Very few church leaders need to be convinced that assimilation is important. And very few church leaders need to be convinced that some upfront mechanism, like a new members’ class, is important. The question I am asked frequently is: “What are the best practices for this upfront orientation or new members’ class?”
I have the advantage of research, input, anecdotal information, and ongoing conversations with church leaders. From these sources, I have derived seven ways to help new members stick. Obviously, my list is not exhaustive, but I do think it represents some of the best practices I see in churches today.
- Keep the initial orientation brief. Some churches have new members’ classes that last multiple hours over multiple days. These orientations are counterproductive. They engender information overload and have little impact. If there is much information you need to share, do so over a longer period of time, but not in the initial new members’ class. The new members’ class works best if it is two to three hours in one setting.
- Tell them what the church believes. These new and prospective members must know the key beliefs or doctrines of the church. Don’t let them be surprised later. Such could prove messy for the members and the church as a whole.
- Explain to them the church’s polity. Polity is the organizational and authority systems of the church. Many new members assume the church they are joining makes decisions like churches where they have been in the past. Such assumptions can cause problems later.
- Share with them what is expected of them. Too many churches are shy about sharing expectations with members. But clear expectations lead to both happier and healthier members. I was recently with some church leaders who told me they were very explicit about four minimal expectations of members: they should attend weekly worship services; they should get in a small group; they should be involved in at least one church ministry a year; and they should be faithful financial givers to the church.
- Let them know how they can plug in. Don’t merely let them know what is expected of them; share with them the specifics of how they can carry out the expectations. For example, if the church expects them to be in a small group or Sunday school class (a key to assimilation health), give them clear and detailed information on who to contact, where and when the group meets, and when they should get started.
- Orient them about the church’s facilities. I know it’s basic, but it’s important for members to understand the details of the church’s facilities, even in smaller churches. When are the offices open? Who can use certain parts of the church buildings? Where are the nursery or preschool areas? Where are the restrooms?
- Have someone stay in contact with them for six months. You will typically retain or lose members in this time frame. Have well-trained members checking with the new members. It may be a simple call or an email once a week. It does not have to be overbearing. The veteran member can ask if they are orienting well, if they have found a small group, or if they have questions.
The reality of assimilation, or new member stickiness, is that it is usually effective or ineffective in the first few months. Some churches err with too much upfront and drive new members away with information overload and lengthy classes and inventories. Others churches err by doing too little. But the most effective churches tend to shape their strategies on these seven simple efforts.
What do you think of these seven ways? What would you add?
Posted on March 12, 2014
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
More from Thom
Is this site still active? I find the comments to be so helpful. I am planning our 3rd New Members Brunch and I order Thom S. Rainer book.
Any ideas on what I can add to this event? In reading all of the comments, the spirit has already led, but I would love feedback
This is such a beautiful thing even for veterans to be reminded of. Thank God for you extending your knowledge to me and all others
I have a followup question to #7. How do you handle ministering to the members after the followup for the first six months. We use a traditional Deacon Family Model, but we do not have enough deacons and new people are coming so fast that they often outnumber the members. Any suggestions on ministering to them long term?
In my home church they do a series of 6 weeks of lessons. It is good and it is not so good. It does get people used to coming at the time for Sunday School, but it also turns some away. I am retired now, but I do interim work. I am in the 4th month of an interim, and I just took all the members through a study of your book, I Am A Church Member. Very good response and a book that I would recommend giving to a new member, but taking them through a 6 week course before membership is a little much. Thanks for your insight and experience.
May I suggest if you are in a big city with professionals or a university town, have the minister invite the young professionals to dinner during the week. Ask those who plan to attend to bring something that all can share or everyone get together and order Chinese for delivery. There no rules for the evening nor are any topics off limits, even the really controversial ones. If I were the minister I would ask what people are dealing with on a daily basis and go from there. Then the next time you have the dinner, perhaps have two or three of the church members who have experience within that area. If some of the group are law students or newly minted lawyers, have a few of the lawyers or judges in the congregation come the next time and help them with anything they are struggling with such as legal ethics, working with a particular judge, keeping faith on the job, etc. The same could be done with physicians and scientists and business people. Those in science frequently have to deal with legal issues which affect science. Physicians deal with the law and all can learn from business. Ethical business actions could be discussed. Ministers would turn lots of colors but learn a lot when the med students, resident physicians, and scientists started talking to those who practice that professionally. Most of this discussion would likely start out focusing on ethics issues. Put gender aside at the dinner and don’t be afraid of the discussion. Jesus was not afraid of anything.
Great info Thom! This is very helpful. We have a quarterly “New Members Dinner” at our church and focus on three sessions that evening lasting about 90 minutes total.
1. History of our church (which includes very brief description of our distinctive beliefs)
2. Life Cycle of a Church Member
3. Connecting through Life Groups small groups) & getting involved in Ministry
#8 – Tell them why this church matters
We let people know they’re joining something that’s bigger than them and bigger than this church. We’re not a group of “this church is here for me” folks, we’re a “we’re here to serve Jesus” church. If your hungry for a life that daily bears the weight of glory, this may be the place for you.
This comes somewhere around #2 (what we believe) or #4 (what we’ll expect from you).
Thom, I have been doing a new members class since I have been a pastor. I use this class not only to share information with the new member or potential new member, but also have during our Sunday school time frame to get hem in the habit of going to a small group. The class usually last for five Sundays.
I agree, appreciate and greatly value your thoughts and points on this matter. For some time now, a new believers class has been on my heart to implement in my church by suggesting it to my pastors. However, I would love to know what you might say in the way of a new believers intro class as you’ve spelled out here vs. a foundations of the faith class and how that might play out and be distinguished and/or beneficial. Thanks for the post and taking time to read this.