Win them and hold them

How to assimilate members and prevent dropouts.

Miguel Angel Cerna is senior pastor of the Norwalk Spanish church, a field director for Hispanic work of the Southern California Conference, and a special assistant editor of Ministry.

Pastor, I'm so glad I came to know Jesus and this church! Five years ago I was planning to commit suicide. Somehow God never let that hap pen. He wanted me to know the gospel for myself and also have a ministry for Christ in helping others. This has kept me happy in the church."

That testimony from a single parent came just two days ago in a gathering of small group leaders of my church. Many of them had been drug addicts or drunkards disregarding Christ and His gospel; now they were happy in Jesus and serving Him. These lay leaders had been evangelized by church members from similar backgrounds. After baptism, our strategy for assimilating new members helped keep them in the church.

The challenge of assimilating members while avoiding dropouts has proven difficult. Why? We don't have to struggle to keep family members physically alive. We just do what we need to do, at times almost unconsciously, and they stay and grow. Why is it so difficult to survive and thrive spiritually? Because the devil is at work? I don't think so. Satan would like to destroy us even physically so he would not have to worry about destroying us spiritually. I believe the answer is more simple and—also more profound—than we imagine.

More than talk

The devil has a well-studied strategy to limit evangelism by keeping us talking about it and studying it without actually doing it. And so we've become specialists in producing materials, at tending seminars, discussing our lack of commitment to evangelize, etc. Mean while, we fail to appropriate inspired counsel about winning and holding members. Even worse, those of us in administrative positions have shunned our responsibility to hold accountable the workers whom we serve.

How are we to assimilate members? The principles are all there. But first let us share some basic facts about member ship loss in the average church: a typical church each year loses between 2 and 3 percent of members through transfer; urban churches can lose 15-20 percent. Also, between 1 and 2 percent of members will die. Then there is the problem of backsliding. Every year through apostasy we lose between 2 and 6 percent. Of these, 85 percent leave the same year they came in.

So if you have 750 members on the books, you can expect to lose 75 of them through transfer, death, or reversion. This means you need 75 new members just to break even. In the average church about 12-15 percent of visitors become members in 9-12 months. Thus, in a church of 750 members, you need 550 visitors annually just to break even.

An officer of the Pacific Union of Seventh-day Adventists reported that his territory has lost 87,933 members in the past 40 years, presently 250 to 300 per month. He also said that the North American Division has lost approximately 500,000 in the past four decades. And how about those many more members who are on the books but have not at tended for many years?

Too many ministries?

What is the solution to this awesome problem? Adding another ministry in the church? No, never has the church had more ministries than now. There are usher ministries, bus ministries, telephone ministries, prison ministries, visitation ministries, greeter ministries, counseling ministries, etc. There are children's ministries, junior high school ministries, senior high ministries, collegiate ministries, singles' ministries, adults' ministries, etc. Where in the Bible do we see all these ministries and the dozens I'm not mentioning?

There are choir ministries, singing ministries, prayer ministries, etc., yet we still lose thousands per month. We must be doing something wrong, or better said, not doing some thing that we should. All I know is that if we want something we have never had, we must do some thing we have never done.

Life is simple. Church life is simple, too, I believe we have overburdened ourselves with too many minis tries, when all God re quires of us pastors is to train our members and nurture our members in sharing Christ. This is not done by simply praying about or seeking a revival. I believe too many prayer and revival meetings can be an escape from seriously doing our work.

It is true that the church was born from prayer, but remember that nothing really happened to make the church grow until Peter preached. Preaching to unbelievers, sharing Christ, giving Bible studies and evangelizing are necessary functions of the church. All the prayers and revivals in the world will not relieve us from performing the task God has given us.

Small groups are the key

Before people become members they are visitors. And did you know that 70- 90 percent of all visitors attend because someone invited them? So we must be gin there, by training our members to bring and receive visitors. Then, after their baptism, we need to hold them.

How? The number one reason for dropping out is the lack of permanent friendships. I believe there are two basic factors in keeping people and assimilating members: (1) we must organize small groups in which they can be nurtured and develop friendships; (2) we must teach them that as surely as there is a place in heaven for them, there is a place for them to work for God on earth. Small groups provide both a place for nurturing friend ships and an evangelistic action unit.

Nothing is as powerful or as simple in winning and keeping converts as the fellowship and training of small groups. If you join my church today without joining a small group, and if you are still a member one or two years from how, I will be surprised.

Ellen White wrote: "The formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort has been presented to me by One who cannot err."1 This inspired counsel concurs with the instruction given in Exodus 18, where we read that Moses organized Israel into small groups.

Small groups for visitors

Our local congregation is so commit ted to organizing small groups that visitors join them even before baptism. Also we have four small groups that new members progressively attend. Specially trained church elders teach these classes as part of their pastoral responsibilities. Each class represents a developmental stage or milestone in Christian living.

Class 1: Getting to know Christ (salvation)

Born again

Added to the church

Sabbath attendance

Eager to grow

Class 2: Growing in Christ (stability)

Basic knowledge of the Bible

Attending and belonging to a small group

Studying the Sabbath school lesson

Enjoying fellowship

Class 3: Giving to Christ (service)

Bringing the tithe

Active in spiritual gifts

Sharing faith

Enlisting a prayer partner

Class 4: Giving for Christ (evangelism)

Heart for the world 

Operating in love

Mobilizing for mission

Encouraging others to attend church

As members progress from class to class, knowing they have four classes to complete, they keep a "looking forward to" attitude that fosters maturity, development, and assimilation. Following baptism, those not yet members of a small group are invited to another small group where they review the basics and experience further fellowship. Afterward, these small groups will nurture their spiritual gifts and teach them to witness.

A gift to God

Our mandate is clear: "Christ intends that His ministers shall be educators of the church in gospel work. They are to teach the people how to seek and save the lost." 2 In this Christmas season, let's present Jesus with the gift of a church organized and trained to serve Him, winning and keeping the souls for whom He died.

1 Ellen White, Testimonies (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 7, pp.
21, 22.

2 Ellen White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 825.

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Miguel Angel Cerna is senior pastor of the Norwalk Spanish church, a field director for Hispanic work of the Southern California Conference, and a special assistant editor of Ministry.

December 1993

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