by Chris Ritter
The people most effective in reaching new people are new people. Years of pastoral experience has confirmed: A local church grows from its edges, not from its core. After all, new people have the widest network of relationships outside the church. There is a golden window of time when new people are extremely effective evangelists.
But this window closes.
I am thinking of a great couple in our congregation that are key leaders. Let’s call them Sam and Sarah. They have served on many teams and committees. They are spiritually mature. They teach. They tithe. They encourage. I would hate to think about doing ministry without them. But Sam and Sarah are lousy at bringing new people to church. Why? Almost all of their key relationships are within the congregation.
We can bemoan the lack of evangelistic effectiveness in established church members. Some would tell Sam and Sarah they need to change. They should intentionally develop more relationships with unchurched people. My purpose here is not to argue that point. We all could likely do better in reaching out to the unchurched and developing meaningful relationships outside the Body of Christ.
However, time spent trying to change Sam and Sarah could also be spent preparing the church to help its new people reach even more new people. Here are four ways to maximize the evangelistic potential of new people:
First, let new people know that they are your best evangelists.
Orientation events hosted by churches for new people usually focus on pointing them inward to the life of the congregation. If this is all we do we have missed an opportunity. In addition to orienting people to congregational life, we need to help new people consider who they could be bringing along with them. New people likely have no idea that they are in a unique place to reach new people for Jesus. I make it a point to tell them that they are our best evangelists. Give them some time to think through the people they know that could be coming with them to church. Make this an intentional part of your take-in process.
Second, have intentional listening sessions with new people.
New people can help you see your church with new eyes. I have been in my present pastoral appointment for eight years. Things that looked strange when I first came to the church now look completely normal. I am an insider. I look through insider eyes. New people notice things that I do not. I ask questions like: What has been helpful to you as you have come into the church? Is there anything that seems strange or off-putting to you that we can address?
Church leaders and pastors don’t like criticism. But the people that can best help us are often the people who see room for improvement. It takes trust to lift up a negative, so ample permission needs to be given. You have to ask for it. I tell people that I have been in the church so long that I am blind to some of the weird things we do. I really need their help. They can also help recognize and maximize the positive things they experienced when coming into the life of the church.
Third, consider a Matthew party.
In Luke 5:27-32, Matthew, a tax collector, decided to follow Jesus. And upon making this
exciting decision, the first thing he did was to throw a big party so that Jesus could meet his friends. Jesus gladly attended. The term “Matthew Party” was coined by Bill Hybels as a model for reaching new people. Instead of only trying to get new people in a church small group, perhaps you could ask a new family to host an event at their home where you (the church insider) could meet their neighbors and extended family. There is something important about creating settings where church people are not the majority or even in control of the proceedings. You may need to bring the idea up to new people so they can see the potential positive impact of hosting such a gathering.
Fourth, train insiders to recognize new people brought by new people.
Sam and Sarah may not be very good at reaching new people due to their status of church insiders. This does not mean they can’t be prepared to make contact with the new people that newcomers bring through our church doors. In Deepening Your Effectiveness: Restructuring the Local Church for Life Transformation, Dan Glover and Claudia Lavy talk about the crucial role of the first friend someone makes at church. A new person can bring a new person, but what they can’t do is ask, “Would someone please say hello to my friend?!” Sam and Sarah, our insiders, can watch for new people and be the friendly face of the congregation.
In our current discipleship system, we are pushing church membership back until later. We have recognized the activity level people have when they join is generally the activity level they maintain throughout their membership. This is often not a good thing. We are intentionally delaying membership until people are already demonstrating their support of the church through their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. But we want to have more engagement with new people, not less.
As part of this transition, we are assigning a sponsor to new people who will walk with them up to their point of membership. Another new thing we are doing is a “Howdy Sunday” (working title). This is a time in worship when we acknowledge people that have newly decided to make our church their home. Maybe they have only been with us a few weeks. (Right after a listening session or orientation event). We simply make a quick introduction (with their permission, of course) and state that they will be growing toward membership with the help of a sponsor. No vows are exchanged.
Since membership will come later, we want to give this early opportunity for the congregation to recognize a new family. (With multiple services, this does not always happen naturally.) We hope our members will invite these newcomers to their small groups, etc. But it will also help us recognize the people most likely to bring new people through our doors on weeks to come. These are our best evangelists and they need our help by greeting the people they will be bringing with them.
Churches can do much more to maximize the positive potential of new people. Many congregations would do very well to put newer church attendees into key places of leadership. Fresh perspective is crucial. But we have certainly missed a fleeting, golden window if we don’t recognize the evangelistic potential of a new church attendee. Just like a tree, the church grows at its edges.