THE NEEDS OF A NEW CONVERT
S. G. BRADEN
We have considered briefly some of the dynamics encountered by newcomers to our churches. In this chapter we will look more closely at several of the needs that new members apparently have regardless of the size of the congregation which they join.
First of all, we believe that people come to our churches looking for hope and for meaning in their lives. To be sure, people turn to churches when they have physical, social, or emotional needs and when the present situation is cared for, they too have a longing to know that God loves them and has high hopes for them. People expect that the church can help them hear what God is saying to them. People want the church to help them see how God is involved in their everyday lives. People need the church to help them respond to God’s activity in their lives and in the world. To repeat the obvious, people turn to the church for spiritual and religious reasons.
Often people turn to the church following some change in their lives – weathering of a crisis, a piece of extremely good luck, some change in the pattern of their lives. When the routine of their lives is upset, before new patterns are established, people are able to think about God and about God’s promises and claims in new ways. Often they want the church to guide and support them during this transition. They expect the church to be serious about helping them live out the Christian journey and life.
For new members and long-term members as well, it is essential that the congregation have a core of Christian integrity and seriousness. Likewise, it is crucial that congregations be committed fully to encouraging members’ growth as disciples of Jesus the Christ.
This story illustrates how one congregation in the northeastern United States has begun to help its members be serious about their relationship with God and about God’s relationship with the world:
A young pastor recently appointed to a new church opened his first Administrative Council meeting with the question: “Where have you seen God at work lately-or heard of God being at work!” The handful of people who had bothered to show up at the meeting were clearly uncomfortable with the question: they squirmed in their seats and refused to meet the pastor’s wondering gaze. The pastor allowed the question to hang in the air for an unpleasant length of time, then quietly moved on to other matters. The pastor did not rush to remedy an awkward situation with a quick platitude.
At the next Administrative Council meeting, again sparsely attended, the pastor began with the question, “Well, where have you seen God at work since we last met?” Once more the room was filled with discomfort and squirming avoidance. Once more the pastor allowed the question to work on those present and did not rush in with easy responses.
The third meeting – “Where have you seen God at work since we last met?” Finally after another long distressed silence, one woman reached into her handbag, pulled out a newspaper clipping and said, “I don’t know if this is what you mean, but . . . ” The discussion was off and running. And it wasn’t only the discussion that was loosened up. The pastor reports that in the months following that break through meeting, attendance at the Administrative Council has quadrupled, and worship attendance has doubled. The pastor says, “I can only attribute this to asking that question!”
What a difference it makes when a congregation’s members become convinced that the church is serious about helping them relate to God and about helping them have opportunities to discuss with others, face-to-face, what God has done and what God might be calling them to do in response.
It has been said repeatedly that well-fed sheep cannot be stolen, and it is surely true that people who feel that they are growing spiritually are unlikely to stray from the church into inactivity.
The congregation that would be serious about helping new members explore ways of living out the Christian life and journey, will want to consider including several of the following strategies in their incorporation process. Each of the strategies will be discussed at more length in Chapter 4. They are mentioned here as illustrations of the sorts of activities that help newcomers understand that the congregation is committed to fostering their growth in discipleship.
* Spiritual guidance visits in the homes of new or prospective members to give them a chance to explore quietly where they are in their relationship with God and neighbor.
* A membership class series which clarifies the Christian story, the newcomer’s story, and then calls for decisions about what commitments the newcomer is ready to make.
* A meaningful service of reception into the membership of the congregation.
* Serious study that results in fresh commitment.
* Opportunities for identifying one’s gifts and talents and assistance in finding ways to use identified gifts.
* Programs, sermons, studies that facilitate an understanding of the spiritual dimensions of participating in intentional stewardship of money and of others of God’s resources.
A second need that newcomers bring with them as they begin the process of being incorporated is the need to know and to be known by other members, to feel accepted into the life and-ministry of the congregation. Some pastors do report that they have people joining their churches who say they want only a place to worship. They declare clearly by their word or their actions that they are interested in no deeper or broader relationship with the congregation. This understanding of worship as a solitary endeavor is curious, and we believe, antithetical to true worship. We believe that no matter what one’s attitude upon joining, one will eventually be moved to desire a deeper level of participation and fellowship, or one will fall away from the congregation altogether. It is the congregation’s responsibility to stay close enough to the fringe members that their changed attitude will be noticed and acted upon.
Again much has been written about how marginal members find ways into the fellowship circles; yet, almost all observers agree that two things must happen for most people if they are to develop a sense of belonging: (1) They must develop several meaningful friendships which draw them into the larger fellowship, and (2) they must be able to contribute some of their own effort, skill, and energy to the life and ministry of the congregation. People begin to develop a sense of belonging when they know they are missed, if absent, and when they know they are needed to enhance the functioning of the Body.
In smaller membership churches small groups are not an issue, but in larger congregations, when considering how a congregation can help new members feel accepted and important to the congregation, it would be difficult to overstate the significance of helping newcomers become part of small groups and of helping them to find jobs or roles that utilize their gifts. Some strategies which the laity of the incorporation committee may want to consider are:
* Evaluate existing small groups as to their openness to newcomers and enlist the aggressive support of those groups still open. Consider possibilities for new small groups, and begin a reasonable number. (See pages 59-61 for guidelines.)
* Allow new members to assume leadership roles or tasks appropriate to their gifts and sense of calling. (See pages 54-58 for guidelines.)
* Institute a program of systematic visitation of prospective and new members with the purpose of getting to know these people.
* Establish a sponsor/shepherd program dedicated to
making newcomers known to the congregation. (See pages 66-68 for
* Create fellowship: neighborhood get-togethers, potluck dinners before educational programs, camping trips, sightseeing trips, work projects around the church property, work projects in the community, hobby classes, and so on. These activities should not undercut the efforts of existing small groups to develop fellowship; they merely give people chances to socialize across group lines and to broaden their friendship base within the congregation.
* Monitor the attendance patterns and participation patterns of all members, especially among newcomers. A call after three consecutive absences that says, “We’ve been missing you, is everything all right?” helps people know they are important to the group and to the congregation. (See pages 39-45 for guidelines.)
The third area of widespread concern to newcomers is their need to know about the congregation’s history as well as current ministry goals in order to be able to discover where their gifts and calling might best fit in.
People join churches because they hope that the current commitments and goals of the congregation will match their own needs and their own concerns for God’s world. Newcomers are not automatically interested in the history and long-past achievements of the congregations. In contrast, long-time members tend much more to face the past when they think about the congregation. The building has become a sacred place for them. Past triumphs of the congregation still fill them with a sense of accomplishment and past disappointments may still live with them. Past relationships still nurture them. For example, almost every church has some spot that is left vacant in the sanctuary because that was beloved Aunt Mary’s place. Long-time members often feel surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” that is invisible to newcomers and which many long-time members fear may be dispelled by unrespectful newcomers.
“Stranger means danger” is an axiom that people have believed and acted upon apparently forever. We who wish to help newcomers move into a meaningful relationship with our congregations will want to find ways to help them seem less like strangers to our long-time members.
Several years ago, Suzanne and Jack were married. Every Christmas day they joined his family at his grandmother’s house for a festive Christmas dinner. On her first Christmas with her new family, Suzanne was interested in all the excitement caused by the arrival at the table of the cranberry sauce. Someone explained to her that the cranberry sauce bowl had a great significance to “greatmomma” her new grandmother-in-law.
The next year, Suzanne had to be reminded why the cranberry sauce caused such a stir around the Christmas dinner table. By the third Christmas, althoughshe had forgotten again the significance of the bowl, she remembered to “ooh and aah” with everyone else when the cranberries were brought to the table.
Within a few years, hosting Christmas dinner was too large a task for “greatmomma,” so the celebration moved to Suzanne’s and Jack’s house. Each year greatmomma arrived with the cranberry sauce; each year everyone “ooh’d and aah’d.” Suzanne joined in, the time long past when she could again ask why the bowl was important. Really it was enough just to recognize the importance of the bowl to make her very nervous until the bowl, carefully washed and dried, was back safely in greatmomma’s hands.
One year as greatmomma was leaving, she was handed her bowl.
She stopped, handed the bowl back to Suzanne and said, “I want you to keep the bowl!”
Every time Suzanne opens her cabinet and sees the “Christmas cranberry bowl” she is touched, and she knows that she is truly a part of her husband’s family. But she still doesn’t remember why the bowl is important to the others!
Every congregation has sacred “cranberry bowls.” It isn’t necessary that new members remember why these sacred objects (or events) are important, but it is necessary that new members recognize the importance of such events and honor them for the sake of those other members. Long-time members don’t fear new things or new ways of doing things as much as they fear that those things important to them will be done away with. If we can assure them that their needs will not be violated, they will be much more relaxed about letting newer members try some things their way. New members need help if they are to avoid violating some sacred place or object or event. One way to provide this help is to provide opportunities for newcomers to hear and to honor the stories and faith commitments of the longer-term members.
In addition, new members will welcome opportunities to explore their own gifts and callings. New members are interested in the present and the future of the congregation and want to discover how they can become a functioning part of this Body of Christ. Some strategies to consider, which help newcomers honor the heritage of the congregation:
* “Homecoming” events when newcomers can celebrate stories from the past as well as share dreams for the future.
* Storytelling events which develop friendships with long-term members: adopt-a-grandparent program, tours of church property given by “storytellers,” celebrate our heritage days in Sunday school classes, etc.
* Membership classes which teach the history as well as the contemporary situation and commitments of the congregation and the denomination. (See pages 46-51 for guidelines.)
* Gift and talent classes which establish a strong system for helping people discover, claim, and use their gifts and their sense of God’s calling.