Very few church leaders need to be convinced that assimilation is important. And very few church leaders need to be convinced that some upfront mechanism, like a new members’ class, is important. The question I am asked frequently is: “What are the best practices for this upfront orientation or new members’ class?”
I have the advantage of research, input, anecdotal information and ongoing conversations with church leaders. From these sources, I have derived seven ways to help new members stick. Obviously, my list is not exhaustive, but I do think it represents some of the best practices I see in churches today.
1. Keep the initial orientation brief. Some churches have new members’ classes that last multiple hours over multiple days. These orientations are counterproductive. They engender information overload and have little impact. If there is much information you need to share, do so over a longer period of time, but not in the initial new members’ class. The new members’ class works best if it is two to three hours in one setting.
2. Tell them what the church believes. These new and prospective members must know the key beliefs or doctrines of the church. Don’t let them be surprised later. Such could prove messy for the members and the church as a whole.
3. Explain to them the church’s polity. Polity is the organizational and authority systems of the church. Many new members assume the church they are joining makes decisions like churches where they have been in the past. Such assumptions can cause problems later.
4. Share with them what is expected of them. Too many churches are shy about sharing expectations with members. But clear expectations lead to both happier and healthier members. I was recently with some church leaders who told me they were very explicit about four minimal expectations of members: they should attend weekly worship services; they should get in a small group; they should be involved in at least one church ministry a year; and they should be faithful financial givers to the church.
5. Let them know how they can plug in. Don’t merely let them know what is expected of them; share with them the specifics of how they can carry out the expectations. For example, if the church expects them to be in a small group or Sunday school class (a key to assimilation health), give them clear and detailed information on who to contact, where and when the group meets, and when they should get started.
6. Orient them about the church’s facilities. I know it’s basic, but it’s important for members to understand the details of the church’s facilities, even in smaller churches. When are the offices open? Who can use certain parts of the church buildings? Where are the nursery or preschool areas? Where are the restrooms?
7. Have someone stay in contact with them for six months. You will typically retain or lose members in this time frame. Have well-trained members checking with the new members. It may be a simple call or an email once a week. It does not have to be overbearing. The veteran member can ask if they are orienting well, if they have found a small group or if they have questions.
The reality of assimilation, or new member stickiness, is that it is usually effective or ineffective in the first few months. Some churches err with too much upfront and drive new members away with information overload and lengthy classes and inventories. Others churches err by doing too little. But the most effective churches tend to shape their strategies on these seven simple efforts.