Ways to Assimilate New Members
By Dawson C Bryan
It is not enough for a person to begin to follow the Christian road. It is equally important that along the highway he be a faithful member of the church, and finally arrive at the Holy City. The initial commitment of a life is essential. But his growth in Christian grace becomes the responsibility of the church as well as of the individual himself.
A certain businessman was known for the ferocious manner in which he attacked his problems. He was nearly ruthless in his driving power. He had little mercy on his employees as well as his competitors. Then he became a member of a church. Seven years passed, during which he became known in the community as a man of understanding, particularly concerned about the personal affairs of his employees, still a man of tremendous drive and energy, making great strides forward in his business, but a man of graciousness, courtesy, and a real concern for the private and public welfare of others.
In a group he was being discussed as a man who had completely reversed his character. One person concluded the discussion with this, I think the reason he is so different is his religion. He now acts Christlike.
As every pastor and churchman knows, it is one thing to secure an attachment to the Christian cause. It is entirely another matter for church members to grow into intelligent, effective, and faithful followers of Christ.
There is a valid criticism of evangelism in every form. It is contained in the question: What happens to the new members after they join the church? The question, however, is not a criticism of the form by which they were won initially but rather of the inadequate methods of conservation. This is a very serious and thought-provoking problem.
Let us first face the crucial point looking toward a solution. The picture has not changed since the time of Christ. People are human, with all human frailties; and since they are tempted to go astray, they constantly wander and need help. Certainly the church must shepherd the new converts. But we must also recognize that there is another responsibility which rests upon the new convert himself. He alone can keep the channels open to God, and he alone can live the Christian life. No one can do that for him. The world is not conducive to noble Christian living. The environment often becomes disastrous to character building and sometimes it seems that the powers to pull us down are so much greater than those to build us up.
Jesus said, A sower went forth to sow. The seeds fell by the wayside, on thin soil, among the thorns, and into good ground. Some failed to mature; the rest were fruitful. As we keep in mind this story of the sower, we realize that no matter how successfully people are won, some of them are going to fail. They will not resist their own weaknesses or temptations among the thorny cares of the world. Probably Jesus did not mean a literal percentage three chances for failure to one for success. Certainly eleven twelfths of the disciples proved faithful in the end. The church today may expect a similar ratio if the new members are given every chance for success, a good, consecrated start and all the cultivation possible. The church can surround its people with every loving consideration to strengthen their faith. That is within the power of the church.
LOOK AT THE NEW MEMBER
For the next few moments as a reader you are requested to forget your training, your ministerial vows, your Christian way of life. Consider yourself a completely different person.
You are now a man who does not belong to any church, does not profess any religion, and has not given Christianity much thought in years. You went to Sunday school when you were young and think that churches are fine institutions as long as they don’t interfere with you personally. Other than that you may give little thought to religion. You don’t beat your wife, swindle your fellow man, nor would you do any thing that isn’t honest. You play golf or fish on week ends, contribute reasonably to the Community Chest, take a casual interest in politics, and in general feel that you are an upright citizen who believes in living and letting live.
Now change the scene and imagine yourself another kind of a man. You have violated every rule of decency and honesty, and have pretty thoroughly worked over the Ten Commandments. You have been one of the community’s worst citizens. You have lived by the rule-get somebody else before he gets you.
As either of these men you have imagined, you have been unchurched and are ignorant or careless of the practices of religion.
One night two men call upon you and have a friendly visit. They talk about some pretty sensible things that start you to thinking that maybe you are not the chap you thought you were. They remind you of long-forgotten beliefs that had always brought peace of mind, and they invite you to come with them to Christ. Suddenly you face a choice. Either you stay as you are, or you can change your ways. A strong feeling surges within you, and there is doubt as to what you want to do. You straighten up and with a clear firm voice you say, Yes, I will.
The men offer a prayer and say, Good night, and you are left with your thoughts. You have made a decision that if backed up, will alter your entire way of living and will also influence everyone else with whom you will come into contact. And you have every intention of keeping your promise. Probably at no time since you were a child have you felt more like a child. You are certain you have done what is right, but you are pretty vague about what you are to do next.
You go to the church on Sunday and are received into membership in a ceremony that is strange to you. You make some promises, and that is the last you hear form the church except a letter containing a pledge card which you sign and return.
At first you are confused, then a little resentful. You begin to feel that you are just a name on a church roster, and what you originally had wanted to do was to participate. You found something pretty big, and you wanted to use it, to be part of it. Some time later you meet some of the old golf foursome or one of the old gang.
In these few moments of imaginative thinking you have put yourself into the shoes of many of the new members who join our churches today. As a stranger in a new environment with new people you would feel that you were being neglected, that you had little interest or help to hold out for the new life, and that you had made a mistake in your decision to change your ways, wouldn’t you? Probably the most important point in this typical new member is the fact that he is not bothered so much by what he might get out of the church as by what he wanted to put into it. Generally the new member starts out with more potential Christian character than he will have again unless he gets assistance. To allow this potential Christian character to be unused is a sin of the church against the soul of a man.
Through evangelism the prospect is persuaded to make a commitment, a voluntary, God-guided commitment to accept Christ as his personal Saviour and to follow him. This does not stabilize the prospect in the Christian church or train him for membership. But it does the most important thing. It enables him to begin moving in the right direction. Now he can be led further into the Christian life, educated in the Christian faith, given opportunities of Christian fellowship and service. This has to be done after the commitment and not before.
The efforts we carry through are in the awareness that evangelism is not effective unless its results are permanent. Faith in Christ does not approach perfection unless it includes participation in his visible body, the Church.
Therefore it is the sacred obligation of the pastor and lay men to look after these new members personally during their early church life.
In a hotel recently five children, the oldest nine, the youngest a baby, were locked in a hotel room while the parents went out for a night of drinking and self-indulgence. The church’s neglect of its newborn children is not to be compared with this wanton neglect of these parents. But are not the church members so often interested in themselves and their own activities that they do register a selfish disregard of the new members who are but children in the church family? A Christian commitment must be followed by a program of Christian training, growth, conservation, and assimilation into the fellowship of the church.
There is a principle of church life, which rarely has an exception. Unless you can get a new member to become active in thirty to sixty days after he joins, he will become a liability.
Unless a convert or a newly transferred member begins to p in church activities within a couple of months, the chances are excellent that he will become merely a name on the church register. The new member must be assisted in becoming active immediately, or he will become a spiritual in valid or corpse. One of the most serious problems of American church life is the inactive member.
An executive of a steel company is now president of the Fishermen’s Club, active on the official board and in the church school, and most enthusiastic about his church. He stated in the evangelism committee meeting that he and his wife had been members of this church for five years before they ever were approached for any participation, and during that time they lost interest almost entirely. Why couldn’t our church help our new members to become stewardship Christians working in the church from the very beginning? was asked. The truth is the church today can start this principle of activity participation from the beginning of the new member’s church life.
BABES IN CHRIST
There has been some criticism of the manner in which new members have been won, implying that the present-day methods of evangelism are mechanical, high pressure, or spiritually weak. If so, such procedure follows because of a lack of con tent. These methods were simple and practical when Jesus used them to win people. These methods have withstood the test of centuries of time, hundreds of competitive creeds and millions of human frailties. How, when, or where a person first made his decision for Christ is not as important as how he remains close to Christ and lives his life every day. It is not for us to say whether or not a person is truly converted. Who are we to judge a commitment which we must believe is God guided? Who among us has an ironclad, nondebatable definition for conversion?
Conversion may be sudden, like Zacchaeus’; gradual, like Mark’s; violent, emotional, like Paul’s; or quiet like Matthew’s. Who can say who is truly converted except God? We must not judge converts on how they are won, but that each makes a commitment and then grows in Christlikeness, Paul called new converts babes in Christ. And they have not changed in two thousand years. They need to be nursed and trained like children to reach their full spiritual maturity.
What is the basic expectation for every person who unites with the church? What are the first requisites of a new member? At the outset we ought to establish that which we can expect of every new member.
It is apparent that we cannot hope to find a specific service or position for every new member. There are not enough bulletins to pass out, committees on which to serve, offices to hold. However, there are certain practices we ought right fully to anticipate of every person who is a Christian church member.
WHAT TO EXPECT OF EVERY CHRISTIAN
Every Christian can share in Christian fidelity in these four ways:
1. Daily communion with God, personal and family
2. Christian daily living
3. Regular church attendance
4. Support of the Kingdom in money and service according to ability
If a Christian is sincere in his religious intention, he will undertake at least these four basic experiences. First, his life will involve daily communion and fellowship with God, an effort to determine God’s purpose and will for his life, his family, and his community. Second, the Christian should demonstrate his Christian life in the community, let his light shine as spiritual power is generated within him through his own personal devotion and church life. He ought certainly to live like a Christian. Third, a lifetime habit of regular attendance at church should be the objective and practice of every church member. The attendance upon the worship of God is central in the Christian experience and witness. Fourth, every person without exception can support the Kingdom in money and service, even though his contribution may be as small as the widow’s mite or as great as leading a crusade for world peace. Every member can do something according to his own ability and in his own way.
Each of these practices, these Christian habits, depends on the depth of the Convert’s commitment and the thorough ness with which he is integrated into his local church life. Without a program of assimilation only about 25 to 35 per cent of the members mean something to the church. A real and vital program of conserving and assimilating new members, tested time and time again, secures remarkable results. Through the following program about 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the new members become active in the church and happy in their Christian living. This plan is designed to re duce the casualties to a minimum and to make active, vigorous Christians of those who have decided to follow the Master and become his churchmen.
1. Spiritual Guidance at Commitment Time
Visitors called in a home where the breakup of the marriage was in process. The parents had sent the children next door to the neighbors while they were having the final argument before turning their home over to the law court on the following morning.
The visitors happened to be people who had a fine Christian home of their own. During the conversation the contrast be came so decided and the advantages of a Christian home were presented so winsomely that the quarreling couple decided to give their home over to Christ instead of to the courts.
One of the visitors reported that at the conclusion of their visitation the mother telephoned for the children to come home. He said that when the front door opened, he saw two children with anxiety and fear written on their faces. The mother put her arms around the children, brought them in and told them that she and their daddy were going to have a Christian home where they would all be happy together.
The father then turned to the church couple and said, We are ready to begin. What do we do now? He recognized the difficulty of their position and the necessity for help beyond themselves. In place of old habits new ones had to be commenced. What could stem the flood of old remembrances, sharp comment, and irritating manner?
The visitors had anticipated these people and their needs. They replied, Suppose that first of all we thank God, for you see prayer is the heart of Christian living. They all bowed together, and a brief prayer of appreciation for the decision and request for blessings upon the family was made.
Then the visitors gave the family a card listing the four habits of Christian living and explained them briefly. They told them to try putting into practice the Christian grace of good will. After a friendly good-by they said, We will look for you at church Sunday. This family had something upon which to begin a new faith and certain Christian habits they could begin that very night.
A preliminary step in the Christian experience of the new member coming into the church is presented at the time the commitments are made. Visitors in the home offer a prayer, suggest Bible devotions and regular attendance at church. This begins the process of assimilation on the very night the commitments are made. New Christians have many adjustments to make, and new habits are not easy to establish. A beginner will be greatly helped to bridge the gap between the time of his commitment and actually uniting with the church if the visitors will leave a guidance folder for new members which suggests practical Christian habits. It will include steps in commencing the practice of the Christian life.
2. Pastor’s Spiritual-Guidance Visit
Within a few days after the commitment is made, the pastor will want to visit the new member to counsel with him prior to his admission into the church. A new Christian needs the friendly counsel and spiritual advice of the minister.
The pastor’s spiritual-guidance visit is not merely a friendly call. Its purpose is to discuss and explain from the convert’s viewpoint his prayers, his presence, his gifts, and his service. If the candidate has never heard the church vows until he stands at the church altar, he will undoubtedly answer, I will, but sometimes it will be a perfunctory answer in which he does not comprehend the obligations that are involved. The pastor’s spiritual-guidance visit gives help in talking through and making more meaningful the baptismal and membership vows.
3. Training in Church Membership
The church is recognizing more and more the importance of planned instructions in the guidance of new members. It is designed for the divine building of sound churchmanship.
Every person who makes a decision for Christ is entitled to know his church’s beliefs, the program of Christian Kingdom building, as well as the personal obligations, which he assumes when he becomes a member. Many churches are doing effective work with children, but few are giving adequate training to youth and adults. We are wasting one of the greatest opportunities to inaugurate church members into a vital, impelling, and active faith and work. More and more churches are not only expecting but requiring youth and adults to at tend church-membership classes. Children should have from six to thirteen sessions, youth and adults from three to six sessions. Those joining on confession of faith or being received from other denominations should have the full training course. People who are received by transfer within the de nomination may well benefit by these training classes. Some churches require those who come by transfer as well as those on confession of faith to take the training course before the reception into church membership.
The membership classes should cover what it means to be (1) a Christian, (2) a member of the denomination, (3) a member of this local church.
Knowledge is one of the basic factors which contribute to making active church membership. If people do not know what they believe, what their church stands for, they will not care enough to make a sacrifice for the cause.
Various churches use different times for the training sessions. Youth and adult classes can be conducted by the pastor with the help of other members in the church at the church- school hour, prior to Sunday-evening services, or at a midweek evening session. For instance, one church uses the church- school hour on three successive Sunday mornings. Another church runs a continuous class period of four sessions in succession prior to the Sunday-evening service. They continue this plan every month. Still another church has an adult training course for three Sunday evenings prior to the evening service, and this is in session once each quarter. Members may attend this training class either before they unite with the church or after reception. Full membership is not granted until the members have completed the three sessions of training.
4. Membership Manual
The reason many people are ineffective in their faith is that their understanding is limited. Many denominations now have adequate manuals of church membership. Some of them are divided by age into children, youth, and adults.
Just recently live men were taken into membership in a service luncheon club. They went through a briefing session at which time they were given a manual describing the purposes, constitution, and program of this particular service luncheon club.
The church can assist its members in a strengthening of their faith and a challenging appeal to their devotion to Kingdom building by the use of satisfactory membership manuals.
5. Responsibility of Church Organizations
One of the primary evangelistic responsibilities of every organization in the church is to help each new member find his place in its particular organization. Immediately upon securing a commitment the pastor should see that each organization to which the member is entitled to membership by sex and age is given his name, address, and telephone number. The organizations are then expected to contact him immediately. Every new member should have visits from appropriate classes and organizations. They can help him to feel at home, to share and express himself in the Christian life. Assign the name of a new member to some church group for (1) visiting, (2) guidance, (3) friendship, (4) active- membership participation. Within a reasonable time the pastor should have some report from each name assigned.
The strongest agency within the church to give guidance, training, Bible knowledge, and Christian experience is the church school. Every possible effort should be made to enroll every new member in the church school.
6. Fellowship Friend
Reports from innumerable churches indicate that the most successful, personal way to bring the new member into happy and active membership in the church is to assign him to a Fellowship Friend. The pastor selects some individual or family who are active in the church and who are of similar age and interest. To this active member or family the new-member is assigned so that he will be looked after until he becomes at home and established. The sponsor is asked to visit the new member within a week to ascertain his needs and interests, to be helpful, to aid him in becoming active in some organization, to look for him at church services, and to make him acquainted with other church people.
Some churches form a Sponsor’s Club or a Fellowship Friend Organization. It is a choice group of people whose primary purpose is to cultivate the new members. Those selected for this function are chosen on the basis of friendliness and church loyalty. The group meets to discuss how to make the church more friendly and more spiritually effective.
They discuss their helpfulness to new members. Many people can work here who would not be suited for evangelistic calling.
The Fishermen’s Club should never be used for this purpose. Its work should be kept solely to secure first commitments and church transfers. Occasionally some person who works in the Fishermen’s Club might be asked also to be a Fellowship Friend. Experience has shown that wherever the Fishermen’s Club does this kind of work, it loses its primary interest in winning converts.
DUTIES OF FELLOWSHIP FRIENDS
1. Visit the new member immediately, if possible within a week of his church affiliation.
2. Encourage him in Christian habits, particularly family devotions and church attendance.
3. Introduce him to others at church.
4. Call upon him if he is absent from church.
5. Inform the minister of progress.
Not only will such a procedure aid the new member, but also it is beneficial to the old member. Here is an opportunity for them to help each other along the Christian way.
When a family of parents and a teen-age daughter united with a church, the pastor assigned a choice, loyal church family with a teen-age son to sponsor the newcomers. The pastor telephoned the boy to be certain that the girl got to the young people’s meeting the next Sunday night. Little did the pastor realize how seriously the youth would take his responsibility until several years later when he was called upon to officiate at the wedding ceremony where the young couple were united in holy matrimony. While such a sponsorship is very unusual, often lasting friendships grow with this type of assignment.
7. A Service of Preparation
On a week night prior to the Sunday that members are received many churches conduct a service of preparation. It is designed for those who are received both by certificate of transfer as well as by confession of faith. The officials of the church are present to welcome the new members. The service of preparation is designed to acquaint the new people with the leadership and program of the church. It helps also to prepare spiritually the new members for the important step which is immediately before them.
Some churches introduce the sponsor or Fellowship Friend to the new member at the preparation service.
Following a brief devotional service, carefully selected lay people briefly address the group concerning the privileges and opportunities which the church offers. A different person should speak for a few minutes concerning the importance of regular church attendance, the women’s work, men’s opportunities, the youth program, the church school, the world and missionary service of the church, the church finances and the financial plan, and stewardship time to be given in service through the congregation. The service of preparation may be concluded by a message from the pastor and an appropriate devotional commitment.
8. A Meaningful Reception Ceremony
The reception into the church should be one of the most meaningful experiences of the life of the new Christian. So often it takes place casually and in such a hurry as to leave an impression of the unimportance of the church rather than the memorable values of the occasion.
The methods by which people are received into church membership are varied according to denominations and in different sections of the nation. The point emphasized here is in the interest of church loyalty and assimilation. A partial solution of long-time active membership lies at the point of impressive church reception. A person should be made to feel that this is one of the most hallowed moments in his life, and that it is a sacred time of dedication or rededication of him self totally to Christ and the church.
9. Letters and Assignments
Among other means of helping the new member find his place in the church are (1) a welcoming letter from the pastor, (2) letters from the membership and evangelism committee, (3) letters from organizations of the church, and (4) a letter or visit from the finance committee. It is important that a member in his initial enthusiasm be given the privilege of sharing in the stewardship not only of his life but also of his means. As he becomes a member of the church of Jesus Christ, he should feel the great privilege of investing his money in the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom.
10. Continuing Program of Training
New members must be reminded again and again that they have a holy opportunity to serve Christ and to accept responsibility. The conservation of time, talent, and possessions should abide as a deep and lasting consciousness. They have a right to grow in spiritual excellency as Christian stewards. A carefully continued program of the church should be so directed that none of the new members are allowed to wander casually away like sheep without a shepherd.
In our churches we are exceedingly anxious to win converts, to bring more members in at the front door. But we should observe how rapidly they slip out the back door and be as anxious to hold them in their faith by developing them in ever-extending Christian responsibility. It is necessary to direct such a program so as to create a devotion within the new convert himself. He alone can keep the channels open to God and live a Christian life. No one can do that for him. The entire conservation and assimilation program should be directed so that the new member shall keep central the creation and continuation of a devout dedication to Christ.
RESULTS OF CAREFUL PASTORAL SUPERVISION
Many ministers want to know what they may expect in permanence of Christian fidelity among the new members. Following a program such as that outlined, a minister may expect from 75 per cent to 90 per cent or even larger, of the new members to be actively engaged in Christian discipleship. That is considerably above the 35 per cent to 50 per cent activity of the average church.
Here are excerpts from a letter of a pastor:
I have held three visitation programs in this pastoral charge, one a year ago in co-operation with several churches. The results were absolutely amazing. The oldest member of my church who is past eighty said to me, I have never known anything like it! Six weeks after the first visiting I received 70 new members, in creasing the church membership 30%.
Many spectacular things occurred during the program and afterwards. I think of one man who said, I’m ashamed to say it, but I haven’t been to church for at least 27 years. More than a year later I am able to report that this man has been in church every Sunday with his family. I sent one team to a recently retired naval officer’s family. They reported non-committal. Several days later I sent another team. They, too, had no success. One week later the naval officer and his wife came to see me. The officer said, I have spent almost 30 years in the Navy; during that time my family has lived in many places. I have never lived a normal life in community affairs or in church. My family and I have talked matters over and we want to become members of your church. Twelve months later I can bear witness that he and his family are faithful church people, and he is now a member of the official board. Better still he has helped with the Vacation Bible School, the Every Member Canvass, church repairing, and everything I have asked of him.
Another man had never been asked to join a church. He and his family professed faith, were baptized, and united with the church. He had been in the habit of making a $20 a year gift to the church. As a member he pledged $102. And this year he in creased his pledge to $480. He is now a member of the Finance Committee, his wife is a member of the trustees, and his two sons are active in the youth work, one of them being an usher on Sun day. This sort of thing has made one layman exclaim, I never knew we could do so much!
It is apparent this letter was written at least a year after these members united with the church. Following a careful program of assimilation and conservation, as the letter indicates, more than a year later, they are faithful not only in their church responsibilities but as Christian citizens of the community.
The church must try with every care possible for the strengthening of the faith of new converts. It is within our power to save multitudes through careful education, cultivation and assimilation.
Not only did Jesus say, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men, but he also said, Feed my lambs. . . . Feed my sheep. This dual responsibility is a privilege of the Christian church of today.
CONCLUSION: THE SECRET OF EVANGELISM
The secret of evangelism means yielding ourselves to be come an integral part of God’s will. The effectiveness of our passion for souls comes from above.
We do not produce the results any more than a farmer gives the life to the grain. We plant. God gives the increase. When the seed of the gospel of Jesus Christ is sown, it bears fruit of the vitality within itself. We are not always able to see the results with physical eyes, but we may be certain that God provides the life abundant.
We are required to be sensitive to God’s call, to be aware of the needs of men, and to give our lives to be used of him.
We have humbly and imperfectly worked out ways in which his life may be brought to others. Through us and these methods God accomplishes his purposes.
We do not understand the mystery by which his will is wrought. All we know is that it does take hold. Lives are re claimed, renewed, and Spirit-filled. Hearts are opened to the influence of the Holy Spirit even hearts that seem most un likely, some having shut out the word of God for heartbreaking years.
Through the plans we lay, the work we do, and finally the word we say Christ stands at the door of human hearts. While he knocks, we urge them to let him in. We know that if they do, he alone has saving power, and that he will abundantly bless.
The North Pole had resisted explorers since the beginning of time. Finally Admiral Perry made the successful overland adventure by dog sledge and planted the American flag at the point where all other directions were South. For the final dash three Eskimos were required. But so difficult was the last dangerous push and so limited the supplies that Perry had to select from his companions only one other man. This one man who made the last desperate march over ice and through fearsome cold was Matthew Henson, an American Negro.
An account appeared in one of our magazines with a picture of the now aged Negro and the medal belatedly presented to him by Congress. The medal carried the inscription of the famous arctic explorer’s reason for selecting Henson as the man in the party to make the dash to the pole. Inscribed are Perry’s words, “can’t get along without him.”
God is carrying on the great task of reclaiming the world. He is trying to help every person discover the central pole of Christian living. But he cannot work alone. He left the responsibility in our hands, and he points to each de voted layman and minister saying, I can’t get along without him.
To carry the good news is our mission on earth. We must be able to say with Paul, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.
I pressed the button at my neighbor’s door.
But when I heard no sound, I turned and stood
Irresolute. If I had rung a bell,
He must have heard it. Should I rap or go?
But in a moment more my neighbor came,
The bell is far, and very small, he said,
You may not catch it, for the walls between;
But rest assured, each time you push the knob,
We cannot choose but hear the bell inside.
And what was told me of my neighbor’s bell
Has cheered me when I knocked at some hard heart
And caught no answer. Now and then
I poured my soul in strong appeal,
And had not sign from lip or hand or eye,
That he I would have saved had even heard:
And I have sighed and turned away; and then
My neighbor’s words came back: We cannot choose
But hear inside.
After many days
I have had answer to a word I spoke
In ears that seemed as deaf as dead man’s ears
From The British Weekly. Used by permission.
Excepted from: Building Church Membership Through Evangelism By Dawson C Bryan
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.’