: (1) becoming part of a small group before formally uniting with the congregation; (2) becoming part of a small group after uniting with the congregation; (3) accepting a formal role or office which gives a sense of belonging and causes an identification with the congregation; (4) accepting a task or job which provides the same sense of belonging.
The point here is that each of these routes allows the new members to build relationships or make friends with existing members, thus making them feel socially comfortable and acceptable.
At a symposium on the incorporation of new members Roy M. Oswald, senior consultant at the Alban Institute, spoke about six stages in the process of becoming a member of a church. The first is the searching stage, when people look for a church. The second is the testing stage, when people test the people, the pastor, and the worship service, in order to see what they are like. Third is the returning and affiliating stage. They like what they see, so they return again and again. Fourth is the joining stage. Here actual membership begins. In the fifth stage, the “going deeper” stage, people get involved with other people, growing and serving. The sixth stage is called “being sent.” This is the stage at which new members reach out to others.
It is at the first stage that assimilation actually begins, but it is at the fourth stage that assimilation begins in earnest. None of these stages can be ignored, and attention to assimilation will help assure that the last two stages take place. In fact, a better understanding of each stage will help congregations assimilate new members.
Small Groups and Assimilation
In America we have long attempted to fit people into our own particular ethnic, social, cultural, or linguistic mold, but the trend these days is towards the recognition of diversity. A second language is “in.” Ethnic festivals are “in.” Milwaukee, Wis., for example, is gaining a national reputation for its Summerfest, German Fest, Festa Italiana, Festa Mexicana, etc., ethnic festivals that take place at the lakefront each summer.
Unfortunately, churches for the most part are still trying to make all their new members “fit” into what they have, rather than trying to develop new ministries, new small groups to meet the needs of their members, both new and old. A strong small-group ministry in a local church is a recognition of the diversity of American society, a diversity that will be reflected in the membership of most churches. And we might add that “the more pluralistic and diverse the membership of the church, the larger the number of . . . staff members necessary. . . . ”
The importance of small groups within the congregation for the purpose of assimilating new members cannot be over emphasized. Such groups do a more
effective job because of the better opportunity to get to know a few people well. Lyle Schaller says that the quality of group life “may be the most important single factor in that church’s ability to assimilate new members.” He advocates ” . . . six or seven …groups or circles for each one hundred members who are thirteen or fourteen years of age or older.” He also says: “In general, the more urbanized the community in which the members live, the greater the need for this ratio” (six or seven groups per one hundred members). His questions for self-examination, by the way, will enable a congregation to look at its own small groups and determine the need for more groups and for which kinds of groups.
Schaller also speaks of resistant small groups and absorbent small groups. Dick Murray, too, discusses the problem posed by the former-some small groups do
not accept new members easily. Therefore, in order to assimilate new members and also current members, congregations should look closely at the possibility of
starting new small groups as well as additional roles/offices and tasks/jobs.
Win Arn writes that there needs to be a new groups ratio of one to five, i.e., for every five groups now in existence in your church, one should have been started in the past two years. Arn writes that each group has a saturation point beyond which it will not grow. Groups tend to reach that saturation point between 9 and 18 months after formation.
Consequently, churches that have not formed any new groups in the past 18 months will be less able to assimilate new members. No group will accept them!
The longer a group is in existence, the greater the instinct for self-preservation and the stronger the desire to maintain the existing friendship ties. It’s not that group members will be rude or impolite to newcomers. They will be polite, but that’s about all. After a few moments of chatting, they will be anxious to turn back to their good friends.
C. Peter Wagner emphasizes the importance of pastors supervising the formation of new groups. He writes: “Only persistently strong top-level leadership can initiate and continue the process of new group formation.”
On the next page is a sample of a chart that may be developed within your congregation in order to determine the number of groups presently in existence.
Once that has been done and it is seen which people in the congregation are being served by the existing groups, church leaders will be able to plan for
increasing the number of small groups and for monitoring that increase. They will be able to see which segments of the congregation (i.e., which age groups,
interest groups, people with common concerns or experiences) have no opportunity for participating in the existing groups. Few single young adults will
participate in a Bible study for couples. No young couples will join a group for senior citizens. However, it is generally true that the larger the number of small groups the greater the difficulty in maintaining them, so congregations must walk into an expanded small-group ministry with eyes wide open.
Notice the classification of small groups into six different categories, depending on their purpose(s). A balance between the various categories is advisable, lest spiritual growth, service, fellowship, or recreation be ignored.
Furthermore, we must create opportunities within each group for strengthening relationships. Service groups should consider an informal gathering for their members apart from regular meetings, so that participants have the opportunity to build friendships. One church committee has an annual potluck and closes each meeting with a time of refreshments and conversation.
St. Paul, Trenton, Mich.
Classification 10/81 10/82 12/83 Incr.
Spiritual Growth (Bethel) 38 45 56 18
Sp. Gr. & Service (Circles) 9 12 12 3
Sp. Gr. & Fellowship
(Share Groups) 22 33 38 16
Sp. Gr., Service &
Fellowship (Youth Group) 2 2 2 –
Service (Choir, Boards &
Committees) 39 50 56 17
Social Service (Serving
Community-Nonspiritual) – – – –
Social Action (Clear Air,
Abortion, etc. ) – – – –
Recreation or Social
(Softball, Couples Club) 14 16 24 10
—- —- —- —
Total Small Groups 124 158 188 64
An additional advantage of such a list is the ability of the pastor or assimilation committee to draw one or two people from each small group to a training session. In this training session small-group members would be taught the importance of their group being open to new members. They would learn how to get acquainted with new people and make them feel accepted into the group. We need not accept the saturation point of small groups as an unchangeable law.
Frequently, visitors to a ladies’ organization or a men’s basketball team are introduced to several people and perhaps to the entire group, but no one takes more than a minute or so to find out about this new person, to ask about occupation, interests, family, and the like. This kind of reception can have devastating effects upon some people, particularly those who are somewhat shy. The result is that many visitors to such groups never come back.
In their book Contact: The first Four Minutes, Leonard and Natalie Zunin write: “What two people communicate during their first four minutes of contact
is so crucial that it will determine whether strangers will remain strangers or become acquaintances, friends . . . or lifetime mates. . . . The first four minutes are not only the key to dealing with strangers, but are also the critical link every time we renew our `contact’ with family, friends, and business partners.”
Training sessions for representatives of each small (or large) group will help to build an awareness of the importance of assimilation in your congregation.
Once the new member has established friendships within a small group, members of the group are able to notice frustration or disappointment in the new member much more quickly than a pastor or board, and they can take steps to remedy the situation by asking gentle, probing questions and by practicing the art of active listening. Where the new member has genuine concerns, these should be acted upon.
Research has also been done to determine the relationship between the number of offices/tasks and the growth of the church. The results of one particular study are as follows: The declining church averages 27 offices/tasks per 100 members; the plateaued church averages 43 per 100 members; the growing church averages 55 per 100 members.
There need to be at least 60 roles and tasks available for every 100 members in your church. Any fewer than 60 “creates an environment which produces inactive members [emphasis Arn’s].” Don’t be found in the same category as one large church that found in a survey that 642 of its men were willing to accept some task, but that the present programs of that church could use only about 65!
This illustration brings up another significant point regarding small groups. Ray H. Hughes, general overseer of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), has suggested that “women are more easily accepted because of the various clubs, auxiliaries and responsibilities to which they can relate.” He goes on to say,
“Possibly this accounts in part for the imbalance in the numbers of men and women in the membership of most churches.”
Bulletin announcements or verbal announcements from the pulpit are not a sufficient invitation to newcomers. We must speak to people face-to-face and invite them to our fellowship activities, our Bible studies, our service projects. We must also make the effort to bring them, sit with them, introduce them, include them in our conversations-and not just the first time they attend.
Celebration, Congregation, Cell
Church growth people are quick to insist, however, that membership in the entire worshiping congregation (celebration) and involvement in a small group
(cell) is not enough. New members also need to identify with a “congregation.” The word “congregation” in this context means a fellowship group within the
congregation, numbering some 40 to 120 people. Here church growth proponents use the term “congregation” in a sociological rather than a Biblical sense.
If a church has 1 20 or fewer members, the “celebration” will be equivalent to the “congregation. ” However, if the membership exceeds 120, fellowship groups need to be formed. They provide cohesiveness between the various small groups and unity within the entire church. Many a large corporation has its corporate headquarters in a major city and its individual stores in various communities throughout the country. However, in order to provide cohesiveness and unity, they also have regions or areas, with regional directors. So also must the congregation.
Large Projects and Assimilation
Care must be taken not to suggest that large groups and large projects are not at all useful in assimilation. Frequently, only highly visible activities will draw certain people. Consequently, congregations may want to consider the possibility of an annual picnic, pig roast, sausage supper, etc. High visibility events attract attention. Cooperation towards a common major goal builds unity and cohesiveness within a congregation. Once people come to such a large project, friendships can begin to build. Thereafter these people will be more willing to become a part of a small group, particularly if there is intentional follow-up on the new people who attend.
Staffing and Assimilation
The Institute for American Church Growth writes that assimilation is also affected by the size of the staff: “Your church should have one full-time staff member for every 150 persons in worship. If the ratio reaches 1:225-250, it is unusual to see any significant increase in active membership. While more persons may join the church, the back door will open wider and wider. Adding staff before this point is reached will help a church anticipate the influx of new persons and provide an environment to accommodate them.”
The above ratio does not include secretarial staff or teachers in a Christian school; it refers to those staff members involved in full time ministry to adults, e.g., pastors, lay ministers, directors of Christian education, etc.
Filling a Need
“Find a need and fill it,” says a well-known American pastor. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,” said Jesus (Matt. 25:35). Such is the ministry of Christians-finding the needs of people, whether spiritual or material, and filling them. Research indicates that many new Christians have recently experienced a great deal of change in their lives, much of that change being perceived in a negative fashion. If this is true, then churches need to be conscious of needs that exist in these new converts (and probably also in the lives of transfers). Churches that meet such needs are simply showing Christian love and will be helping the assimilation process.
One of the most helpful guides for understanding the needs of people has been provided by the psychologist A. H. Maslow, who talks about a hierarchy of needs.
According to Maslow, the most basic needs are physiological or bodily needs. They take priority over all other needs. After these are met, then physical and emotional safety needs take priority. The third level of need is belongingness and love. People need to give and receive love. This is the level most applicable to the assimilation of new members. If the first three levels of need are met, then the fourth level comes into consideration. People have a need for esteem-for self respect and the respect of others. The assimilated member feels accepted and respected by the members of the congregation. The final stage is the level of self-actualization. At this level, people express the need to give of themselves for the benefit of others. The assimilated member is involved in service to Christ and the church.
It is particularly on the third, fourth, and fifth levels of need that churches must respond, if they want to assimilate new members effectively.
Reflection and Action
1. Read and discuss two of the Bible passages listed under “Biblical Examples of Oikos Evangelism.”
2. List the small groups you currently have in your congregation. When you have completed your list, figure out how your church measures up to Schaller’s ratio of 7 groups per 100 adult members.
3. Brainstorm possible new groups that could be started, filling needs that currently exist in your congregation. What age groups are being left out? What kinds of interest groups are needed?
4. Arrange to do the “Congregational Self-Evaluation” during worship services in the next month or two.
5. Arrange for someone to lead the “Inductive Bible Study” during the next two months.
6. Fill out your Assimilation Committee, once permission has been secured, and begin meeting monthly.