On Sabbath, September 10, 1988, Arlene Whisenant, a young CPA, joined the Foster Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Asheville, North Carolina. At least that is when she took her stand by profession of faith. Actually, she had joined the church much earlier.
A friend first introduced Arlene to the church by inviting her to a church volleyball game three years earlier. Arlene continued coming to play volleyball twice a week. In the spring of 1987 she began attending church. Her eventual accession to the church by profession of faith was simply the final step in a three-year process of assimilation into church life. What began as social fun led her into becoming part of a church family.
Volleyball may seem an unusual entryway into a church, but the fact is that people enter churches through many different "gates." In this article I will use the term people flow as a designation for the patterns or ways through which members move into or out of a given church. Identifying these different patterns in your church will help you increase the avenues through which people can join your church.
Being aware of the patterns of people flow can also help you meet the needs of new members and so stabilize them in the church. And it can help you slow down the loss of current members. The needs of members vary. By taking note of how each member comes into the church, you can anticipate many of his or her needs.
So in studying the people flow of your church, you will want to keep in mind four groups of people: nonmembers in the community, Adventists who are moving into the community, members who are in danger of dropping out of the church, and inactive members who may be open to returning.
Arlene entered the church through a social gate. Among the other gates into a church are the traditional ones such as Bible studies, evangelistic crusades, and Revelation seminars. New members who enter through these gates make commitments primarily to doctrinal truth.
A personal or family crisis can open another people-flow gate. A church near a denominational hospital or one that provides a good Community Services program may find this gate attracting people into its membership.
Ministry within a church can provide another avenue of people flow. The Seventh-day Adventist church in Banner Elk, North Carolina, contracted with Gil Bailey, who was not a member, to be their church organist and music director. A year and a half later, after becoming part of the church family, Gil was baptized and is a strong church leader today.
People-flow patterns into a church are many and varied. There is no one best way. You may legitimately use any of the gates.
There are also back doors, or exit gates—negative people-flow factors. One church I know of has members who brag that during a two-year period they drove six people out over theological issues. Another church allowed music to become a negative force driving people out.
Discovering the gates
Through careful study you can identify the people-flow patterns in your church. Start by making a list of those who joined your church during the past five years. Include those who transferred as well as those who joined by baptism and by profession of faith. Next, identify how each of these individuals came into your church. Once you have this list, look for patterns. If two or more people joined the church in the same way, you may have found a people-flow gate. Can your church expand and improve upon this gate? If so, you can make your church even more inviting and accessible, bringing even more people into your church.
Next, list your church's strengths. Does it have a good choir? Is the Pathfinder program a success? Is your Vacation Bible School well attended? Do you have strong health ministry programs? After listing all of your church's strong points, identify those that might appeal to newcomers — in other words, those points that might serve as gates. What can you do to improve these potential gates so that they move people into your church?
Then look for back doors, or negative gates. List all those who have left the church or become inactive during the past three years. Do you notice any patterns? Are there gates through which two or more people left the church? Does any specific issue or function in the church push people out? If so, you have identified a people-flow problem. What can you do to close that gate?
One church discovered that a number of members had been attending a certain Sabbath school class just before becoming inactive. That class had a history of skepticism and of bad-mouthing church leadership. In another church, a deacon had a habit of verbally attacking some of the young people about their "worldliness." As these young people quit coming, this deacon would say "I told you so." Although he didn't realize it, he was the primary cause for their leaving the church.
If your church is small or has not had any growth for several years, you may find it difficult to identify its gates, or people-flow patterns. In such a case, look for the strengths that your church has and try to use them as avenues for reaching others. Examine the church carefully to see whether anything happening in it may actually be closing some gates.
Some churches grow only by transfer of membership. If yours faces this situation, you need strategies for reaching nonmembers in your community.
Some people-flow patterns are part of the structure of an individual church and cannot be changed. But through careful planning, you can develop some new gates and adapt or strengthen others, using the positive patterns more intention ally and changing or correcting the negative ones.
Meeting your members' needs
Identifying your church's people-flow patterns offers help beyond opening your church's entries and closing its exits. Knowing the ways in which members come into your church will help you identify the specific needs that these members have. One church near a large military center has a rapid turnover of membership. It also has a number of onetime visitors who are military personnel. Careful planning and strengthening of the church social program could really improve that church's ability to meet the needs of its new members.
Military wives provide this church another opportunity for ministry. At times these wives are alone while their husbands are on a tour of duty. With planning, the church could become a center of comfort and activity for these wives.
Those who enter a church through a social pathway need to make the transition from social activities to friendship and then to a sense of spiritual need. Those who come into a church during a personal crisis may need help in finding an enduring walk with God, as well as mature, stable relationships with others in the church.
Those who become members primarily as the result of public evangelistic crusades challenge a church in special ways. Often they have had only limited contact with the church, involving only a short time and a narrow focus of doctrinal learning. For most of these new members, social assimilation and spiritual maturity will not come automatically. The church must plan a careful and extended process of assimilation and growth. It takes new converts an average of two years to become active members within a church family. It may take them even longer to become mature enough spiritually to walk on their own. You must think through what you can do to help assimilate them into the social structure of your church. And you must see that they receive what they need so that they can grow spiritually.
People flow constitutes a part of the structure and life of a church. Each church has its own patterns of church membership. Study your people flow. Then pray that God will guide you to ways in which you can improve and strengthen your church program. You can be an integral part of your church's people flow.