Where Have All The Converts Gone?
By John W. Kennedy
Most denominations publish annual salvation figures, but a troubling pattern emerges year after year. Of the multitudes that make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, fewer than one in 10 ends up staying in church.
The Assemblies of God, which consistently promotes and measures evangelism, has similar statistics to other faith groups regarding retention. “The scorecard we keep is about the event,” says Assemblies of God Commissioner on Discipleship Alton Garrison. “We only record salvations, church memberships and baptisms. We celebrate the harvest, but we haven’t valued the journey.”
When retiring Assistant General Superintendent Charles Crabtree gave his farewell address at General Council last August, he exhorted those in the Fellowship to take discipleship more seriously. Clearly the low number of people attending church compared to salvations shows that the overwhelming majority of new believers don’t really understand the life-changing difference Christ is supposed to make, Crabtree warned.
Garrison, who inherited the discipleship post when he took over as assistant general superintendent last October, spends a great deal of time gathering information about the dilemma as he talks with pastors, district leaders and school officials about how to fix it. The Commission on Discipleship has launched a Web site for feedback on the topic (http://forums.ag.org/disipleship).
In For the Long Haul
Many evangelical-minded denominations calculate salvation decisions based on those who raise their hands in the pews on Sunday morning and repeat a “sinner’s prayer.” Yet millions of people who have uttered those words with their heads bowed and eyes closed never attend church regularly.
In reality, the journey of helping someone shed sinful habits, learn the Bible and become more like Jesus takes time. “Conversion is a moment in time, but discipleship is a process,” Garrison says. “While we shouldn’t stop evangelism efforts, we need to remember that making converts is not a command of the Great Commission. Making disciples is.”
Discipleship, Garrison believes, starts at the point of friendship rather than at conversion.
“Discipleship best occurs in relationship, when a friendship forms with a redemptive purpose in mind,” Garrison says. “That’s how Jesus did it.”
Relationships are the key to keeping new converts on the journey, Garrison says, and Sunday School and small groups remain two viable methods to solidify them. “Nurture must be on the front end of discipleship,” says Jonathan Gainsbrugh, an Assemblies of God evangelist. “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Feed my sheep’ first; He said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ Jesus put the lambs first.”
Every new convert deserves full nurturing, says Gainsbrugh, who teaches “Feed My Lambs” and “Relationship: Spell it with an R” seminars around the country (www.gainsbrugh.org).
“When an infant is born, all the attention of the family must shift to the most vulnerable and precious member the newborn,” Gainsbrugh says. “If a baby is left alone for a week he withers. Newborn visitors don’t assimilate themselves.”
Gainsbrugh, citing Mark 3:14, notes that Jesus modeled relational behavior by choosing disciples who spent time with Him.
While new converts need help studying Scripture, they also need godly companionship throughout common everyday activities such as eating and playing games.
Gainsbrugh notes that Jesus didn’t find even a 99 percent retention rate acceptable in His parable about a search for one lost sheep. Likewise, Gainsbrugh says, churches need to invest funds in providing meals, Bibles
While pastors must be equipped with resources, motivating laypeople is key in order for disciple-making to be effective. That requires sacrifice, primarily an investment of time.
While forming relationships at church before salvation is important, it isn’t as crucial as implementing a comprehensive discipleship program afterwards, according to Ismael “Pancho” Flores, outreach and follow-up pastor at Oak Park Christian Center (AG) in Pleasant Hill, Calif.
The church has retained half of its converts under a program Flores founded called New Believer Concepts (www. newbelieverconcepts.com). The program stresses two key elements: laity rather than clergy conducting follow-up as well as discipleship occurring one-on-one instead of in a teacher-classroom setting.
The New Believer Concepts follow-up begins the day after the salvation commitment and involves eight private weekly lessons plus an additional eight calls to set up those appointments during the first eight weeks. The follow-up process is really “pre-discipleship,” Flores says, because the new Christian doesn’t understand the concept of discipleship.
“Those trained to teach follow-up lessons are recruited because they love God, care about lost people and are faithful in church attendance,” Flores says. “They develop a personal concern for the new believer and commit to praying daily for this person. This is a true release of the priesthood function of the believer.”
Eric Earhart, pastor of Upper Room Assembly in Gatesville, N.C., says he learned the importance of relationships the hard way.
“We’ve lost so many people because we have not been systematic about taking them to fruitful service in the kingdom of God,” Earhart says. “We’ve failed over and over with a lack of accountability and follow-up.”
One lesson Earhart has learned is the importance of making everyone in the congregation feel relevant in a relational setting, especially in Sunday school and small groups. All those who attend a service should sense they are a viable part of the body of Christ, Earhart says, and able to freely share life’s pitfalls, victories and revelations.
The Assemblies of God is certainly not alone in examining its methods. For instance, the Willow Creek Association has led one of the nation’s most influential movements in the past three decades, attracting 12,000 member congregations along the way, including the second-largest church in the country, the 23,500-member Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.
But at a leadership summit last October, Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels suggested the seeker-sensitive approach had been wrongheaded. When people crossed the line of faith and became Christians, church leaders should have been more aggressive in telling them how to develop spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading and relationships, Hybels admitted. Beyond statistics, there is a deeper issue involved when denominations stress salvation while neglecting discipleship.
If a “decision” is made in secrecy and the “convert” leaves church without understanding the basics of Christianity, has that person really escaped eternal damnation? And the damage isn’t only to the person who quits coming to church. “The body of Christ is deprived of the giftings and fruitfulness of all the lives that person would have touched,” Earhart says.
Garrison isn’t about to implement any stopgap measures before careful study. The solution will require more than simply producing new mentoring materials, he says. “We’re not going to just be superficial,” Garrison says. “We’re going to help people with life issues on their journey.”
John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at jkennedy.agblogger.org.