Closing the back door of the church
June 6, 2006
Have you ever participated in a structured, intentional assimilation process? One of the most comprehensive and intense assimilation experiences I ever participated in was when I joined the Army. Talk about intentional! Every step of the process was mapped out in advance and every person in the organization understood their role in the process. What’s more, they understood why the process was in place. Was I assimilated? Absolutely!
How do you assimilate new members into your church? Is it an intentional process? Does everyone in the church understand their role and why you intentionally assimilate new members? Some of our Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) churches have an intentional assimilation process in place. Unfortunately, the majority of our churches have little or no structured assimilation process that they use to draw and connect their new members into the life of the church. Without some intentional mechanism to connect new members, research tells us that the church stands a good chance of losing them within ninety days after they join. Hence, we talk about the open “back door” of the church. If we are to be effective in expanding His Kingdom, we must be diligent in keeping the “back door” closed! We want to avoid becoming a “teflon church”, where people do not stick.
In his book Membership Matters (Broadman & Holman, 2005), Chuck Lawless identifies four components of effective assimilation. They are 1) Membership expectations that are stated up front, 2) Ministry involvement that gives members purpose and responsibility in the church, 3) Convictional preaching that offers a message worth hearing and a reason to stay involved, and 4) Relationships that create “people connections.” Let’s look at each of these components.
Membership expectations and ministry involvement can be presented in numerous ways but probably one of the most effective methods is to provide a new member orientation or class that is pastor-led. This approach is personable, efficient (because it is interactive), and adaptable to the context of the church. A larger church may have a new member orientation every six to eight weeks. A smaller church may have a new member orientation every three or four months. One of the driving forces is the frequency of new members joining the church. Expectations of membership, the identification and understanding of individual spiritual gifts and places where the new member can serve are key elements in this process. The teaching of basic doctrines, an introduction to the church physical plant and to the vocational and lay leadership, as well as the process of “connecting” people to the church are also started or accomplished through this process. Chuck Lawless’ (2005) research discovered an overwhelming desire for new church members to get to know their pastor on a more intimate level. The research team leader (Matthew Spradlin) summarizes the research this way: “In the relaxed atmosphere of a membership class, church members saw their pastor up close. They had permission to ask questions they couldn’t ask during a sermon. They listened as he prayed for them by name. They often learned about his devotional habits and strategies. In the end, the hours spent with the pastor left a significant mark in the lives of those class members” (Page 53).Talk about connection; it can’t get much better than that! Regardless of what process you use to assimilate your new members, it must be intentional and focused, allowing the connection of the new member into the life of the church.
Preaching that convicts and connects with members will, by its very nature, be a strong force in keeping established and new members coming back to learn more. Usable and practical application of Scripture to the daily lives of the members is a powerful force that will keep people connected. Prayer and proper preparation will go a long way to make this a recurring reality week after week.
The Sunday School is the natural “connecting point” in the church, and is a logical place where the assimilation process continues after the new member orientation. In an age-graded class, the new member will find others with similar life journeys. There is a natural affinity that will help develop lasting relationships. The Sunday School is where ongoing fellowship activities build Christian community, where individuals serve to meet needs in the church and to actively participate in missions activities outside the church, fulfilling the Acts 1:8 mandate. Succinctly put, the Sunday School becomes the place where on-mission Christians are developed and dispatched to accomplish the Great Commission.
How important was my assimilation into Army life? Without the highly structured, intentional assimilation, I would have never achieved my potential and probably would not have stayed for 20 years. The same can be said for the local church. Without an intentional assimilation strategy, you will regularly lose new members out the back door. Commit now to becoming a “Velcro church” where people stick. (Bruce Morrison is the MBC’s director of Sunday School/discipleship ministry.)