Church Membership’s Missing Ingredients

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Published:
September 28, 2022

My wife, an excellent home chef, gave me permission to write about the memorable day we had some special guests over for lunch. She planned on serving a delicious dish she had made many times before, so often she didn't even need to refer to the recipe. At noon, in a bit of a rush, all of the ingredients were mixed together and transferred to a glass baking dish. Into the oven it went at 375 degrees for one hour.

The guests arrived at 12:30, and we all chatted in the living room. At 1:00 p.m. my wife excused herself to check on the main dish. Opening the oven door and looking in, she thought, "Hmm, doesn’t seem quite right." She poked at it with a wooden spoon, and it appeared more watery than usual. She decided to give it a few more minutes.

At 1:10 she checked again. Still too watery. She took it out, placed it on top of the oven to investigate, and discovered that she had forgotten one of the main ingredients—rice.

The way we currently bring new members into the church is a lot like that. Some key ingredients are missing entirely. The process provides newcomers with only part of what is needed, and the consequences are truly sad. Basically, it is a recipe for creating Laodicea. It produces far too many dropouts. It also deprives people of the insights and experiences they need to participate fully in building a vibrant, biblical community called church.

The process of joining an Adventist church begins with giving someone individual Bible studies in their home or as part of an evangelistic series. Step by step, they receive instruction regarding our fundamental beliefs. Then comes baptism.

After the baptism, the person leading out in the worship service usually says, “Now John Doe needs to be formally voted into membership. Do I have a motion? Now do I have a second? All in favor raise your hand.” Turning to the new member, he adds, “So John, welcome to our church!” And that’s it. End of story. A new name added to the church rolls.

In the corporate world, the recommended process for bringing new individuals into an organization can look very different. The procedure that many businesses follow after someone is hired is called “onboarding.” The website Resources for Employers provides this expanded description:

Onboarding is the process in which newly hired employees are introduced and integrated into their new role at an organization. This includes setup of the new hire's work, orientation with new colleagues and managers, familiarization with work processes, expectations and cultures, alignment with a company's mission, vision and values, and other elements designed to maximize a new employee's performance potential in their job . . . It continues until they’ve fully adjusted to their role and team . . . Onboarding refers to any action that helps new hires understand how things work in their new work environment, get acquainted with the company culture, and feel welcomed and valued in their team.

One would think that such a weighty event as bringing someone into a local Seventh-day Adventist church would involve at least as much effort as corporate onboarding, hopefully more, much more. But in every baptism I have witnessed to date, that is far from the case. In fact, there is usually no onboarding process after baptism at all!

Surveys indicate that in the corporate world, the lack of an effective onboarding process has a direct, negative impact on employee retention, integration, engagement, and sense of value.[1] In a similar way, the nonexistent onboarding process in so many Adventist churches is at the root of many of the difficulties that plague congregations and members in North America today.

In order to reverse this situation, church members and leaders at all levels need to understand that creating individual Adventist Christians is not the same thing as creating members of a biblical community. Those are two very different processes, although, ideally, they would be seen as two sides of the same discipleship coin.

Using the apostle Paul’s comparison of the church to the human body in 1 Corinthians 12, teaching a hundred body parts how each of them can be healthy is one thing, but teaching them what a body is and how to function together inside it is quite another.

Other analogies come to mind. There is a big difference between simply putting 100 trained musicians in the same room and developing them into a world-class orchestra. There is a big difference between a pantry full of ingredients and blending them together to bake a delicious, elegant wedding cake. One approach puts things in proximity. The other combines them in wonderful, intentional ways to make something greater. It is about one plus one becoming three or even four.              

One of my favorite group activities involves asking 12 people to join hands and form a circle. I then ask them to close their eyes, keep holding hands, and work together to form a square. I also tell them to tell me when they think they have completed the task. No other instructions.

Most groups are able to eventually form the semblance of a square. I then ask what were the secrets to success? They mention listening, respecting each other’s opinions, trial and error, shared leadership, etc. No group has ever mentioned the one thing that is more fundamental than any of those items. The most important key to success is that they all understood what I meant by the word “square.” They could picture it in their minds. The point is that you cannot create what you cannot envision. Likewise, how can you expect Adventist Christians to develop a church who have never been taught what one looks like from a biblical point of view?

Our willingness to bring people into the church without equipping them with the understanding and experiences they need to become fully engaged members of God’s community of faith speaks volumes about leadership’s low view of ecclesiology (the theology of church). It reveals very clearly that talk about the importance of the local church simply does not match reality. The Scriptures have much to say about God’s plan for how to be church, and we ignore those instructions at our peril.

My experience has been that when it comes to developing a “church community,” people’s ideas are all over the place. When I ask people their opinion about how to be church or why church exists, I get all kinds of answers. One member of our Sabbath school class recently remarked, “I have been an Adventist for 35 years, and no one has ever talked to me about how to be church.”

If the process for bringing new members into Adventist churches is limited to only receiving personal Bible studies, there can be several unintended but serious consequences:

1.  If becoming a member does not involve any onboarding plan for integration into church life, they can easily become spectators after joining. They become comfortable with the idea that being a member involves simply attending and funding.

2.  If they become members through the highly individualized process of receiving personal Bible studies without being taught how to be church, the individualized values of American culture will be brought into the church without modification, which is poison to biblical community.

3.  If joining the church only involves agreeing to certain information, the importance of building relationships will not be perceived as a priority. Is it any wonder then that it is so hard to sustain small groups in Adventist churches? Is it any wonder that we wind up defining the church’s ultimate purpose as simply the dissemination of information?

Reinvigorating our congregations needs to begin with leaders and congregations deciding how seriously they are going to take the scriptural call to develop churches according to biblical principles and not their own opinions and preferences. Will church simply be a gathering place for like-minded believers, or will it be an extraordinarily inclusive, dynamic community of love?

I propose that we completely revise our thinking about the way we bring people into the church. I envision a process with two phases. Phase 1 would include all the things we currently do—personal Bible study, baptism, and being voted into membership.

Phase 2 should shift the focus from the individual to a communal setting where people gain the understanding and skills needed to participate well in a spiritual community. Phase 2 is not a lecture during prayer meeting. The setting must be a small group because these particular truths are not only learned with your head but also with your heart. They are not only learned intellectually but also experientially. They are not only learned personally but also relationally. They cannot be understood in isolation. You might as well try to learn how to swim by correspondence!

Graphically, the overall concept looks like this:

The following are some of the themes small groups could explore and the skills they could practice during Phase 2:

       God’s marvelous purpose for the church

       What are the biblical analogies for church such as bride, army, salt, family, body,

              temple, and what can we learn from them?

       The vital importance of relationships and the “one another” texts in Scripture.

How to experience true acceptance and the assurance of salvation

The priesthood of all believers and finding God’s purpose for your life

How to activate your spiritual gifts

       How to function as part of a team/community

How to love others unconditionally

How to empathize with others

       How to listen deeply

How to converse with strangers

How to respect other’s opinions

A theology of work

How to minister to non-Christians

              Developing an inclusive attitude.

              Etc.

The Phase 2 small group should include some people who are already members in order to make connections with the existing congregation. Although Phase 2 is not required for membership, it is best if new members are told before baptism that Phase 2 will be a continuation of the process of helping them feel fully engaged within the congregation. It could easily be conveyed as a vital part of new member orientation that would apply to all transfers-in as well. They should think of Phase 2 as a normal, regular, vital part of every new member’s journey.  

Although there are many sets of Bible lessons available for Phase 1, I am not aware of any materials specifically designed for Phase 2. Therefore, I will offer a shameless self-promotion of the lessons I wrote specifically with Phase 2 in mind. They are called “Spiritual Body Building” (SBB) and are published by Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and they have been used in hundreds of churches throughout North America. A Portuguese version is also available. (I do not receive any royalties from sales).

Testimonies regarding the Spiritual Body Building small group lessons:

For years I’ve been longing to find church as a relevant, stimulating place where all can find their niche and really belong. These lessons have given me hope as they initiate and model to our members how change is possible. This is a necessary resource for all who dream of a church that is free to be all God intended. —Pastor Mike G.

I am now on my third trip leading a Spiritual Body Building group and I am more excited each time through. I have not found a better tool to introduce people to the church as Christ meant it to be. —Jack C.

Having been in the church for over 40 years, I say without question that the Spiritual Body Building group is the most meaningful experience I’ve had in my entire life as a Seventh-day Adventist. —Burna W.

To learn more or order, simply go to www.transformyourchurch.com. If you have difficulty with the order, you can call the Florida Conference at 407-644-5000 and ask for the Ministerial Department or email me at kimallanjohnson@gmail.com.

One strategy that seems to work well is to take the church board through the Spiritual Body Building lessons in a small group setting first and then have them vote to make such an experience a regular part of the onboarding process for new members. Individuals who lead out in the SBB groups should be carefully trained using the resources on the website. The goal is not only to cover the material but to build deeper relationships, create a memorable experience, and develop new values and priorities.

If we consider the Spiritual Body Building lessons as “How to Be Church 101,” then my book The Team (Pacific Press Publishing) is “How to Be Church 201,” taking the subject to the next level. It explores the vital theme of the Trinity as the model for how local congregations should function. I would strongly suggest that when the Spiritual Body Building group ends that each new church member either (1) be given a copy of the book The Team or, (2) even better, be invited, after a break, to a follow-up small group that studies The Team.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Sinazo Sibisi and Gys Kappers, “Onboarding Can Make or Break a New Hire’s Experience,” Harvard Business Review, April 5, 2022, https://hbr.org/2022/04/onboarding-can-make-or-break-a-new-hires-experience; Phoebe Spinks, “Why Bad Onboarding Will Damage Your Business,” https://theundercoverrecruiter.com/onboarding-damage/ : “Why Not Having An Onboarding Process Hurts New Hires,” August 31, 2016, https://hireology.com/blog/5-reasons-why-not-having-an-onboarding-process-hurts-your-business/

 


Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for Seventh-day Adventist journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Photo by Askar Abayev

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