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Who is holding the rope?

By Steve R. Mills

Through the quiet streets of a fishing village that lay at the mouth of the turbulent river, a cry rang out, "Boy overboard!" Quickly a crowd gathered, and anxious eyes searched the rushing water for the figure of the boy. Each anxious mother's heart was asking, "Is he my boy?"

The strongest swimmer in the village volunteered to rescue the drowning lad. Tying one end of a rope to his waist, he threw the other end to the crowd and plunged into the water.

Anxiously they watched him breast the tide with strong, sure strokes, and a cheer went up when he reached the boy and grasped him safely in his powerful arms. "Pull in the rope!" he shouted over the swirling waters.

The villagers looked from one to the other. "Who is holding the rope!" they exclaimed. In the excitement of watching the rescue, they had allowed the rope to slip into the water. Powerless to help, they watched the two figures in the water go down. No one had made it his business to hold the rope.

(Finding Them, Keeping Them; Gary McIntosh, Glen Martin. Nashville: Broadman.)

You may be responding to the needs and cry of the unbeliever. You may be taking risks to reach people, but do you have a plan for following up those you are reaching? Is someone responsible to hold the rope?

The Sunday School structure provides one of the best means to properly follow up people who visit your church. Each class has a teacher. Each class should also have an outreach coordinator and hospitality coordinator. They can hold the rope. This doesn't mean they do all the follow-up, but they can coordinate it with members of their class.

Win Arn discusses five general principles
of effective follow-up and assimilation of guests.

1. Time Principle. The follow-up visit needs to be made within 48 hours. In his book How To Build a Magnetic Church, Herb Miller writes, "When laypersons make 15-minute visits to the homes of first-time worship visitors within 36 hours, 85 percent of them return the following week. Make this home visit within 72 hours, and 60 percent of them will return. Make it 7 days later, and 15 percent will return. The pastor making this call, rather than laypersons, cuts each result in half."

2. Personnel Principle. If class members rather than pastoral staff members make the visit, it demonstrates a greater degree of care and concern. This is not to say that the pastor or staff should not visit. The type and size of a community and the type of people one is reaching should dictate the specific approach to follow-up.

3. Purpose Principle. The purpose of follow-up is to get the guest to visit again. Return visits increase the possibility of assimilation . Providing a 3- or 4-week Pastor's Welcome Class or Inquirers Class and giving guests a personal invitation to attend it increases the chances of getting them assimilated.

4. Entry Path Principle. People come to Christ and the church in gradual steps. When a Sunday School sees assimilation as a process rather than a single event, members are more successful and less likely to become discouraged.

The "funnel effect" provides the greatest number of doors for people to gain exposure to the church. It then moves people through a process whereby they ultimately become assimilated into the church. Each step provides multiple opportunities for the church to contact and follow up the unassimilated person. These doors include:

  1. Participation in a community service/outreach of the church (i.e., day care, meals on wheels, counseling).
  2. Participation in a special event of the church (i.e., Sunday School campaign or Big Day, Christmas or Easter program).
  3. Participation in a special seminar or retreat (i.e., divorce recovery seminar, parenting seminar, breaking addictions seminars).
  4. Participation in newcomers/membership classes.
  5. Participation in a small group on a regular basis (Sunday School, home groups, task groups, ministry groups).
  6. Participation in a ministry gifts discovery class.
  7. Participation in a ministry/leadership training program.
  8. Participation in active ministry in the church and its mission to the world.

5. Infrastructure Principle. A church cannot grow beyond its ability to assimilate people into the infrastructure (group life) of the church. if groups/classes are ingrown or exclusive, new people have difficulty becoming assimilated into the church. Starting new groups is the best way to guard against exclusiveness .

Win Arn says you know you have an infrastructure problem when:

  1. A significant number of people are becoming inactive or are transferring to other churches.
  2. Newcomers have difficulty gaining a sense of belonging.
  3. Enlisting workers is difficult.
  4. Minor conflicts destabilize the congregation's equilibrium, and people leave the church.
  5. Pastoral care and visitation are primarily the responsibility of the pastor and staff.
  6. Attrition rate increases with pastoral changes.
  7. People's needs cannot be met through the existing groups.

How do you know if a person is being assimilated into the life of the congregation? In New Member Assimilation Joel D. Heck says you should note: Does he or she have at least seven significant friendships in the church? Does the person regularly attend worship services? Does he or she have a meaningful and appropriate role/task within the church? Does the person actively participate in a small group experience?

If you notice that a person is lacking in any of these areas, you need to find a way to help him or her develop in that specific area.

There is no one right strategy for following up on people who visit your church and Sunday School. Here are some ideas that are being used with success in various churches.

Things To Do To Assimilate People

Joel Heck lists several things that a church can do to help people become assimilated before they formally identify with the church:

  1. Create a welcome packet.
  2. Start a pastor's welcome/inquirers class.
  3. Sponsor an evening with the pastor(s).
  4. Plan social activities that might include breakfast after Bible class or a hospitality time after worship.
  5. Develop a newcomer adoption program.
  6. Offer recovery/support groups of various kinds.
  7. Add visitors to church mailing lists.

After they formally identify with the church, several other ideas could be used.

  1. Receive new members in the service with a reception time following.
  2. Make a 3-month visit.
  3. Develop a pastoral care program that involves lay ministers.
  4. Help them find an task/role in the church's ministry. Use a spiritual gifts analysis to assist this process.
  5. Post pictures of new members on the bulletin board.
  6. Sponsor retreats at which new members can become more acquainted with older members.
  7. Host a 1-year anniversary party.
  8. Interview new members either in a service or in the newsletter/bulletin.
  9. Promote one on one discipleship.

(New Member Assimilation; Joel Heck; Concordia; pp. 34-42).

Make certain that no one is lost once he or she has been reached through the ministries of your church and Sunday School. Be sure someone is holding the rope!

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