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By Chuck Lawless

Maybe you’ve seen it happen.  A new believer joins a local church, and he is thrilled by his changed life.  He shows up at every church event.  He consumes knowledge of the Bible. But then something happens. The excited new believer slowly wanders away, and few people in the church notice.

Too often, this story resounds in churches that have a poor assimilation strategy. They might reach people for Christ, but they have no intentional plan to keep the people they reach. Their back door remains as open as their front door.

Listed below are some steps to evaluate your congregation’s assimilation strategy. Taking these steps will require some work, but no church should be pleased when new believers disappear.

1. Review the church’s primary approach to evangelismSometimes new members fall away because the presentation of the gospel they hear is incomplete.  The gospel call that weakens repentance is insufficient, and the result is often new members who fall again into previous sin patterns.  A gospel message that speaks only of blessings without commitment commonly leads to new believers who depart the church when those blessings are not immediately realized. A poor presentation of the gospel often reaps what it sows.

2. Compare the church’s addition numbers with corresponding attendance numbersIf, for example, a church reports twenty-five new believers in the last two years with a corresponding attendance increase of only ten, further review is warranted.  The causes for the discrepancy may be many (e.g., job transfers for current members, deaths in the church, teams sent to church planting, conflict in the church), but one cause is often poor assimilation of new believers.

3. Review attendance and participation records of specific new believersIn the above scenario, review the records for the twenty-five new believers. Are the new believers actively attending a small group?  Are they participating in some type of ministry?  Are they accountable to someone for their spiritual growth?  If all new members are attending and participating, the cause for the membership/attendance discrepancy may not be related to poor assimilation—at least not of these new believers. Seldom have we found that to be the case, however.

4. Evaluate the church’s current strategy for keeping new believersOur studies of growing churches have shown four components of effective assimilation, best illustrated in an “assimilation rectangle”:

assimilation-rectangle

  • Stated expectations help the new believer understand up front what God and the church expect; the growing believer is then held accountable to these expectations through participation in a small group.
  • Ministry involvement—even in an “entry” position—gives the new believer purpose in the church.  Involvement begins with a strategy to help believers understand their giftedness and callings.
  • Healthy relationships help form the “glue” that draws new believers back to church; discipled members then turn around and reach out to others.
  • Convictional teaching and preaching meet the needs of new believers who long for Christian growth; these same believers then mature and grow under that preaching.

In many cases, though, churches have no intentional strategy in place. Where there is no intentional strategy based on these components, it is not surprising that new believers do not remain long at such a church.

5. Talk with new believers who no longer attend the church. Interviewing church members is one of the most helpful and productive strategies of church consulting.  With the church’s help, locate non-attending new believers and ask them why they no longer attend.  Again, the causes may be several (e.g., laziness, church conflict, recurrent sin, “never really fit in,” etc.), but the church must recognize that something is amiss when new believers no longer participate in the church. Interviewing them may be the first step toward drawing them back to the congregation.

6. Interview new believers who have remained in the church. Just as something happens to leads to non-participation, something usually happens to keep new believers in the fold.  The new believer may not be prepared to articulate that “something,” but a good consultant can interpret answers as needed.  “It’s just friendly church” may mean, “They connected with me relationally.” “I feel important here,” may mean, “The church has given me some purpose.”  “I get answers here” may well reflect the church’s commitment to teaching truth.

Our goal should be to reach and keep new believers in the church. What other steps would you recommend?  


Lifeway_Blog_Ad[1]Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary. You can connect with Dr. Lawless on both Twitter and Facebook.

photo credit: Lynn Kelley Author via photopin cc

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Comments

  1. Rich says

    Wonderful insights! I might only add that a system, tool or person/team be created to track and provide feedback on the progress so that leaders can evaluate real-time how the process is working and celebrate the successes.

  2. says

    Thank you for these wise points, Dr. Lawless. I personally believe that your first point is the most important. If people are drawn to the church based on a weak/one-sided gospel presentation, it is not hard to see why they will not be there for long.

    One point that I would highlight is the evaluation of how established members relate to new believers. Are they weary and standoffish? Are they warm, welcoming and eager to establish a relationship with the new believer? Do they take person interest in the new believer’s life, establish a discipling relationship and make sure they get plugged into service opportunities, small groups, etc.? I think that this can make or break a new believer’s response to attending a church.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Thanks, Madison. It’s easy for established members to become cocooned among their friends (often unintentionally so), and thus miss the opportunity to connect with new members.

  3. says

    As always your posts hit the soft spots and point us back to essential basics of church and faith! Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom.

    I notice that often we fail to invite new people into our circles and even worse, we tend to never ask them how they might like to serve. We’ve been shocked to ask people to help us and have them say, “I’ve been going here for more than 10 years and you are the first person to ever ask us to do anything!” No wonder pastors, staff and faithful volunteers burn out and fade away so often.

    Love to learn effective ways to change congregational culture towards being invitational beyond just altar calls and giving!

    Blessings in the ministry there…

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Good point, Kelly. We need to learn a 1 Cor 12 theology (every member has a role) and a Jesus methodology of recruiting (one on one, face to face: “You, leave the boat and let’s get busy!”) if we want to get people involved.

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