New Member Retention for Smarties
How To Turbo Charge Your Ministry to New Believers
by Maurice R. Valentine
It’s a fact! Growing churches keep new believers. This fact was first postulated by Donald McGavran. Long before natural church growth studies conducted by Christian Schwarz, McGavran—dean emeritus and former senior professor of mission, church growth, and South Asian studies at the School of World Mission Fuller Theological Seminary, who also is widely considered the father of church growth studies—conducted the first global study of what makes churches grow. Of many things he discovered one stands out in bold relief from the rest. To start and continue your growth trend you must keep new believers! It’s not hard to deduce that if you lose a member for every member you gain, your net increase is a bagel. All right, it’s no laughing matter. Sometimes after working very hard to lead an evangelistic thrust I was frustrated to find that while three or 30 came in the front door, it seemed that in a matter of weeks almost as many slipped out the back. Right at the point when you are fatigued and ready for a break, as a dutiful under-shepherd who would love a vacation, you find yourself beating the hedges to track down those who have strayed away. I’d like to suggest a number of ways you can stave off the devourer of new believers. But before we look at them, consider the church in Acts. The best church growth model to date is the early church where the Bible says in chapter 2,
42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
47 […] praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.
Four things are clearly deduced in verse 42 that give clear indication as to what was necessary to have a church God thought worthy of His blessing of growth.
1. The people of God must be united doctrinally.
2. The people of God must be united in fellowship.
3. The people of God must be united in liturgy.
4. The people of God must be united in prayer.
After studying McGavern in the mid-’80s I found an interesting parallel between his findings and the growth of the early church. Interestingly enough, McGavern also found four things that happened in the life of new believers that contribute to them staying in the ark of safety. He determined that new believers need to be able to do three of four things within six weeks of joining the church.
1. Say in a germinal way what they believe.
2. Be able to say “I have a friend in my church.”
3. Be involved in the church in some tangible way.
4. Develop a devotional life.
His finding: If new believers could do at least three of the four within a six-week timeframe, they were almost sure to be in that same church for years to come. Did you notice how his finding mirrored that of the early church and its dynamic growth in Acts 2? Namely, they “continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (doctrinal agreement), fellowship, breaking of bread (communion, liturgical involvement), and prayer (developed devotional life). Growing churches have new believers who can:
1. Say in a germinal way what they believe. (Doctrinal Unity)
2. Be able to say I have a friend in my church. (Fellowship)
3. Be involved in the church in some tangible way. (Liturgical involvement)
4. Develop a devotional life. (Prayer)
“And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
To accomplish this after an evangelistic thrust, rather than taking the traditional vacation, consider conducting a post-meeting review where you cover the high points of your meeting. Remember, in six weeks they will forget most of what they’ve learned if you don’t review. New members are excited about what they have learned and some will even say that they enjoyed coming to the meetings nightly. An abrupt change in their evening pattern could actually be detrimental. I’ve found it better to gear down gradually. But it’s important to warn the members that they are not expected to be at your post-meeting review. If you don’t, they may complain that they thought the meeting was over. Some will continue coming to post-meetings anyway. But assure them that they are free to return to their regular roost of evening activities.
Additionally, as your meeting concludes, this is a great time to start a new believers class with you as the teacher. (Sabbath school lessons are usually too hard for new believers to understand.) We called ours the Seekers/Believers Class. It was a great combination because those who had been recently baptized were a source of encouragement to those approaching the baptistery as they would share how God carried them through times of discouragement at the loss of friends and helped them overcome lifestyle challenges, etc. However, if you have a district, prayerfully entrust this group to an elder with an already established gift of teaching. At one congregation I was blessed to have a lady who through her interest in chaplaincy had pursued her Master of Divinity from Andrews. What a Godsend!
Next, to make sure they have a friend in the church, find those who have the gift of hospitality. Avoid the wannabes. They mean it with all their heart when they volunteer to be spiritual guardians to new believers, but rarely follow through. Also, invite new believers to come to your home where they can get to know a different side of their pastor. Keeping them in groups is crucial. Also, identify before your meeting those who truly have the gift of hospitality versus those who have the ability to wound new babes in Christ. Even better than a spiritual gifts assessment are observations coupled with your God-given discernment. He’ll show you who can provide a safe atmosphere, free from church gossip and other dysfunction that would turn a new believer in to a runner.
To get your new believers involved in church life and well on the road to discipleship, before your meeting begins plan activities that will bring the new members into fellowship with their new family. Church picnics, sports activities and cooking classes are apropos.
Still yet, provide enriching materials that are appropriate for new believers. There are many avenues that one might consider, such as a small group that covers Steps to Christ or other materials as the Holy Spirit guides. Gauge where the new believer is in his or her journey. One size does not fit all.
Above all, ask your prayer band to pray for the new believers daily.
Finally, don’t get discouraged when some slip away. It’s to be expected. Rest well knowing you’ve given your very best in their behalf. Also know that as much as you love them, Jesus loves them even more. He won’t lose sight of them. He gave His life for them. That’s why I’m here. My grandmother accepted this message in an evangelistic meeting but didn’t begin to worship regularly with the saints until a branch Sabbath school showed up in her neighborhood almost a year later. Not all plants grow at the same rate. Jesus said in John 18:9, “Of them which thou gavest me have I lost none.”
When you’ve done all you can, He’ll do the rest.