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Sticky Churces

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Archives / 2019 / April

 

 

Sticky Churces

Claudio and Pamela Consuegra

Claudio Consuegra, DMin, and Pamela Consuegra, PhD, are Family Ministries directors of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Columbia, Maryland, United States.

 

It may be difficult for us to accept, but the reality is that Seventhday Adventists are very friendly people—among ourselves. When it comes to visitors or new members of the church, we are not always open, welcoming, or friendly.

Research shows that between 30 and 50 percent of all new members who are baptized do not stick to the church.1 They fall away. Sometimes we notice only after it has been several months or even years. What happened to them? Where did they go? Why did they leave? And, most important, what could we have done to help them stay connected to God’s family? Research conducted across denominational lines indicates that many of those who leave their church do so within six months after having joined.

One of the greatest challenges new members face is trying to break into well-established church cliques, lifelong relationships, or friendships that often involve family relationships. In some churches, two or three families make up the vast majority of the congregation who do not seem to be welcoming or even willing to open their doors to outsiders, even when the outsiders are also Seventh-day Adventists or newcomers to the church, much less those who may just be searching. Therefore, if a church wants to retain these new members, it must provide the fellowship and nurture activities they need.

New members who establish relationships with other members of the church within the first six months tend to stay in the church.2 New people who join the church, through the loving effort of a member of the church with whom they already have a relationship, will more than likely remain in the church past those first six months.3 Church researcher George Barna stresses that for it to be more effective, this assimilation process must take place within six months from the time they join by connecting them with the members of the church.4

Adventist researcher Monte Sahlin comments that “the dropout problem raises serious problems with issues of responsibility, fellowship, and the effectiveness of our nurture activities.”5 The last two items are of special importance. Sahlin’s research indicates that new members of the church need and long for fellowship in their new congregation. “There is evidence that the dropouts are people who never bonded with the core group of their congregation, never felt part of the ‘inner circle.’ ”6 Sahlin adds that “when they are asked why they left the church, about one in four will cite a lack of fellowship.”7 Sahlin concludes that “three out of four leave for reasons having to do with their relationships with people and groups.”8

 

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Other research has confirmed Sahlin’s conclusions. Lyle Schaller suggests that the more friends a person has in a congregation, the less likely that person is to become inactive or leave.9 James Cress and Win and Charles Arn agree that the number of new Christian friends a person makes during the first six months10 of his or her church life directly influences whether that person continues as an active member or drops out.11 In the table below, the Arns compare 100 people who recently made a decision to follow Christ in baptism and church membership, 50 of whom are now active in their church and 50 of whom have since dropped out, and the number of friends each group made in the church during the first six months.12

Out of the 100 new members of the church, of those that had no friends within the first six months, 8 had dropped out. If they made one friend, 13 dropped out. If they had two friends, 14 dropped out. It is when they made three or more friends that you begin to see a change in the tide. Of those that made six friends, only 1 dropped out. Of those that made seven friends, none left the church. In other words, the more friends they made, the greater the chances that they stayed in the church.

Pastor and author Rick Warren concurs with the Arns regarding the need of new members to develop relationships with existing members if they are to remain in the church. He writes, “Christians need relationships to grow. We don’t grow in isolation from others; we develop in the context of fellowship.”13 So we realized that it was time for us to act.

Welcome to the family

As a pastoral couple, we implemented a simple program to integrate newly baptized congregants into a Midwest church plant. We believed that most people who are new members face basic challenges in their personal relationships. The devil works hard to discourage those who have chosen to join the church, and one area he attacks most is relationships—including blood family and church family. Our plan was quite basic. Following an evangelistic meeting, we invited the entire church, along with the new members, to make a commitment to attend a weekly program lasting two hours, for just six weeks. The program began with a fellowship meal and music. Then we transitioned to a time of learning. We spoke about their devotional life, church dynamics, church organization, health, stewardship, and Christian education. But, for the most part, we concentrated on relational issues: communication, conflict resolution, improving marriage, and parenting.

Seventeen of the 20 newly baptized members attended the sessions. A year later we discovered that all 17 new congregants who went through the series still attended church!

At the request of pastors and churches in the North American Division, we created a resource entitled Welcome to the Family.14 This resource can be used by any pastor, elder, family ministries committee, or lay leader. You can adjust meetings and topics to fit your local church. While some people may have never been properly introduced to the doctrines of the Adventist Church, most of those who slip out have not been able to form relationships with other church members or are facing challenges in their lives.

Closed circles?

Why is it so difficult for new members to form relationships with existing members? You would think that Seventh-day Adventists would be thrilled to see people make a decision to be baptized and join the church. Albert Winseman writes that after about 18 months, a group tends to become closed, in that the members now have a history together, and because of that shared history, it becomes difficult for new members to join such a group.

How long has your church been in existence? Longer than 18 months? If so, it probably has become a closed group. And the longer the group/church has been together, the stronger their bonds are and the harder it is for a newcomer to break into that closed circle. Churches that are serious about making newcomers feel welcome in collective experiences are constantly forming new groups of new people—who can then create their own shared history.15

The challenge lies in how to make a change within that closed attitude. Warren emphasizes that “you can’t just hope people will make friends in the church; you must encourage it, plan for it, structure for it, and facilitate it.”16 Henry Cloud and John Townsend add that the New Testament teaches that the body of Christ is to be people deeply connected to one another.17 Arn and Arn warn that if, after six months, the new member can identify few or no close friends in the church, the chances are extremely high that the person will soon be inactive.18 The “friendship factor,” writes Ronald Sider, is the most important element in whether a person remains active in a local church or drops out. That combination of food, friendship, song, prayer, and Bible study “invites and sustains many broken people along the slow, ongoing path of personal transformation.”19

We want to underscore the importance of the emotional connection that new members need with those already in the church. Winseman writes, “Neurological research confirms that our emotional connections are far stronger than our rational connections—it’s not enough to know that belonging to an organization has positive benefits; one must also feel it. And more often than not, we feel it before we know it.”20 Gallup research has discovered that the two primary causes of spiritual health are spiritual commitment and congregational engagement,21 and that “belonging is far more likely to lead to believing. . . . The more engaged people feel in their congregations, the more spiritually committed they become.”22 For Arn and Arn, an effective incorporation strategy will help new members build additional relationships beyond the friend or relative originally responsible for bringing the person to Christ. He adds that the evidence that the incorporation strategy is working is when you see new members continue on as active members even when the original friend or relative moves to another city or dies.23

Jane Thayer writes that, as people are led to Christ and His church, there are times when the church members run into resistance on the part of their family members.24 Karen Flowers and Ron Flowers write about a dilemma new converts to the Adventist Church often face as they try to adapt to their new church family, especially when certain elements in these practices conflict with the new members’ family life: “In such times, let us not be quick to pass moral judgment upon those things in diet, dress or recreation or other family lifestyles which, if they were caused to cease, would threaten to diminish marital or family bonds.”25 Diana Garland explains that family ministry helps reshape congregational life so that its members can accomplish the goal of community life, that is, “caring for one another, ministering to others, worshiping God.”26 She goes on to describe some of the programs and services through which congregations can help strengthen Christian families as well as encouraging them as they reach out in ministry to the communities where they live. A few examples of these “family resource programs” include sharing meals, recreational or social activities, retreats and camps, family networks and support groups.27

Providing opportunities for fellowship and teaching, especially among newly baptized members, helps to glue them to the body of Christ.

Conclusion—stick together

Have you ever gone to the hardware store to purchase glue only to be bewildered by a vast array of adhesives: synthetic glues, solvent glues, and super glues; water-based glues and plant-based glues? Which one you choose depends, of course, on what you want to keep held firmly together. By analogy, the kind of “glue” we use in the church is critical.

Research confirms that most of those who leave the church do so not because they were not properly instructed or did not believe the doctrines. Instead, more often, there have been deficiencies in the relational aspects of the discipling process, and as a result, new members are not well assimilated into church fellowship. Nor are they assisted in resolving relationship challenges in their families, some of whom are not Seventh-day Adventist and see their loved ones’ decision in conflict with their own faith and practice.

What is critically important is how we help new members become assimilated into the church within the first six months after joining. And when people describe your church—faithful to Scripture and passionate about doctrine—may they be able to add open and friendly, and warm and sticky.28

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1  Monte Sahlin, Why Do Adventists Quit Coming to Church? (Lincoln, NE: Center for Creative Ministry,1998), 1.

2  Jane Thayer, “Pastors’ Perspectives on Assimilating New Members—Part 1,” Ministry, February 2010, 7.

3  James A. Cress, You Can Keep Them If You Care: Helping New Members Stay on Board (Silver Spring,MD: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2000), 68.

4  George Barna, Grow Your Church From the Outside In (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2002), 153.

5 Sahlin, Why Do Adventists Quit, 2.

6 Sahlin, Why Do Adventists Quit, 3.

7 Sahlin, Why Do Adventists Quit, 3.

8 Sahlin, Why Do Adventists Quit, 3.

9  Lyle E. Schaller, Assimilating New Members (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1978), 75.

10 Cress, You Can Keep Them, 39.

11  Win Arn and Charles Arn, The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples: Every Christian an Effective Witness Through an Enabling Church, 2nd ed. (Monrovia, CA:Church Growth Press, 1998), 155.

12 Arn and Arn, The Master’s Plan, 156.

13  Richard Warren, The Purpose-Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 338, 339.

14  The entire program, including a CD with presentations handouts, songs, and even recipes, is available from AdventSource at adventsource.org/store/adult-ministries/family-ministries/welcome-to-the-family-38153.

15  Albert L. Winseman, Growing an Engaged Church: How to Stop “Doing Church” and Start Being the Church Again (New York: Gallup Press, 2006), 25.

16 Warren, Purpose-Driven Church, 324, 325.

17  Henry Cloud and John Townsend, How People Grow: What the Bible Reveals About Personal Growth (GrandRapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 122, 123.

18 Arn and Arn, The Master’s Plan, 155.

19 Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005),26.

20  Winseman, Growing an Engaged Church, 29 (emphasis in the original).

21 Winseman, Growing an Engaged Church, 43.

22  Winseman, Growing an Engaged Church, 44, 45.

23 Arn and Arn, The Master’s Plan, 148.

24 Thayer, “Pastors’ Perspectives,” 7.

25  Karen Flowers and Ron Flowers, “Module 10,” Your Family: An Evangelistic Center (Silver Spring, MD:Department of Family Ministries, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, n.d.), 211.

26  Diana R. Garland, Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 466.

27 Garland, Family Ministry, 482–502.

28 See also Larry Osbourne, Sticky Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).

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