Very few people wake up one Sunday morning and decide lets go to church today out of the blue. Even fewer then decide on a random congregation within ten miles of their home for that intial visit to a congregation, and very few decide at the first time of going that this is where they are going to settle. I am stating this as it is something we all really know but it is amazing how many congregations behave as if this is how people should behave.
What I want to do is to try and to get people first to re-imagine the way a person comes into membership.
I would suggest that there are two initial ways that a person may come into contact with a congregation. One is through a cultivated presence of the congregation, this covers everything from church noticeboards through social outreach to overt evangelism. What it does is make people think “Oh there is a church there!” The second thing is that the people either meet somebody or become aware that somebody they already know goes to that church. This tells them that “people like us go there”. Having been a church member I know there is nothing special about church members, but to the outsider I suspect they often feel like people from another planet. So for a person to consider going to a congregation they have to know something about the congregation and know somebody who belongs to the congregation.
There is however a third thing and that is there must be something that makes them think that Christianity is something they want to investigate or be involved in. If you want religious language some nudging of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that can simply be the feeling that those people who go there are nice people to know I would like to get to know them better but for the most part, people who decide to come through the doors on a Sunday to worship will have some idea that Christianity maybe for them. It maybe that there needs to be a social life to the church that gives a space where people who do not yet have this inkling that Christianity may be for them but who value the friendships they are developing with members of the congregation.
Of course the Holy Spirit can and does use members, there possibly also needs to be encouragement for people to share about their faith with this group. Now I do not mean that members need sermons telling them they must share their faith or else, but that there needs to be some sort of reward for people who do share about their faith. Now I am not sure how this is built in, the old evangelical practice of testimony, at its best gave people a space to try this out that was relatively non-threatening, i.e. the congregation are hardly going to be put out because you talk about God, and often brought rewards in their standing with the congregation. Some congregations might find it useful to have something to give someone and others may find that perhaps faith sharing groups might be useful as a place to share ones faith and to learn to share with others. Actually a good one, is to develop the practice of speaking of the times you see someone else sharing their faith.
Then comes the actual day the person decides, there are going to be reasons why they choose your congregation and the reasons are not probably going to be the ones you’d theoretically liked. They liked a Sunday lie in and your service was the one that allowed them that, or the opposite effect, that your service was early enough that it did not mean that the whole of Sunday morning wasn’t spent at church. It could be that a member is prepared to meet them and walk in with them, or even that they felt that so many people went to your congregation they would not be conspicious.
However thats just the first week. This is when a welcome matters and that people are given the tools not to feel that they stand out like a sore thumb amongst the regulars. Sometimes that might mean someone to explain the service to them, sometimes that might mean the quality of the greeting and sometimes that actually might mean that they don’t want any attention at all.
Often people then think the journey is over. They have a new member but there are a lot of people who will drop out of church going at this point on. What you need is a culture that openly looks to integrate people into the congregation. That gives positive messages not just to the people who come in, but also to the congregation about the people who come in. How many churches could tell you how many attendees have started coming regularly in the last six months unless it is none? Do you make a point of noticing that a person has stopped being an occasional visitor and has started becoming regular. Do you know if such a person is someone who has had previous connections with the Christian faith (maybe someone whose active involvement with a congregation has lapsed but now wants to take on a new commitment) or is looking at it for the first time? How do you celebrate their coming in as part of the fellowship? How do you make sure they are visible to long term members and welcomed? I am not suggesting at this point particularly that they need to come into membership, but it is time they went on the adherents role! and that in itself is worth celebrating.
Then from there to church membership! Again positive work both on involving and educating them into the ways of the congregation. Time to them to evaluate properly whether they do want to belong and time for them to think about what it means to belong.
If a person has been attending regularly for two years then the question really needs to change as to why they are not member and there are legitimate reasons why not. However do congregation even know when someone has been attending for two years or does it all go unnoticed?
I hope what I have outlined is a process that is lot more complex than what is normally supposed. I also hope I have made clear that this process needs a lot more than just straight evangelistic technique, that both the congregation and the individual need to work at making this a path that is celebrated and seen as bringing rewards. Congregations are quick to seize on either the difficulties of new people, who don’t do things the way they always have been done, aren’t as reliable, meaning haven’t been attending for as long or perhaps are demanding meaning needing care and attention. If they do recognise people then it is more likely to be as somebody who helps us keep things going rather than an individual who will enrich the life of the congregation.
The challenge is to make it possible for people to assemble a route into a congregation and when they appear to be doing so, to create ways to support them in so doing.