THE IMPORTANCE OF NEW CONVERT CARE
The problem of backdoor losses is a major one in virtually all denominations and all congregations. While churches have long been concerned, it is only recently that a great deal of attention has been paid to the important area of ministry known as assimilation or incorporation. The reason for this stems, in large part no doubt, from the renewed emphasis in the church on making disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). If churches are truly interested in making disciples, they will be concerned about what happens to the new converts, the transfers, the dropouts, and the young confirmands.
The backdoor loss problem is a two-sided coin, and we are only now beginning to see it. The two sides are prevention and cure. Assimilation helps to prevent both inactivity on the part of the new member and the eventual walk out the back door, while ministry to inactives works to solve the problem of inactivity after it has already begun.
A presupposition of this book is that God’s Word and sacraments are the only means by which the Holy Spirit creates and sustains faith. Various methods for assimilation are effective to the extent that they bring people into contact with these means, whether they appear on the printed page or are spoken by pastor or layperson. However, they are also effective to the extent that current members demonstrate genuine Christian love to the new members in their midst. We recognize the importance of both the Word of God and relationships with people, that is, both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of Christian faith and life.
Another presupposition of this book is that it is better to prevent a problem than to try to solve it after it occurs. This does not suggest that we stop working with inactive members. It does suggest, however, that we devote much more time to the front door of the church in the years ahead, so that our work load at the back door will decrease.
If you entered the bathroom of your home only to find a full bathtub overflowing its sides with the water still running, what would you do? Would you quickly run to get a mop and begin mopping the water into a bucket? Of course not. First you would turn off the water. Then you would open the drain. Finally you would begin to mop up the water on the floor.
In almost any endeavor it is better to prevent problems than to solve them after they occur.
Effective assimilation will have a major positive effect on the future number of backdoor losses. It will take some years for the impact to be felt, but the assimilation of new members into the life of a congregation can help prevent many of the losses that occur each year. “The best place to prevent losses from the back door is at the front door,” writes George Sweazey. “A guard rail at the top of a cliff is better than ambulance service at its foot.”
Could it be that many denominations have not made progress in reducing the number of backdoor losses in part because they are attacking the problem primarily at the foot of the cliff with an ambulance and for the most part failing to add the guard rail at the top?
George G. Hunter has written: “Bishop J. Waskom Pickett demonstrated four decades ago that what we do with people in the weeks immediately after they join the church is crucial. Indeed, his study of about four thousand converts in India concluded that their post baptismal training was more influential in whether they remained and grew in the Christian community than even the motives which originally attracted them to Christianity. I am sure that the first few weeks are equally important to the life of a new convert in any American church.”
As we work at assimilating new members, we will some years later see the growth curve of many churches begin to rise. And we must work at it. Assimilation ceases to be spontaneous when the average worship attendance reaches approximately 80. It is particularly in churches with active outreach ministries that assimilation is a problem. They bring in many new members each year, but often their attendance does not climb at the same rate as the membership statistics. “The capability of a congregation to receive, welcome, and assimilate new members is the second most important price tag on growth.”
Indeed, the way congregations treat new members can be seen as a clear indication of spiritual vitality. It reflects the willingness of individual Christians to love, to reach out to those who are not currently a part of their circle of friends.
It is an indication of the Christian’s response to the Gospel. It reflects evangelistic fervor as well as an indication of openness to new ideas, new people, new circumstances. It all begins with the faith in Jesus Christ which the Holy Spirit creates through the Gospel, and it is most evident among those who make the reading and studying of God’s Word a high priority in their lives.
One of the major recommendations of this book will be the formation of an Assimilation Committee. Some person or group needs to be in charge of this important ministry. Most pastors are overworked and unable to shoulder additional responsibilities. Most congregations will be unable to add a staff person in charge of assimilation. The suggestion here is that an Assimilation Committee that will accept responsibility for assimilating new members is the most workable option for most churches.
Another major recommendation will be to build within the congregation an awareness of the importance of making new members feel at home. In order to assist you in accomplishing this, there is a two-page “Inductive Bible Study” on assimilation in Chapter 6 of this book. The Assimilation Committee should be given adequate publicity. Sermons can occasionally mention the importance of this work, and congregational self-evaluations can make an impact. The excellent film See You Sunday, available from The Institute for American Church Growth, will help you further.
Assimilation and Ethnicity
One of the significant things about my own church is that we have long been an ethnic church. Those who are familiar with us know that we have been a German church, many of our forefathers having emigrated from Saxony to Perry County, Mo. They founded the denomination nearly 150 years ago, and in many places that “Germanness” is still quite prominent.
One of the characteristics of an ethnic church is that it assimilates others of the same nationality quite easily. Many a reader of these words, having grown up in a Swedish church, a Dutch church, an Italian church, or a Hispanic church, understands this concept well.
However, as a denomination loses its ethnicity, thereby increasing its capability to reach out with the Gospel to those of different ethnic backgrounds, it also loses much of its ability to assimilate easily. Denominations ought to be willing to lose ethnicity in the interest of being able to reach out with the Gospel to more people, but they need to realize that “instant assimilation” will no longer occur. They need to realize also that where a significant amount of ethnicity remains, new members who do not share that common ethnic heritage will have a harder time breaking into the fellowship groupings of the congregation.
Ethnicity is one of the 20 kinds of “glue” concerning which Schaller writes, glue that holds a congregation together.
Assimilation and Our Mobile Society
Another factor in the increased dropout rate is the greater mobility of the population. The more frequently people move for job, health, retirement, or other reasons, the greater the likelihood that some of these people will drop out of the church. The strong relationships that once held many of them in the Christian church have in part been broken by distance.
Christians are part of the church, that communion of saints gathered together by the Holy Spirit. Therefore the Christian family will normally seek a church home with which to affiliate. But in many instances Christians who have moved do not do this and are lost to the church.
Many other societal factors could be enumerated as contributors to the high dropout rate: the divorce rate, the secularization of society, the increased number of two-career families, and other factors. I will leave a thorough description of this situation to other writers. Sufficient attention has been paid here to the problem in order to highlight assimilation as part of the solution.
Just What Is Assimilation?
The word “assimilate” means “to make similar.” For example, the English word “illegal” comes from the Latin words in, “not,” and legalis, “legal.” The consonant “n” has assimilated to, or become like, the first consonant of “legal,” so that we have the word “illegal” instead of “inlegal.” The same is true of words such as “illogical,” “immoral,” and “irreducible.” It is similar with the assimilation of people. We assimilate people when we help them to acquire similar knowledge about our Christian beliefs and our congregation, similar attitudes towards Christ and His church, similar feelings of belonging, and similar patterns of behavior. Much of this knowledge comes from the Bible, but new members also need to know some of the history of the congregation, some of its customs, some of its structure, etc. The fact is that new members have a lot of catching up to do in their attitudes, their familiarity with church customs and practices, and, especially in the case of new Christians, in their knowledge of the Bible and its teachings.
When I first moved to St. Louis, I found myself in a conversation with a local St. Louisan one day. During the conversation, the man mentioned a word that sounded to me like “umsel.” I thought perhaps that I had misunderstood him, until I heard the same word a second time. Finally, I asked him what he meant by “umsel.” He was referring to UMSL, an abbreviation for the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He had been assuming that I had the same knowledge of local terms and abbreviations that he had! How often do we use in-house words, abbreviations, and phraseology with new members, without first explaining them? How often do we refer to the chancel, pulpit, or vestibule, expecting new members to know what we mean? How often do we speak of justification, sanctification, the priesthood of all believers, and the like, expecting new Christians to understand these terms? If the new member comes from another denomination, the problem is greater. However, even transfers have some catching up to do.
Assimilation can help bridge the gap between what new members know and what longtime members know. Fortunately, it is precisely during this period of time that people are most willing to learn, to grow, to serve, and to discover the meaning of Christian discipleship. Let’s capitalize on this opportunity.
Let’s accept the first assumption Lyle Schaller feels active members should have about inactive members and apply it to new members: “We assume that every person who united with this congregation did so with complete sincerity and in good faith.” And as we assimilate, are we not simply doing what Paul told the elders in Ephesus to do? “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
Barriers to Assimilation
For many Christians the problem is one that belongs to the new member. It’s that person’s responsibility to become involved in the life of the congregation, they seem to think. Such an attitude, however, has contributed to the problem rather than solve it. Writes George E. Sweazey:
On that melancholy evening when the church officers meet to purge the roll (and what a dreadful expression that is!) they are likely to be in a critical mood – “These people never kept their vows; they were unfaithful.” In all honesty it is more likely to be the church which broke its vows and was unfaithful. [Emphasis mine.] . . . If we treated newborn babies as carelessly as we treat newborn Christians, the infant mortality rates would equal the appalling mortality of Church members. The obstetrician must be followed by the pediatrician. As William J. McCullough sagely says, “I never saw a bassinet without sides.”
Sadly, the attitude that assimilation is the responsibility of the new members is one of the key barriers
that churches have inadvertently erected to effective assimilation. Other barriers, previously identified, are mobility and ethnicity (sometimes a barrier,sometimes a bridge). We might add the tendency towards individualism in America, the introverted personality of some new members, the secularization of America, the increased number of single-parent households, the failure of members to see the problem that exists, unrealistic expectations of new members, and the tendency of small groups to reach a saturation point beyond which they will not grow. Some churches are simply self-centered. They have always done things a certain way, and they are not willing to change for the benefit of new people. There are probably many barriers.
Emmett V. Johnson is the director of evangelism for American Baptist National Ministries. He was a workshop leader at the American Festival of Evangelism in 1981 and spoke there on the subject of assimilation. He spoke of the difference between the work of John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitefield (1714-1770) in England. Historians have observed, Johnson tells us, that a decade after the work of Whitefield, you would be hard-pressed to find many of his converts, were it possible for you to visit the area. However, if you came to the area where Wesley had worked, you would find many of his converts in small societies and churches, groups that met together for spiritual support. When Wesley evangelized, he did so with a view to community.'” So must we.
Obstacles New Members Face
Not only are there barriers to effective assimilation from the congregation’s point of view, there are obstacles to effective assimilation from the new member’s point of view.
These obstacles tend to be exaggerated in larger congregations. For example, new members usually don’t know the current members very well. Some know no current members. When the new member meets someone, he is likely to forget the name. There are so many names to remember that he can easily become frustrated.
Here current members can help new members by offering their names the second, third, and fourth times they meet. Pictorial directories are also helpful. A name tag system may also help.
The problem is magnified in the larger congregation, where not only does the new member know few current members, but most of the current members cannot recognize who the new members are.
New members can feel overwhelmed by the large amount of information they need to take in. They don’t know church customs, such as how members are ushered up to Communion, the availability of a nursery during the second service, Communion registration procedures, worship registration practices, etc.
They don’t know the organizations, groups, boards, and committees. They don’t know how to go about becoming a member of these. They don’t know the physical plant, i.e., where the rest rooms or youth room are, what is meant by such terms as “narthex,” “undercroft,” “fellowship hall,” etc. They don’t know whom to call to find out about these things, and many times they don’t want to risk embarrassment by asking what seem to be simple questions. They don’t know which devotional booklets or news magazines are available through the congregation and the ones to which they must subscribe. Orientation Meetings should be held once, twice, three times or more annually to alleviate these problems.
At our church we hold Orientation Meetings five times a year. On three consecutive Sundays during the Bible class hour we provide such information and make it possible for friendships to begin. The third Sunday is when new members are publicly received into membership, so their attendance at Orientation Meetings is assured.
We begin the first meeting with a tour of the church and school facilities, since ours is a large physical plant. New members are taken through those rooms near the altar that often raise people’s curiosity. Sanctuary, narthex, classrooms, offices, and the like are all identified by name during the tour. The tour ends in the fellowship hall, where introductions are made. It is at this time that we introduce our sponsor families (see below) to the new member families to whom they have been assigned. We feel that we owe sponsors that first face-to-face meeting. Then we break for coffee and light refreshments, so that sponsors and new members can get acquainted.
The second and third meetings are also held in the fellowship hall. The second meeting is an introduction to our spiritual gifts ministry; it provides some study of Scripture on the subject and offers areas of service and involvement.
The major portion of the third meeting is devoted to walking through the Starters’ Packet. Material in the packet provides information on groups they may join, church officers and boards, worship practices, and other church customs. A few brief moments are spent on Matthew 18, introducing people to the fact that we at this church are both saints and sinners. If someone offends you, please deal with it Biblically, not allowing that incident to drive you from the church. Then we talk about Bible class opportunities, both those available on Sunday mornings and those available at other times of the week. We encourage them to join such a class, and we provide a Bible class enrollment form. Next we introduce an evaluation form, which has been included in the Starters’ Packet. The evaluations enable us to adjust our orientation meetings to meet the needs of the new members. During the last 10 minutes of the meeting the pastor explains the procedure that will be followed during the 10:30 service, when the new members will be publicly received into membership.
Evangelizing During Assimilation
If we are truly honest, not all members of the church trust in Jesus Christ. These are the people most likely to drop out. A Christian learns to live, though imperfectly, by forgiving and being forgiven; a non-Christian has not fully grasped the concept of forgiveness and may not forgive someone who offends. This fact emphasizes the supreme importance of the Gospel itself as the most significant factor in new-member assimilation.
If we effectively use the early months of the person’s membership, communicating the Gospel verbally and in printed form, we will find that some who were not yet Christians when they joined the church will come to faith during this assimilation period. Let’s not assume that everyone who indicates a desire to become a member of the church has already become a Christian.
Expectations of Transfers
Some transfers join our churches expecting to find the same type of church an/or pastor they enjoyed back “home.” Not realizing that every church has a personality of its own, they become disappointed. If there is no mechanism for spotting disappointment and responding to it with genuine Christian love, the new members may drop out or may find another church home. If such disappointment can be spotted, the congregation has a chance to deal with the problem before the people drop out.
Several of the parable churches (Chapter 5) have methods for discovering early signs of dropping out. So should every church.
Better yet, if there is a mechanism for explaining the distinctive personality and the overall ministry of the new church (a written philosophy of ministry, orientation meetings, etc.), the problem may be solved before it occurs. The philosophy of ministry concept will be discussed in more detail later.
The Time Factor
When do they drop out? How much time does a congregation have, after a person joins the church, in order to assimilate the new member?
Research indicates that people drop out at a wide variety of times in response to a wide variety of factors, but the first months of membership are the most crucial. Jerrold L. Nichols reminds us that “the first few months of membership generally set the pattern for the future.” Some emphasize as short a time as the first three months, or even one to two months, while others think of as much time as the first 18 months. Schaller’s advice points to the first year, when he writes that “adult new members who do not become part of a group, accept a leadership role, or become involved in a task during their first year tend to become inactive.
However, the first six months of a person’s membership has been consistently indicated as the most important time for the church to be actively involved in assimilation. In fact, Win Arn writes that “80-90% of the inactives become inactive during the first six months. An illustration of this can be seen in the question a six months member asked of her pastor: `What have I done that you no longer come to see me?”
Part of the reason for the crucial nature of this time frame is the usual decline in the attention given to new members after they join. Prior to membership, pastors, evangelism callers, and others are making visits, phone calls, and other contacts. For most people, however, the date of the beginning of formal membership is the day most of this stops. That can be quite disconcerting to new members, particularly if strong friendships have not yet been established.
The fact is that new members have greater expectations of the church after formal membership has begun. If it is true that new members have greater expectations of what the church will do for them after joining, and if it is true that churches actually pay less attention to new members after they join, then it is no wonder that most dropouts occur or begin to occur during the first six months of membership.
Therefore any practical program for assimilating new members must be set to that time frame, the first six months. This is not to suggest that assimilation should end after that; it only suggests the crucial nature of that time frame. Schaller’s words about the first year ought not to be dismissed lightly, however. Consequently, the suggestion here is that assimilation be seen as covering the first year of a person’s membership, with great emphasis being placed on the first six months and even greater emphasis on the first three. The examples set by the seven parable churches in Chapter 5 confirm this suggestion.
Do You Have an Assimilation Problem?
Lyle Schaller says that a third to a half “of all Protestant church members do not feel a sense of belonging to the congregation of which they are members. If this is true, and much of the data suggests that it is, something is seriously wrong in most churches. If as many as half of all Protestant church members do not feel a sense of belonging, how can a church be showing the love that Jesus spoke of, when He said: “All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35)?
Churches interested in greater effectiveness in assimilating new members will want to do some research on their past effectiveness. The results may be painful to see, but such research will help the congregation and Assimilation Committee to see that there is a problem. Only after the problem is seen can it be attacked.
In order to focus more specifically on the problem in your congregation, several questions need to be asked.
1. Do you have a number of transfers-out each year who keep the same address? This is perhaps the most important indicator of an assimilation problem. Can you identify the reasons for these transfers? Interview these people. As a parish pastor I visited each family that chose to transfer to another congregation without changing addresses, in order to learn what it was that we were doing wrong or not doing at all. It was very difficult to make such visits, but I learned much from them that was helpful for our ministry, and the people were always willing to talk. My goal was never to talk them out of the transfer, and I am convinced that I would not have been successful if it had been.
2. Is there a significant percentage of people in your church without a specific role, task, or small-group identification? This will be discussed in Chapter 2.
3. Is there a large percentage of the membership whose worship attendance is one Sunday per month or less? Who are they? Do you know the reasons for this fact? These people can also be interviewed. Ineffective assimilation is not the cause of this problem, but it may be a part of the problem.
4. Do a significant percentage of your members feel left out? These are the people who, when they speak of church activities, use the words “they, them, theirs,” instead of “we, us, and ours.” A telephone survey can be conducted to answer this question, or a bulletin insert can be used, patterned after the “Congregational Self-Evaluation” in Chapter 6 of this book.
5. Are there large numbers of visitors who do not visit a second time ? The way a congregation treats its visitors is usually similar to the way it treats new members.
6. Is there a high percentage of new members who have not been previously exposed to the ministry/programs/people of the church? New residents in a community are generally easier to reach, but they are harder to assimilate due to a lack of previous exposure to the church. On the other hand, longtime residents are generally harder to reach, but they are easier to assimilate. They already know a number of members of the church.
7. Are there a large number of new members without friends or relatives already in the church?
8. Are there people whose level of involvement has suddenly declined? Have you identified why? It is particularly important to research the pattern of involvement of people who have been members for one year or less.
Some will want to analyze their congregation in depth on the basis of these questions, while many will see that these questions show the existence of a serious problem in their congregation and choose to do little or no research. The important thing is to do something about the problem! Remember, however, that there are times when research can help others to see the problem and join in finding the solutions.
The spiritual life of the church is one of the most important factors in the assimilation of new members. The value that is assigned to Bible study and the amount of participation in such study is the key. Blaming himself for allowing some new Christians, who had soon dropped out, to get into a church which was cold and apathetic, Samuel Chadwick once said, “It was like putting a baby in the arms of a corpse.” It may be that the major portion, of a given congregation’s problem lies in this area.