Eleven years ago my wife and I joined a new church. I remember how alone I felt on Sunday mornings in those first few months. My wife was a better “joiner” than I. She had made some new friends and seemed well on her way to calling the church “our church.” But it wasn’t quite as easy for me.
Then, one Sunday morning an announcement appeared in the bulletin for the All-Church Work Day in two weeks. “Why not?” I thought. That Saturday I arrived at 8:30 a.m., and was assigned to help paint Room 14. When I walked in, I found two other people working away. We introduced ourselves and spent the next 3 hours painting doors, closets, walls, and floorboards. Of course, you can’t be in a room with two other people for three hours without conversing. And it was a good time. But, what happened next Sunday was even better. I found that I had made two new friends. Alex walked up to me and playfully asked, “Say, is that blue paint I see in your ear?!” And later Megan came up and introduced her husband and children to me. Ten years later, I still call these people friends.
The first 6-12 months of a newcomer’s association with your church are both important, and perilous. The “friendship factor” is the key ingredient in whether newcomers become long-term attenders, or just slip quietly out the back door. Research shows that the average “active member” makes over 7 new church friends in the first 12 months, “drop outs” make only 2.
The best way to help newcomers make friends is to help them: 1) get involved in a small group, and 2) get involved in a ministry role/task. Of course, these two recommendations apply to every member not just new members. Let’s take a look at church ministry roles/tasks. (See my earlier article, New…Works, for more on small groups.)
The chart below is a quick reference guide to help you determine how well your church is (or is not) involving members in ministry. Note that items #7 – #12 are specifically for newcomers. To assess your church, first fill in the blank at the top left on line 1—your “Total Church Constituency”. (OK. I realize it looks something like a tax form.) This number reflects your overall church family; that is, a combination of church members plus regular attenders. Next, determine in which column your church falls on lines 2—18. All the numbers are percentages. Calculate your percentages based on your “total church constituency” (line 1), unless otherwise noted.
If you find your scores fall primarily in the left columns, the focus of your lay ministry is probably inward, and your people see themselves as “workers” with a church job. The farther your scores are to the right, the more likely you have an outward-focus and your people likely see themselves as “ministers” in mission. It is on the right side, obviously, where effective ministry occurs.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT
You are safe to assume that newcomers are “relational introverts.” Most are not comfortable around new people or unfamiliar situations. Therefore, go out of your way to personally invite newcomers to:
- help in church-related projects. Special activities that are already on the church calendar (i.e., decorating for Christmas, painting the church, repaving the parking lot, re-carpeting the nursery, etc.) are great opportunities for newcomers to help out and make new friends in the process.
- go on special church outings and events. Invite newcomers to any family camps, mission trips or summer picnics. In fact, ask them for help in the planning process, as well.
- assume a responsibility in a class/group. If the newcomer is already part of a small group (hopefully so) ask if he/she would be willing to help bring refreshments, photo copy handouts, occasionally host the meeting at their house.
- serve as greeter or usher in the worship service. I recommend multiple usher and greeter teams that rotate (each team is on for one month, then off for two) so you can involve more people, especially newcomers. (In fact, I am convinced that ushers and greeters don’t all need to be members!)
Tap into the power of building friendships through appropriate places of service and you’ll find many more newcomers beginning to feel like your church is “our” church.