Moving Attenders to Members

Article
04.28.2011

One practical challenge that we as pastors face is how to encourage a church attender toward active church membership. How should we help individuals understand the necessity and joy of belonging to a local assembly of believers?

SIX SUGGESTIONS FOR MOVING PEOPLE FROM ATTENDER TO MEMBER

Here are six suggestions. The first four aim at creating an environment where membership is valued and understood. The last two involve caring for specific individuals who need to make the transition from simply attending to active membership.

1. Get to know the current members.

Before we can effectively move people from church attenders to church members, we have to know our current members. Otherwise, the idea of “membership” remains amorphous even to the pastor promoting it.

Imagine inviting a visitor to have dinner with you and your family on Saturday afternoon. The visitor arrives, expecting to meet your wife and children, but then you lead him or her through the home asking everyone their name and whether they’re visitors too or whether they live there. The so-called “introduction” to your family completely falsifies the claim to being family.

Likewise, when we speak of belonging to a local church, we ought to have in mind belonging to a particular family of people—real, known, and loved people. We’re inviting an attender to become a part of this living, breathing family. Our invitation has faces and names. If we know those faces, names, and lives, then we’ll be better able to introduce the attender to the family.

2. Express genuine appreciation for the current members.

Frankly, I blew this opportunity when I became senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman. I arrived full of zeal and ready to put my shoulder to the plow. I looked forward to loving and serving the people, but I failed to sufficiently recognize something: the people of First Baptist had been here long before I arrived. They were already serving the Lord in countless ways. And they didn’t just need the kind of love that I wanted to give. They needed the kind that slowed down to see their service; the kind that expresses genuine thanksgiving for the grace of God already at work in them.

Instead, the congregation too often heard me offer suggestions for improvements and ideas for new ventures. This communicated dissatisfaction and a lack of appreciation. I hurt some people and turned off others. Some extended me a lot of grace, assuming I meant well. And I did. But the better way to express those good intentions would have been to express gratitude and appreciation for everything positive that I saw.

I wish I had taken the first two to four years of my ministry to specifically, genuinely, and repeatedly encourage, give thanks, and appreciate the many wonderful people and acts of service in the church. We have Sunday School teachers who have served twenty consecutive years; individuals who have quietly cared for poor single mothers; leaders who have weathered difficult storms over years of leadership; cancer survivors who have battled disease with real faith; wives and husbands who have remained faithful to unbelieving and sometimes unkind spouses; members who have given cheerfully and sacrificially; and many others who have pursued Christ-like lives.

Had I been careful to get to know the congregation and to observe their faith in action, I would have had years’ worth of sermon illustrations, opportunities to write notes of encouragement, and opportunities to praise God’s work. And had I used those illustrations, written those notes, and given that public and personal praise, I would have set a tone of encouragement, grace, and thanksgiving. This would have both built up the existing members and made membership attractive to the attender. People want to belong to groups that encourage and lift up. Churches and pastors should be best at doing this.

3. Paint a biblical vision of healthy Christian living.

One thing we can assume about the Christian who regularly attends church but does not join is that his or her view of the Christian life is defective somewhere.

Can we assume this? We can because the Scriptures say the local church is God’s plan for our discipleship and spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:11-16; cf. Matt. 28:18-20). As social beings, we need community. God provides for this in the local church, where we rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn, and show equal concern for one another (1 Cor. 12:12-27).

For reasons that will require pastoral investigation, the church attender hasn’t fully embraced a church-centered vision of the Christian life. Our task as pastors is to preach and teach in a way that conveys a biblical view of the local church, making the local church beautiful and desirable to God’s people.

We need to help the attender—and existing members—understand what being “in” the church means and why being “outside” is unhealthy. If we don’t, we leave them with their incomplete ideas about the church. Even worse, we may leave them thinking that the only “benefit” of membership is discipline and unpleasantness.

We could respond to this need by preaching a topical series on the church or spiritual fellowship. Or, we could take a slow walk through letters like Ephesians or 1 Timothy, where the Bible paints compelling pictures of church life. Or, in the course of expositing other books of the Bible, we can make applications to membership wherever legitimate so that the members and attenders see the thread of belonging and community throughout the Bible. In all of this, we want to provide a high and attractive view of the local church in all of its glory and messiness.

4. Strengthen the borders of the church.

One consequence of teaching people the “ins” and “outs” of membership should be to strengthen the borders between the church and the world by restricting certain activities only to members.

Throughout Scripture, God’s covenant community separates from the world. And he gives them certain activities like circumcision or the Passover which, along with their other purposes, mark them off from the world. The borders between Israel and the world were to be drawn deep, and belonging to the covenant community acquired definite shape and meaning. It was a terrible thing to be “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

Even secular organizations and businesses have rules for who is “in” and who is “out.”  At Christmas, one of my elders attended an office Christmas party at a local restaurant and pub. He noticed a table of patrons having drinks. From time to time, one of the patrons would pass a mug out the restaurant window to another man standing outside. Later he found out that the man outside was not allowed to enter the restaurant because of unruly behavior in the past. My fellow elder laughed out loud, recognizing that even worldly people have standards for belonging and reserve certain benefits for those inside.

In the same way, for attenders to sense the importance of membership, and for those outside the faith altogether to see that they are “separated from Christ,” the borders between the church and the world need to be strengthened. To this end, pastors and congregations should identify which activities and opportunities are restricted to members. Can non-members teach Sunday school? May they join the choir? Can they join small groups or travel with mission teams? Will you invite professing Christians who are not members of any local church to observe the Lord’s Supper?

Deciding which privileges and responsibilities belong to the church members alone helps to demonstrate why being “in” matters and what people will lose by staying “outside” the church’s membership.

5. Do the personal work of answering objections and encouraging people to join.

After working for a couple years to create an environment where membership is valued and meaningful, we can do much more effective personal work with our attenders. In fact, we hope that, having grown in appreciation for the local church, the congregation itself will do most of the personal work.

This personal work involves at least two things:

1.     Developing a way of identifying and getting to know attenders.

2.     Answering an attender’s objection to joining.

When I worked in policy advocacy, we utilized a simple tool called a “move chart.” A move chart was an excel spreadsheet that listed key policy makers in a column on the left and their current position on a policy issue across the top. In a simple form, we’d label their positions from “strong opposition” to “neutral” to “strong support.”  As we worked with policymakers, we’d note their movement along the continuum.

Whether pastors create a move chart on paper or in their heads, they need a way to identify whether attenders are “strongly opposed,” “never thought of it,” or “plan to join next week.”  Hopefully the preaching and community will do the personal work in many cases, especially among attenders who are already motivated to join. But among attenders with questions and hesitations, more care is needed.

Here’s where the command to “show hospitality” (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9) reaps dividends in helping people commit. Open homes tend to produce open hearts—or at least open mouths! We can move from conversations following church services to more intentional discussions over meals. If we are patient and thoughtful in those conversations, we may shepherd the attender through pains, disappointments, questions, and fears toward committed belonging. The aim is not to “win” a membership argument, but to practically love the person in word and deed until the Lord grants light and love.

6. Encourage the attender to settle at another local church if not your own.

Finally, we must remember that the Lord has other faithful pastors and congregations. We should rejoice in that fact. We’re not in competition with those churches, but partners with them in the gospel.

From time to time we may encounter an attender whose objections to joining our church appear insurmountable. Perhaps he disagrees with us about some important doctrine or practice. Or maybe she lives closer to another faithful congregation and can be more actively involved there. In those cases, helping such people move from attender to member might involve helping them join a local church other than our own.

This can be emotional for some people—especially those who’ve developed an attachment to the church but have never joined. Such situations require pastoral patience and empathy. But we do this for the good of the attender, desiring what we know God demands of him or her—active membership—which is better by far. We’re trying to promote the gospel, not our own churches. We’re trying to grow Christians, not our membership rolls. Sometimes that means helping people join elsewhere while we continue to shepherd the flock God has placed under our care (1 Pet. 5:1-4).

CONCLUSION

It’s tempting for pastors to feel inconvenienced by those believers who attend but seem never to join. We can be frustrated when things that seem basic to us are neglected by others. We have to guard our hearts against impatience and self-righteousness. While we give the bulk of our time to our members because we are accountable for them in a greater way, the attenders at our church need our ministry, too. Moving people from attendance to membership is an opportunity to love. In a real sense, it is the ministry.

By:
Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is one of the pastors of Anacostia River Church in Southeast DC. You can find him on Twitter at @ThabitiAnyabwil.