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Assimilating Newcomers
By: Lyle E. Schaller

One of the big changes between the American culture of the 1960s and 1970s and the American culture of the 21st century has been the decrease in the loyalty of Americans to institutions and an increase in the number of adults who demand better choices.

One example of this has been the increase in the number of tax-supported charter schools. A second has been the increase in the number of parents who homeschool their children. A third has been the increase in the proportion of motor vehicles designed by an Asian company operating in the United States and the decrease in the proportion designed by General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. A fourth has been the change in the "dress code" for Sunday morning worship.

A fifth is symbolized by the decision of the Christian Scientist Monitor to become the first "paperless newspaper." A sixth has been the decrease in the number of Americans worshiping with a denominationally affiliated congregation on the typical weekend and the increase in the number worshiping with a nondenominational megachurch. A seventh has been the recent increase in the proportion of American homes without a landline telephone. An eighth has been that sharp increase in the number of Protestant congregations in America that offer people a choice every weekend from among two or three or four worship experiences that differ greatly from one another. Those differences in format may require they be offered in separate venues or even at separate locations.

"The customer is king!" was one way the earliest waves of consumerism were described. A more useful analysis is a shift from the producer's agenda to the consumer's agenda. The polite term for this is customer service.

The 1970s Model
If the reader will tolerate a brief side trip down an autobiographical highway, in 1976 and 1977, I researched and wrote a book in the Creative Leadership Series published by Abingdon Press. The title was Assimilating New Members. It was published in early 1978. It sold more copies than any other book I have written.

Three decades later, it is clear that book was based on two concepts that have become obsolete. Both reflected the institution-directed culture of that era. The minor example of obsolescence is reflected in the title. As recently as the 1980s, most Protestant churches in America assumed, or at least hoped, that the church shopper who returned for a second and third visit eventually would join and become a full member. A common practice was to offer classes for those visitors who had become regular attendees. They were all viewed as prospective future members. Many chose the route that confirmed the assumption that most visitors at Sunday worship who returned week after week could and should be invited to become members.

The logical next step was to invite them to enroll in a weekly class designed to instruct those prospects on the path to membership, as well as on the benefits and obligations that were a part of membership. "If you are contemplating becoming a member of this congregation, you need to know what we believe, what we teach, and what we expect of those who decide to take the vows of membership" was a common theme of these classes.

That design worked with most of those adults who were perceived to be potential future members and also were born before 1955 or 1960. Most of those Americans born before 1960 were taught to be joiners. They joined scout troops, 4H clubs, fraternities and sororities, alumni clubs, veterans' organizations, service clubs, bowling teams, political parties, fan clubs, community organizations, professional societies, book clubs, and organizations created to support missionary causes. Nearly all of these organizations had clearly stated expectations of every person who chose to become a member.

The next stage after becoming a member was assimilation. That stage in the process was to transform "outsiders" into self-identified "insiders." The pronoun "we" replaced the pronoun "they." The United States Marine Corps has stood out for decades as one of the most effective models of how to transform outsiders into insiders. Up through the 1950s, this also was widely perceived as a major responsibility of public schools. They were expected to transform self-centered children and youth into loyal American citizens. When seminaries began to identify themselves as "Graduate Schools of Theology," that severely eroded their capability to produce graduates who identified themselves as Congregationalists or Lutherans or Methodists or Catholics or Baptists or Presbyterians.

What's the Point?
One reason for this side trip is the passage of time has made my book obsolete. The first point of obsolescence is America in the 1960s and 1970s was populated largely by adults who had been taught to be joiners. One example is the nineteen-year-old American male in 1942. The United States government offered those young males two choices. One was to enlist now and choose the branch of military service you prefer. The second was to wait until next year and be drafted.

This first point of obsolescence is the generations of Americans born after 1960 included relatively few joiners. A very large proportion of American adults born after 1960 want to participate, but they do not view membership as a prerequisite for participation. That generalization applies to voting in the elections of public officials, going to church, going to class in an institution of higher education, living together as an unmarried couple, bowling, and purchasing a single-family home but never attending the neighborhood association meetings.

In simple terms, that book focused on strategies to transform joiners into insiders. That is becoming an obsolete strategy in ministries with adults born after 1960. An increasing proportion of regular churchgoers are interested in participating, but they place a much lower value on membership. If the focus is on adults born after 1960, a more useful conceptual framework replaces the word "member" with "newcomers."

The second point of obsolescence is that my book suggested four tactics in that larger strategy to transform recent new members into insiders. The focus was on what the policy-makers can and should do to transform outsiders into self-identified and loyal insiders.

One tactic was to encourage these prospective future members to become part of a meaningful small face-to-face group before signing up for that orientation class for prospective future members. That could help them become a member of a personal social network. Thus, they gained a partial sense of belonging before becoming a member. A second tactic was to encourage them to become part of a small face-to-face group that meets every week after joining. This could be a Sunday school class, a music group, a Bible study group, a mission team, a prayer group, or a mutual support group.

A third tactic in this strategy was to invite a new member to accept a role or an office as a teacher or to chair a standing committee or trustee or as an officer in the men's fellowship or as an usher. "I know I belong because I help staff this institution." The fourth option was to create a sense of belonging by persuading a new member to accept a task such as providing transportation for a youth group or helping circulate the congregation's newsletter or helping clean the building the first Saturday of every month or helping count the Sunday morning offering. "I know I belong because I am needed."

Those continue to be relevant and potentially useful tactics in that larger strategy of assimilating newcomers born before 1970, but the majority of today's residents of the United States were born after 1976.

Transform Visitors into Members
That book published in 1978 was designed as a response to this question asked by pastors and congregational leaders: "What can we do to help our recent new members gain a sense of belonging to our congregation?" Sometimes that question included the comment, "Even though they were members of another church affiliated with our denomination, that denominational loyalty does not automatically create a sense of belonging to our congregation."

As we come to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the first step in designing a strategy for assimilating newcomers calls for focusing on what these newcomers are seeking. That calls for listening and discerning their expectations. A second step is to affirm that no one response will fit all situations. The strategy should be customized as one component of a larger and more comprehensive ministry plan

What are the expectations or yearnings or needs or desires or agendas that adults born in America after 1960 are bringing with them as they search for a church home?

Conversations with both individuals and groups of newcomers suggest these seven rank among the top dozen among adults born after 1960.

1. A need to find meaning in life
2. A desire to be listened to, to feel "I'm being heard," to be understood, and to be respected
3. A need for help in moving to the next stage of my personal faith pilgrimage
4. A search for hope in my future
5. A desire to find a sense of community in a group in which all participants bring the same agenda that I bring to our discussions
6. A need for help in rearing their children and in transmitting the Christian faith to the next generation
7. A desire to meet "people who are like me" in this sea of anonymity where I am a new resident

In about 25th place on that list is the need to become a participating member of another institution.

A 21st Century Response
How can one congregation design a strategy for assimilating newcomers born after 1960 as well as newcomers who are older? That opens the door to four basic generalizations.

First, minimize that old emphasis on "joining." Focus on transforming both recent newcomers, as well as those members who rarely participate in the corporate worship of God, into active and regular participants by identifying and addressing their needs and desires.

Second, count the entry points for newcomers into your congregation. Ten of the most common are (a) "I was born into this church," (b) "I married into this congregation," (c) "I moved here and now live a short distance away, (d) "A friend, colleague at work, relative, or neighbor recommended I come here," (e) "This church is affiliated with my denomination," (f) "I read about this congregation in a story in the local newspaper," (g) "Your radio (or television) ministry introduced me to this church," (h) "Your Web site motivated me to visit," (i) I frequently drive by here, and I was attracted by what I saw," and (j) "Your pastor's reputation in the community attracted me."

What do your recent first-time visitors say that should be added to that list?

Third, increase the number and variety of trips, events, programs, and ministries that turn out to be meaningful and memorable experiences for the participants.

Finally, if and when your average worship attendance exceeds the number of confirmed or "full" members, define that as a success, not as a failure! Welcome those who place a higher value on their needs or desires than on "joining another institution."

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and parish consultant. His most recent book, From Cooperation to Competition, was published by Abingdon Press.

Copyright 2009 by Lyle E. Schaller

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