I started Calvary Fellowship in Miami, FL 10 years ago. My goal was to reach people far from God and disciple them to maturity. Here was my problem: after 18 months of ministry, we hadnʼt seen one person come to know Christ at Calvary. This realization led to serious changes that took place in our church. Let me fast forward 8 years to the last 18 months at Calvary. In the last year and a half weʼve seen over 1,000 people make first time decisions to follow Jesus. If you count the recommitments to the Lord, that number is closer to 3,000. Whenever I tell that story people ask me, what happened? What changed?
First, let me say that this was not an overnight change. Much like losing weight physically, it was a process that happened a a result of some key decisions we made. What we learned is that just because you reach people, that doesnʼt mean you have the infrastructure in place to keep people. So while our initial challenge was that we werenʼt reaching anyone, our next challenge was our lack of being able to keep those we reach. Today, 85% of those we reach decide to call Calvary home.
Unfortunately, thereʼs no magic wand to fix this problem. This changes as a result of identifying the reasons new believers fall through the cracks and fixing the problem areas.
So what are the reasons that prevent new believers from “sticking” in your church? I have found that there are several, but 3 major mistakes that churches make in particular. If you fix these areas, youʼll be well on your way to doing what you and I are called to do: reach people and disciple them to maturity in Christ.
Mistake #1 – New Believers arenʼt asked to Indicate their Decision
You cannot follow up with anyone if you arenʼt aware of the decision they made. The only way to ensure that you can follow with a new believer is to give them the opportunity to indicate their decision. This can be done in several ways. The “Come Forward” invitation became popular because when people came forward they were clearly identifying their decision to follow Jesus. While I cut my teeth in “the come forward” style of evangelism, this is not the method we use. We use a connection card for several reasons. The most important reason being the opportunity for them to put their contact information on the front of the card. This contact information now gives us the ability to implement our follow up system so these new believers can take their first steps of faith.
Mistake #2 – New Believers arenʼt Given a Clear Next Step
Many churches get the contact information of new believers yet still find most of them falling though the cracks. The reason they disappear seemingly is because the church has not given the new believer a clear next step. I have found that churches tend to go in one of two directions here:
1. They give too many next steps. They tell the new believer of every opportunity available to them and the new believer is overwhelmed by the options. Itʼs like taking someone to the Cheesecake Factory for the first time. Thereʼs so many options, that without a friend to help you decide, youʼd probably eat the free bread and go home. New Believers have just made the biggest decision of their lives. Quite honestly, many wouldnʼt be able to even completely explain the decision they just made. Thatʼs why the church needs to give them a clear next step.
2. The step is too big. Imagine going to a church for the first time and sitting in an auditorium with 500 other people. You enjoy the message and when the Pastor gives the invitation for people to pray and receive Christ you respond to the call to salvation. A few days later, you get a letter in the mail from the Pastor inviting you to a small group because “thatʼs where the real life change happens”. The majority of people wonʼt make the jump. Itʼs not because theyʼre against small groups (they probably donʼt know what small groups are). The issue is, the jump is too big. An auditorium gives a person a level of anonymity and freedom. A small group of 12 has zero anonymity and little freedom to “kick the tires” and investigate their new found faith.
(*Free Download: Starting Point: First Steps for the Journey, a free eBook to help new believers from Bob Franquiz.)
Mistake #3 – New Believers arenʼt Valued in the Churchʼs Culture
“Itʼs next to impossible to reach new believers and help them grow to maturity if your culture says that new believers donʼt matter. Reaching new believers and retaining them only happens when your entire church in alignment with the vision of reaching people and discipling them. I have learned that while the pulpit steers the ship, the churchʼs culture can lean the ship in a certain direction. A church culture that doesnʼt value new believers cannot help them take steps of faith. The reason is, new believers donʼt know the basics, much less the “inside baseball” needed to function in many churches. So, they move on. Even worse, many times they just stay home.
Your staff, leaders, volunteers and congregation need to value evangelism and those who respond. Simply put, you canʼt help new believers grow without the help of the congregation. If people arenʼt inviting their friends, there wonʼt be much evangelism needed. If those who do invite their friends wonʼt engage them after the service and help them take next steps, few are “Type A” enough to seek discipleship without the encouragement of someone else.
If churches are going to be experts at anything, we should be experts in reaching people and seeing them grow to maturity. I believe that your church can be the kind of church where people can stay a lifetime because they never stop growing. But for that happen, we need to be great at following up with the most precious gifts a church can be given… new converts to Jesus. The greatest stewardship given to us by God is the stewardship of people. I pray we gain the skills necessary to overcoming these mistakes and get about the business of making disciples.