"They don’t stay!” the older lady in her perfectly ironed Sabbath dress told me emphatically. “We had an evangelistic meeting two years ago, and all those people are gone.”
I was visiting a church where we were planning to have a student-led meeting as part of our field school that summer. This lady was not impressed. In her view, people just came in the front door and walked out the back door. In many cases, she may be right. We have not always done a good job at keeping people in the church.
The latest research indicates that 49 out of every 100 new Adventist members eventually leave the church.1 At times we have focused so much on evangelism that we have forgotten the importance of nurturing and discipleship. Somehow, we left the back door swinging wide open.
Fortunately, we are finding ways to keep new believers. I have worked with a number of churches over the last five years where the number of people leaving the church is close to zero. We have discovered five keys to closing and locking that back door. The five keys may be common sense, but they are critical to ensuring that we both keep and disciple our new members.
Before I get to these five keys, however, we need to step back and look at the broader picture of what is happening when someone joins the church. If we can step into the shoes of a new convert, it will give us clues as to how to help keep them in the church. Perhaps a little of my personal story will help.
As a child, I lived in a motorcycleracing, beer-drinking, cussing family with no interest in spiritual things. However, I had gone to an Adventist school for a while, and when I hit a personal crisis at the age of 13, I decided to look up an Adventist church and go there. So, one Saturday morning, I cycled 16 miles (24 kilometers) to church and back.
It felt good on that first Sabbath to be in the house of God. He was alive and real to me, and I wanted to find Him. However, over time, I discovered that church was completely different from what I was used to. They wore suits. They sang hymns. Many of them did not eat meat. They sat in programs all day and talked about things I did not understand. They quoted from some kind of prophet. It was a foreign land. People were friendly, but I did not feel as if I knew them. If it had not been for my desperate desire to find God, I am not sure I would have stayed.
Joining a church is as much a cultural transition as it is a spiritual one. The reason why many people leave the church is not because of theological differences but because they feel like they do not “fit in.” It is similar to what happens when a person goes to study in a different country and ends up feeling homesick. They have a sense of alienation from the culture that they are in. We even have a term for it: culture shock.
Sverre Lysgaard, a Norwegian sociologist, identified three phases that immigrants to a new culture experience. He termed it the U curve because there are highs and lows (as shown in the figure). The first phase tends to be excitement and anticipation as the person looks forward to interacting with the new culture. This is followed by a period of shock and disorientation as they are confronted with unusual patterns of belief and behavior (the bottom of the U curve). The third phase is adaptation as people learn to adapt and feel at home in their new culture.2
U-curve model of cultural adaptation
Imagine a person who has come to a prophecy seminar and is now attending church. They are excited and passionate about the truths they have heard. Members are friendly and welcoming. This person may even be experiencing victory over sins that they have been struggling with. They have a positive view of the remnant church and want to get involved. Talk about a honeymoon phase!
Phase One: Excitement and “honeymoon”
Phase Two: “Culture shock
Phase Three: Adaptation and feels “at home”
But give them a few months, and the picture begins to change. Somewhere along the way they discover that close friends inside the church are hard to come by, and friends outside the church are distancing themselves. The new believer stumbles into church politics, judgmentalism, and gossip. They find that some sins and addictions in their lives are not going away. While a new believer is taught the fundamentals of what to believe, he or she may not know the basics of how to live the Adventist faith. As a result, it is not hard to see why discouragement sets in and people leave.
The five keys that I am sharing with you have proved extremely helpful in enabling new believers to grow in their faith, adapt to the church, and connect with God and others. '
Key 1: Spiritual friends
I am amazed at how new believers are often neglected, left to sit by themselves in church or lunch. Sure, people are friendly when the person first comes to church. But, once people are baptized, members revert back to their old friendship circles. Busyness and a lack of intentionality mean that we end up inadvertently forgetting new believers, right at the time when they are making major transitions in their lives.
That is why I jumped on a program that a friend of mine, Gary Gibbs, shared with me. He called it Spiritual Friends. Every regular attendee or Bible study student is assigned a spiritual friend who is an existing church member. The church member agrees to spend at least twelve weeks intentionally being a “friend.” The twelve-week program is simple. Make contact at least once a week. Sit with your friend at church. Invite them for a meal. Share an assigned book or magazine. Invite them to join you for a social activity. Introduce them to others. Find out whether they are struggling with anything and support them.
There is nothing earth-shattering in this approach. What makes this program effective, however, is the accountability system. Once a week, members send an email to the Spiritual Friends coordinator to let them know that contact has been made with their new friend and to update them on any potential challenges. If they do not send an email, then the coordinator will check up to make sure nothing is wrong. Of course, it does not always work, but it’s amazing how a simple system helps us be more responsible with those God has entrusted to our care.
We launch the program with a short training to orient members to how it works. We talk about being positive and not sharing gossip or criticism with the new believers. We tell members not to share their theological hobbyhorses but to instead focus on practical Christianity. We talk about the importance of introducing the new believer to other members. We share dos and don’ts and tell a few stories.
I describe my own experience of how it took me two years to join the church. What helped me transition through my own cultural shock was a family that took me into their home on Sabbath afternoons and treated me like I was one of their sons. They bore with my many mistakes as a new Christian and, instead of lecturing me, loved me into the faith.
Key 2: Small groups
Frankly, our second strategy was a surprise. We discovered the power of small groups at keeping new believers. It came as a surprise because regular Adventists (in the United States) do not typically do very well with small groups. But new believers loved them! After an evangelistic series in a local church plant, we started three new groups with members leading out, but mostly new believers and their friends as the participants.
Our groups met in homes rather than at the church, and we focused on conversational Bible study, with leaders using questions from the Serendipity Bible Study for Small Groups. There was food and time for fellowship. We were amazed at how these groups grew and bonded. This really helped people feel less like strangers and more like family.
Of course, we learned that not all small groups succeed. As I have tried this elsewhere, I found that small groups rise and fall on good leaders. They also have natural life cycles. As we neared summer and Thanksgiving, the groups would tend to wind down and might need to take a break. We learned to be flexible with our groups and to adapt them to people’s needs.
Another “small group” that was very successful was the new believers’ class. This was not just for those who were preparing for baptism; it was also for those who had been recently baptized. Once again, we focused on conversational Bible study, using the In Step With Jesus lessons for new believers. Church members were not generally invited unless they were spiritual friends with the new believers. These members tend to be much more aware of what the new believers need to hear. We spend up to 15 minutes just chatting and talking about how things are going in their lives, and then we have a meaningful Bible study. The result is that new believers would rather miss church than Sabbath School!
Having spiritual friends and small groups was incredibly powerful at keeping people bonded to each other, but there was still a danger. They might bond with their spiritual friend and with each other, but that did not mean they were connected to the church as a whole. That is why we needed another key.
Key 3: Social activities
To help transition new believers into the church, one of the things that we have been very intentional about is providing opportunities for fellowship and social activities. A number of churches that we work with now provide a large refreshment budget as part of their evangelistic meetings. Nightly refreshments, fellowship meals, and opportunities to interact socially are built into the meetings and the months following. This helps take care of the “vacuum” that new believers experience when the meetings end.
One way in which we did this was to plan a social event at the church for either the final day of the series (Saturday night) or for the following week. We would try to make this the best social event of the year, with lots of opportunities to interact, laugh, play, and pray together. Having scheduled social events made it much easier to integrate the new believers into our church.
Key 4: Involvement in the mission
While social connections are important, we realized that this was not enough. We needed to involve our new believers in the mission of the church. Just like Jesus involved His disciples in missionary activities, even before they were fully converted, so we sensed that we needed to give opportunities to people to get involved, even before they were members. We noticed that when we had afternoon outreach activities, a number of those who had just started attending church would show up.
We decided that our outreach programs would be a great way to connect with those who were attending but not members. They helped us do our canned food drive, deliver cookies to doors, and drop off and even give Bible studies. When we had a large Bible worker training event for the church, a number attended who had never been baptized. We discovered that some people want to “belong” before they choose to “believe.”
One of the reasons why I am in ministry today is because, when I was a new believer, the church got me involved. Even before I was baptized, I was doing outreach and teaching Pathfinders how to rebuild motorcycle engines. Once I was baptized, I was made a junior deacon at 15 and a junior elder at 17. There were a lot of ways in which I needed to grow, but the church took risks with me and placed me in positions where I could do ministry under mentoring leaders.
Key 5: Evangelism seminars
Recent research suggests that it takes an average of 6 to 18 months for attendees from an evangelistic seminar to join the church.3 They are very vulnerable during this time as they try to make sense of their new faith. They often do not absorb all that they have heard. One of the best ways to keep new believers in the church is to invite them to participate in an evangelistic seminar. We have found that new believers are some of the most consistent attendees at evangelistic meetings.
Ellen White indicated this same philosophy. “After the first efforts have been made in a place by giving a course of lectures, there is really greater necessity for a second course than for the first.”4
In one of our meetings we used round tables and had table leaders and coleaders. About 25 percent of our table leaders were either new believers or not yet baptized. Being paired with a mature member helped grow their faith and make them feel a part of the church.
As a new believer, I preached my very first evangelistic series at age 16. This experience helped me fall in love with Jesus and decide to do ministry.
These five keys are not foolproof. People leave for a variety of reasons that may have nothing to do with connecting with the church. Members do not always take their responsibility for new believers seriously, even if they are given training. But, as my own experience as a new member showed, in most cases, if you love them, they will stay. Being intentional about keeping new believers connected and involved can go a long way toward shutting that back door and keeping it locked.
1 Andrew McChesney, “Every Adventist Urged to Help Stem Membership Losses,” Adventist News Network, https://news.adventist.org/en/all-news/news /go/2016-10-10/every-adventist-urged-to-help -stem-membership-losses/.
2 As quoted in Judith N. Martin and Thomas K. Nakayama, Intercultural Communication in Contexts, 2nd ed. (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000), 211.
3 This was based on research on data from more than 30 churches in Michigan, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee who held evangelistic meetings from 2009 to 2016.
4 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.), 334.