Caring for the newborn

A newborn Christian commonly faces four major crises within two years of his baptism. We need to know not only what they are but also how best to provide the remedy.

Mark Finley is director of the Lake Union Soul-Winning Institute, Chicago, Illinois.

After his birth, my wife and I had the important responsibility of caring for our son. Regularly, we arose two or three times a night to meet his needs. Changing diapers occupied a significant portion of our time! All our energies were focused upon him, for our son could hardly do any thing for himself. But we didn't feel that he was a failure because he needed so much attention. We expected it! Now he is 4 years old. He still needs constant care. He still is not yet fully mature. Likewise, new members, even after baptism, need care, attention, and love. At times they will stumble and fall. They need the warm hand of friendship. It's only kindness, care, and concern that will provide the environment to enable them to keep growing.

Baptism is not a panacea to solve all spiritual problems. Often the new believer is faced with some of his most serious challenges immediately after baptism. How does he relate to non- Adventist relatives? How does he develop new friends? How can he consistently live in harmony with the high standards of the Bible?

The church needs to face the fact that many will very likely become discouraged shortly after baptism. If the church manifests little tolerance for their mistakes, no sympathetic understanding of their trials, the sharp stab of criticism will destroy the blessings of their new faith, and apostasies will be high. Baptism is a symbol of new birth, not an indication of full spiritual maturity. New members are spiritual babes, they can't be expected to survive if they are left alone. It is the church's responsibility, then, to take careful steps to help each new member develop a deep, abiding relationship with Christ.

Some time ago the Reader's Digest featured a study of two orphanages titled "The Awesome Power of Human Love." In one orphanage the children did not develop adequate motor skills. They failed to crawl or walk at the right time. Their vocabulary was limited and their learning retarded. Researchers found that the attendants at this particular orphanage disliked their job. They treated the children crudely and did only what they were obligated to do. The children were often left alone and allowed to cry for hours on end.

At the other orphanage researchers found a dedicated, committed staff. Nurses deeply cared for the children. Here the children developed adequate motor skills. They walked and crawled at the right times. But most of all, they developed lovely, cheerful dispositions. Love does make a difference. Surely there is an atmosphere in a loving church that encourages growth.

It is extremely important that new converts have loving care after baptism. It is essential that they are visited often. Ellen White puts it this way: "Those who have newly come to the faith should be patiently and tenderly dealt with, and it is the duty of the older members of the church to devise ways and means to provide help and sympathy and instruction. . . . These newly converted ones need nursing—watchful attention, help, and encouragement. These should not be left alone, a prey to Satan's most powerful temptations; they need to be educated in regard to their duties, to be kindly dealt with, to be led along, and to be visited and prayed with" (Evangelism, p. 351).

Careful evaluation of new converts in the Seventh-day Adventist Church has convinced me that there are four major crises in the life of the new believer. These crises generally take place within the first two years. Just as the early stages of a baby's life are critical, so are the first two years of a convert's life. These early years set a lifelong pattern for spiritual growth and development.

The crisis of discouragement. This crisis occurs when an individual fails to live up to the high standards that he has espoused immediately previous to his baptism. Baptism is a public commitment; the baptismal vows are a serious declaration of a Christian life style. But after baptism an individual soon discovers that tendencies from his old life are still present. He may lose his temper. He may violate the Sabbath. He may continue to have problems with old habit patterns of speech and thought. When these things grip him again, there can be a period of great discouragement and a sense of defeat. He feels like a hypocrite. His natural reaction is to flee from contact with the church just as Adam and Eve fled from God's loving presence, consumed by a sense of guilt.

Some symptoms of the crisis caused by discouragement are: absenteeism at church, significant changes in attendance patterns at social events or prayer meetings, a recognizable loss of cheerfulness in the Christian life, an obvious lack of desire to linger at church, a hurried handshake, a discouraged countenance, or a sober disposition.

Here are some possible solutions to the crisis of discouragement. The individual can often be helped if it is detected quickly. A phone call, a reassuring word, a prayer, brief note, a pastoral visit—all can be like rays of hope in the darkness. This person needs encouragement more than anything else. He certainly does not need condemnation.

The crisis of integration. This often takes place in the first six months. It occurs when the individual fails to replace the old friends in his life with new ones, or when a person accepts the doctrines of the church but is not integrated into its social structure. He already feels alone, isolated from old friends and possibly his family because of his new commitment. Since human beings are made up of the physical, mental, spiritual, and social, an individual needs to become a part of the social network of the church. He needs to replace old social values with new ones. If he does not, the crisis of integration takes place.

Here are some clues to watch for: arriving late for church or leaving immediately after the closing hymn. The person may sit by himself. He will tend to be lonely. He will rarely attend social functions of the church. If he attends at all, he will sit alone. To him, religion is simply being present on Sabbath morning because he believes the doctrines. This person will generally not attend Sabbath school. He associates very little with church members and has no close friends in the church. He may continue like this for weeks and months, but sooner or later, unless he develops a network of friends within the church, he will leave.

Make active attempts to help him develop new friendships within the church. He needs social fellowship; go out of your way to invite him to church social functions. Phone calls will be more effective than a letter or public announcements. This person needs immediate, personal attention. Warm, loving fellowship and deep personal relationships are significant factors in preventing his apostasy, and an invitation to Sabbath dinner can be one of the best forms of preventive medicine.

During the first six months, more individuals leave the church because of discouragement or lack of integration than for any other single reason.

The crisis of life style. This generally takes place from a year to a year and a half after baptism. The person simply fails to integrate his own life style with the value system of Scripture and of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He has not incorporated family worship into his schedule; grace at meals is spasmodic; Sabbath-keeping is haphazard; he continues to attend the old places of amusement; he does not have a personal devotional life; he spends little time in prayer and Bible study; he does not really know Jesus. In short, although he is present in church on Sabbath morning, the pull of the old life is still extremely strong. His personal experience with Christ is superficial.

Here is what to look for: This person often will not attend Sabbath school; he will regularly miss prayer meeting. There is a general superficiality about his Christian experience, and little meaningful outreach taking place in his life. He does not read denominational papers or attend special meetings of the church such as camp meeting. He speaks in generalities regarding the church, but there is little depth in his own spiritual experience.

The greatest need for one who is experiencing this crisis is a meaningful devotional period. Try to involve him in a small group Bible study with prayer bands, study, and witness. This is an outstanding stimulus to personal spirituality. In the setting of a small group of six to eight persons spiritual growth can take place more easily.

The crisis of leadership. This crisis usually occurs after an individual has demonstrated faithfulness to Christ and His church. Let's assume the church is relatively small. As this member begins to find his place in the leadership structure, he begins to see the inner workings of the church. Perhaps he is placed on the nominating committee. He comes to recognize that not all the church members are "saints." The decisions of committees and boards dealing with practical church problems perplex him. The halo that has surrounded all things connected with the church becomes tarnished.

Symptoms may include: criticism, gossip, failure to keep confidential information learned in committee meetings, or a general feeling of discouragement. A person going through the crisis of leader ship may refuse to take a church office. There may be criticism on one hand and deep feelings of anxiety on the other.

Usually, one or two counseling sessions focusing on necessary tension between the weakness and inadequacy of any human leadership and the divine origin of the church is enough to help this person. The crisis of leadership generally occurs because an individual does not have the spiritual maturity to recognize the "humanness" of individual members. To each new Adventist who is elected to a leadership position explain the frailty of all human beings and the urgent necessity of cooperating together.

In each of these four crises one major ingredient is needed to avert apostasy— caring love! Give evidence of a love which continually says, "I'm interested in you; I'm concerned; I care." Love manifested in a phone call, a brief note, a smile, a warm handshake, an invitation to dinner, will be more effective than a sermon in helping spiritual babes avoid these common crises.

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Mark Finley is director of the Lake Union Soul-Winning Institute, Chicago, Illinois.

August 1983

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