Effective new members retention strategy must go beyond programs

Don't underestimate the influence of the local church environment on visitors and new members

Commentary | Mashudu Ravhengani

Don't underestimate the influence of the local church environment on visitors and new members

A series of church outreach events and activities is not enough to keep new members coming to church. Instead, our initiatives should focus on transforming the life and the conduct of the local church.

And we need a retention strategy.

A 2007 ANN news story reported that close to 28 Adventists leave the church for every 100 who join. In a related story, ANN reported that between 2000 and 2005 the church baptized more than 5 million people, yet lost nearly 1.4 million. The story quoted several church leaders' suggestions on addressing the challenge. One suggested a shift in focus from converting to retaining new believers. Some even suggested that the church should think about forming a new ministry designed to connect with former Adventists.

It's no doubt that this is an issue of great concern for the church. Church officials continue to research membership retention; some have written dissertations on the issue.

But in the local church, the tendency is to focus on programs. However, unless the local church has been totally transformed, all the programs and strategies will be in vain. Local church members should strive to model the traits they want to see in new members.

The programs that we try to implement often amount to just papering over the cracks. The problem is obviously much bigger; therefore we need to address the real issue -- not so much what the local church is doing in terms of programs, but what it is in terms of character.

The influence of the local church environment on new members cannot be underestimated. If we view the church as a fish tank, public campaigns and other forms of evangelism equal catching fish to bring them back to our "fish tank." If the tank is contaminated, it doesn't matter how well we feed the fish or how much we lecture the existing fish to accept the new ones. Our concern is often the most obvious -- those fish that die in our tank, or who leave the church. That's just the beginning. We should be as concerned about the fish that don't die but learn to adapt to the contaminated tank.

What is critical and urgent is to address the environment. The church is a powerful and well established spiritual and social organization. It has great influence in the conduct and behavior of new members who are likely to acclimate to existing standards.

New members, like children, learn much more from what they see and experience than from what they have been taught. In the same way, life must be modeled for new believers. Paul puts it well: "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). A transformed local church will not just teach new members, but will model the life for the new members.

Here are a few ways:

*Befriend new members, and old. How can we make friends with new members if we're not already friends among ourselves?

*Show them love. We can't show what we don't have -- if the "tank" is contaminated with strife and hatred, that's all we can offer.

*Involve them. We can't get them involved unless current members are already involved in church activities.

*Visit them, but don't forget to visit the old member who lives on the street next door, too.

*Disciple them, but show discipleship to the rest of the church as well.

*Expect high standards of living from them, but model that behavior in the church.

The transformation of the local church should be our biggest concern. As church co-founder Ellen G. White attests, "A revival of true godliness among us is the greatest and most urgent of all our needs" (Review and Herald, March 22, 1887). Without this revival -- without this transformation -- many of our efforts in evangelism are futile because we are bringing people into a contaminated fish tank.

Moreover, we build and organize churches for ourselves as Adventists and our comfort. We are very particular about our seats at the church. The weekly programs are designed to meet our needs, our favorite hymns are sung week after week, we are used to the church processes and procedures and any deviation from the usual is very upsetting to us.

But we need transformation. Our mission as a church demands transformation. Instead of building and organizing churches for Adventists to be comfortable, what if the churches were built and organized for visitors, new members and non-members so that they can be comfortable? What if we created a place where they feel at home and can participate in the worship experience?

Many people enjoy our public evangelism programs, and this is because at our public events we put our best foot forward. We make the visitors feel good and important. If our mission is more important to us than anything else, then our conduct and behavior in the church must be like our conduct at public events. The church will then be transformed into a never-ending evangelistic program, a warm environment filled with smiling ushers, loving and caring members.

--Mashudu Ravhengani is a business owner and director of the Living Power ministry in Pretoria, South Africa.