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Welcome!

Chapter Ten: Fitting In

Mervin Deiter is a stonemason in much demand because of his excellent work. I enjoy watching him build or repair stone walls. He fits each stone into place, making a unique pattern. Small stones, large stones, odd-shaped stones—all are arranged together to form a strong wall.

The Scripture says: "...you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood..." (1 Pet. 2:5). Other Bible verses also emphasize this idea.

...you are ... built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22).
..you are...God's building (1 Cor. 3:9).

Loose stones lying on a pile or scattered on the ground are easily stolen or moved around. But stones cemented into the wall of a house are more permanent.

The apostle Paul used yet another word picture to describe the relationship of Christians to one another. "Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it" (1 Cor. 12:27).

Paul emphasized the vital contribution each makes to the whole body.

God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body." (1 Cor. 12:18-20)

Both word pictures portray organization and structure. The stones, as well as the body parts, have to do with the contribution of a single part to the formation of the whole. The building metaphor portrays security, a place of protection and belonging in the structure. The body metaphor portrays belonging as well as significance.

Life flows through each of the church's parts. But without proper organization, that life would cease. Cancer illustrates disorder's effects. It represents a breakdown of proper function and organization.

How can the church provide security of belonging and significance of ministry for each person in the church? How can the church help new people fit into the structure so they find a place of fellowship and ministry? These are questions I'll address in the rest of this chapter.

Small Groups in the Church

Small groups of Christians have been meeting since Pentecost, with varying purposes. The churches which received Paul's original letters met in homes and shared the Epistles with other house fellowships. The members of the church were intimately involved in one another's lives.

The Wesleyan class meetings were small-group fellowships. These meetings led to the establishment of the Methodist Church, so named because of the methodical way people and programs were organized for nurture. For 100 years, to be a Methodist was to belong to a small group. People attended church Sunday morning and class meeting Sunday night.

Today, the church in Asia leads the way in small-group formation. The world-renowned Korean church, led by Paul Cho, thrives through the ministry of small groups. The church in China has also been growing spectacularly in the past decade, even under oppression, through small groups.

Most satisfied church members identify with some subgroup within the church—a Sunday school class, a committee, a special-interest group, or a home group. Effective small groups help meet the needs of newer members and stimulate congregational life. Following are several principles regarding the role of small groups in the church. Small groups help participants:

  1. Develop meaningful relationships among the group members.
  2. Study the Scriptures and make meaningful applications to life.
  3. Minister to others beyond the group.

A weekly group meeting may be the most effective way of accomplishing the above objectives. Groups which meet less often tend to be less effective. In order to really encourage each other in discipleship, group members need to know one another's working lives and home lives, as well as their church lives.

Bible study is an important focus for a small group. New groups might begin by studying the Gospel of Mark, then the Gospel of John, followed by the first epistle of John. After that, any New Testament book could be used (although Hebrews and Revelation should be studied only after a thorough familiarity with the Old Testament). The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups can be a very helpful tool for small-group Bible study.

As Christians submit themselves to the authority of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. A great hindrance to church growth is a lack of genuine repentance among professing Christians. Adult Bible study groups can tend to become subject-oriented or teacher-oriented.

This leads to a weakness in two areas. First, there is little interpersonal ministry among participants. Second, there is little evangelism taking place. Small groups that focus on practical application of Scripture can help avoid these tendencies.

Church leaders must take responsibility to supervise and train small-group leaders. Small-group leaders can benefit from regular meetings with the pastor or other church leaders. They can encourage one another and work through problems. They can also determine the study materials for small groups. Twice-yearly training sessions can keep leaders on the growing edge and help produce new leaders. New groups can then be formed at least twice a year.

New groups tend to incorporate newcomers more easily than older groups. When a group first begins, everyone is on equal ground in terms of the group's history and experience. The fellowship may be shallow. But it is inclusive.

As the group ages, the fellowship deepens. But the group becomes more exclusive. A newcomer may feel awkward breaking into a series of discussions, or not understanding the group's way of doing things. Mark, then the Gospel of John, followed by the first epistle of John. After that, any New Testament book could be used (although Hebrews and Revelation should be studied only after a thorough familiarity with the Old Testament). The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups can be a very helpful tool for small-group Bible study.

As Christians submit themselves to the authority of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. A great hindrance to church growth is a lack of genuine repentance among professing Christians. Adult Bible study groups can tend to become subject-oriented or teacher-oriented.

This leads to a weakness in two areas. First, there is little interpersonal ministry among participants. Second, there is little evangelism taking place. Small groups that focus on practical application of Scripture can help avoid these tendencies.

Church leaders must take responsibility to supervise and train small-group leaders. Small-group leaders can benefit from regular meetings with the pastor or other church leaders. They can encourage one another and work through problems. They can also determine the study materials for small groups. Twice-yearly training sessions can keep leaders on the growing edge and help produce new leaders. New groups can then be formed at least twice a year.

New groups tend to incorporate newcomers more easily than older groups. When a group first begins, everyone is on equal ground in terms of the group's history and experience. The fellowship may be shallow. But it is inclusive.

As the group ages, the fellowship deepens. But the group becomes more exclusive. A newcomer may feel awkward breaking into a series of discussions, or not understanding the group's way of doing things.

The greater the diversity in group life, the greater the growth potential of the church. Because different groups meet different needs, many different people can have their needs met. When more needs are being met, the church is more likely to attract new people. For example, junior and senior high school groups have different needs. If there are separate groups for these rapidly changing adolescents, they are more likely to invite their friends.

A single-cell church may prefer to be one big happy family. But even a family will break into separate interest groups. There aren't many activities which keep three generations interested for long periods of time.

At an extended family reunion, for example, there may be several clusters of small groups. The children may go to a playground or a nearby park. One group may be clustered around Grandmother's latest craft project. Another may be in the garden, examining the homeowner's plans for a new patio extension. Still another may be crowded in the living room, watching a video or catching a sports show.

All groups have a saturation point. It may be because someone's living room seats only twelve people, or because three people tend to do all the talking. For whatever reason, groups reach a point at which they won't easily grow. As groups near saturation, they find it less easy to incorporate someone new.

Sensitivity in introducing the concept of small groups is essential. Some churches strongly resist small-group development. This tends to be true of rural churches and those with many blood ties in the church fellowship. It's best not to push such people into groups. Small groups can instead be offered for those who want them.

Some people aren't prepared to deal with the potential intimacy of a small group. Perhaps they have just experienced hurt and are feeling vulnerable. Or perhaps they have been taught that small groups are wrong. (Some churches have specifically forbidden small-group meetings.) Again, they may simply be shy and reserved and just need private space.

The Effect of Church Size

A church's capacity to grow is directly related to its structure. Leadership structure becomes more crucial as a church grows, because it takes more energy and administration to keep a large church growing. It can't easily use the same decision-making process as a small church.

Large churches tend to put major decisions in the hands of a few capable people. For example/ there is one large, growing church that has only one committee—a property committee. But the people in this church are involved in many ministries—many of them in community-oriented services. Large churches usually give more authority to a few. They then give more ministry opportunities to many.

A church that is trying to improve its welcome will need to consider the dynamics of church size. What works for a large urban church may not work for a small rural church. Likewise, a pastor who has successfully used a particular approach in one parish may be disappointed to find it doesn't work in another.

Each church size poses unique problems for receiving new members. The examples in this book have been drawn from churches of all sizes. Readers will need to discern which insights are most appropriate for a particular situation.

Below I'll discuss three general categories of church size, along with implications for incorporating new people. The small church. Small churches function like a family. When people are welcomed into a small church, they become an integral part of the family. There are jobs for everyone. Small churches are good places for people to develop their gifts and abilities. Everyone's contribution is valued.

Small churches sometimes include several nuclear or extended families. A member of one of these families may be a "gatekeeper." If the gatekeeper rejects a newcomer, the rest of the fellowship may follow suit.

Even new pastors may feel excluded by a small, single-celled church. They may find it difficult to function effectively. Many small churches can't afford a full-time pastor. In these churches, most program direction and decision-making power is held by laypeople.

Receiving a new member in the small church is much like adopting a child. Since fitting into a family takes time, it may take several years for a new person to really feel at home. Spouses of church members tend to find it easiest to fit quickly into the church. In a way, they "marry into the church."

The medium-sized church. As church size increases, there are growing professional expectations of the pastor. The pastor may "run the church" and try to be involved in all aspects of church life. The pastor may be expected to do everything, including evangelistic outreach. Consequently, newcomers may be attracted to the ministry of the pastor, who becomes the primary "magnet" attracting people to the church.

The pastor also becomes an important factor in whether or not people feel incorporated into the church. Growth through conversion in this size church may easily be "choked out" by a pastor's lack of time to keep meeting new people.

As a church grows beyond the ability of a pastor to know and care for each individual, one of two things will likely happen. The church will stop growing. Or the pastor will find other ways to provide for pastoral oversight. Single-pastor churches tend to plateau in attendance at about 200. This figure seems to represent the number of people which can be pastored by one person.

It may be difficult for a newcomer to find a place of belonging in a medium-sized church, particularly if there is no small-group structure. It's hard to belong to a group of 100-300 people. Unless they find their needs met in a small group, new people may leave through the back door.

The large church. The large church may well contain several small "churches." Members may not know everyone in the whole church. But they can know everyone in their Sunday school class or other small group.

Newcomers are often received into one of the smaller groups first. They join the church later. Consequently, there may be more than one stage of joining. The pastor may have only passing acquaintance with many members. It's impossible to personally know hundreds of people. And the pastor's time is likely to be consumed with administrative oversight and committee meetings.

Particularly for large churches, the rancher motif for pastoral care seems more applicable than the shepherd motif. The rancher works through shepherds, who in turn provide personal pastoral care. Pastoral care is multiplied by working with "flocks within a flock."

New people who visit the church can easily be missed unless there is a careful follow-up system. New people need an invitation to small groups and also to worship services. Leaders train and equip, so that members can feel significant and find a place of ministry in the church or community.

Every Member Is a Minister

Mount Joy Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania has the slogan: "...where every member is a minister..." The idea comes from 1 Peter: "You are ... a royal priesthood"(2:9), and Ephesians: "It is he [Christ] who gave . . . apostles, . . . prophets, . . . evangelists, . . . pastors and teachers to prepare God's people for works of service. . . ." The church will be strengthened "as each part does its work" (4:11-12, 16, italics added).

There is harmony and growth in the body of Christ when all find the places of ministry which fit their gifts. A positive approach is to "employ" each church member according to his or her spiritual gift(s), as Peter urged. "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms" (1 Pet. 4:10).

Meaningful Work

Most church workers are volunteers or unpaid helpers. Perhaps they are "draftees," who serve out of a sense of obligation or duty. Churches usually recruit in one of five ways. In order of frequency, they are:

  1. Bulletin board or newsletter announcement
  2. Pulpit announcement
  3. Letter
  4. Phone call
  5. Face-to-face contact

Experience and research show these are in inverse order of effectiveness!1 By making a face-to-face appeal, you communicate the significance and importance of the task. Reticent or shy people need such encouragement to become involved. Many newcomers are eager to serve. They will make significant contributions if properly approached.

Since new people haven't been worn out by past service, they may accept roles more easily than long-term members. "Under-employed" members will often drop out of the church fellowship because they don't feel they're making a significant contribution. Eager new members should find a place of ministry within the first year. Persons properly suited for their jobs will be fulfilled and won't readily leave the church.

On the other hand, some newcomers may be overwhelmed if asked to serve too soon. They may need a time of discipleship and personal caring to equip them for service.

I was once mistakenly introduced to a group of pastors as coauthor of a book entitled Creating Committees of the Kingdom. The man who introduced me had misread the prompt sheet to say "committees" instead of "communities." I shuddered. I was sure most of the pastors in that group didn't want to hear about committees. Somehow, committees and kingdom don't seem to go together. Nevertheless, most churches use committees to accomplish the work of the church.

Can committees really be agencies of God's kingdom? Surely—but only 20 percent of an average congregation will enjoy committee work. The rest would rather fulfill a task. Consequently, committee people need to be carefully selected.

Making Expectations Clear

Many people refuse to take jobs within the church for fear of failure. Whether in the business world or in the church, people feel best about taking on a task or role when they know they can do it properly. They don't like fuzzy guidelines like "Oh, anybody can do it," or "We'll tell you if you do something wrong."

Clear job descriptions, or "ministry descriptions," can be a vital asset to new people taking on a new task. Putting something on paper will clarify the task for everyone, including the person asked to do the job. It's a simple way to clarify assumptions and expectations.

New Christians are particularly sensitive to expectations. They may be easily hurt when told to do a job only to discover people are dissatisfied. It's far better to clarify expectations at the outset than to tell some-one he is failing.

Fitting into the church structure is essential to joining a church. People who find secure and significant places in the structure won't easily slip away.

For Review, Study, and Action

  1. Discuss the importance of security and significance in the church. How does your church provide for these two needs of new people?
  2. Which church-size description best fits your fellowship? What additional insights about new member incorporation could you add?
  3. Read 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. Make a list of insights which may help your church prevent dropouts.
  4. Discuss the various principles for small-group development in the church. Which seems most important to you? Which, if any, of the insights are new to you? How might these principles be used to help your church grow?
  5. Are there subgroups in your church fellowship? If so, list them.
  6. Are there groups in your church especially designed to help new members develop a sense of belonging? How do they function?
  7. What is your church doing to help persons find their spiritual gifts? What is the "unemployment rate" in your church?
  8. How might your church find ways to provide meaningful involvement for all the members?

For Further Help

Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow, by Peter Wagner (Regal Books). This book looks at 28 spiritual gifts, and how the exercise of each one can help the church grow.

The Care and Feeding of Volunteers, by Douglas W. Johnson (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989). This book gives helpful ideas for recruiting, training, and supporting church workers.

"Turning Committees into Community," by Roberta Hestenes (Leadership, Summer 1989). This article shows how one can deepen the human and spiritual dimensions of committee work.

Notes

  1. "Win Arn Growth Report No. 20," 709 East California Boulevard, Suite 150, Pasadena, Calif. 91101
Foreword, Preface, Introduction Chapter 1: Truthful Advertising Chapter 2: Good Samaritans
Chapter 3: Reaching Out Chapter 4: Making Disciples Chapter 5: Sharing Space
Chapter 6: Easy Access Chapter 7: Saints Alive! Chapter 8: Welcome Mat
Chapter 9: Open Arms Chapter 10: Fitting In Chapter 11: People Patterns
Chapter 12: Tradition, Tradition Chapter 13: Signing Up Bibliography

 

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