The Church in the U.S.A. is sick. At least 4,000 local churches disband every year, and the Church at large is losing 3,500 members daily. On the basis of population, comparisons show that we have only half the churches we had in 1900! Only 1 percent of churches grow from conversions to Christ versus from transfer of membership and other additions. 1
God's goal for our lives is that we know, love, and glorify Him. Jesus gave us a summary of the Bible: “follow Me.” We are saved to follow Jesus — from a “baby” decision to discipleship. The Apostle Paul described this process: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). As a child grows to adulthood, a Christian should grow up to be God's “laborer” in the harvest. The Church will not grow numerically if its members are not growing!
Yet, millions of new “babes” in Christ never grow up. Why not? Two intermingled forces thwart the spiritual progress of the believer. The first one is the believer's Enemy, Satan. Only focused prayer and mentoring will counter-attack the Enemy's lies and seduction. The second negative force working against new converts involves a misunderstanding of their pediatric needs. A new believer is a spiritual baby. Paul called himself a “father” to those he'd won (1 Corinthians 4:16,16). We're commanded as babies to “desire the . . . milk of the word” (1 Peter 2:2).
This viewpoint shows that spiritual newborns are about as fragile as physical newborns: helpless, selfish, unfocused. New converts start on equal footing — whether banking executive or third grader. They need parenting.
Unfortunately, most churches have a dirth of spiritual fathers and mothers. So, spiritual “orphans” by the thousands function relatively alone in their walk with God. There are two things people can't do alone: get married and finish strong spiritually. God designed us to need fellowship with Him, and with believers.
How does a couple parent their infant? This important process involves four things: loving, feeding, protecting, and training. It's no different with spiritual parenting. A book or a bottle does not equal a parent. It's done by one or two people, with the help of a group (Sunday School, church). Let's look at four golden keys to maximizing assimilation of new converts and new church members:
- MODELING THE WORD
- WARM, EVANGELISTIC ENVIRONMENT
TIME. Nurture and assimilation must be personal and persistent, over time. Dr. Billy Graham learned that all decisions needed personal follow-up. In the 1950's, Dawson Trotman was brought in as a consultant to the Graham Team. He researched the best process to follow-up the thousands who made decisions for Christ. Trotman made sure that the growth process began right at the “altar. ” First, he correctly required individual counseling of each person. Next, there was check-up by a second advisor/counselor at the stadium. Third, each decision card was mailed that night to the preferred church listed on the card. A pastor had the convert's name and pertinent information by the next morning.
That third step was where the assimilation process sometimes fell apart. As I worked in a number of Graham Crusades, one of my jobs was to ascertain how pastors followed up on these referrals. In Houston, I remember my shock as I visited pastor after pastor who had a stack of decision cards on his desk! They had not visited a single person — two weeks after the crusade had closed! We learned a major principle: the longer the gap, the harder the assimilation.
Time is vital for life-guarding successful assimilation. Notice both the immediacy and consistency with which the Apostles evangelized and mentored: DAILY! In Jerusalem, believers went to the Temple “every day,” and people were saved daily (Acts 2:46). The Apostles preached “daily” in the Temple and from house to house (Acts 5:42; 19:9). How did Paul plant a growing, evangelistic church at Ephesus in 36 months? Paul assimilated and mentored them “at all seasons,” “house to house,” and “night and day” (Acts 20). Can we do any less, as we mentor men and women?
Let's parallel this finding with new insights from the medical world about the learning future of many children. How much time do most kids spend with their parents? The most basic “child-care” responsibilities, such as bathing, feeding, reading and playing, produced the following estimates. “The average mother who is unemployed spends 12.9 hours per week devoted to undivided child care. The working mother averages 6.6 hours a week. The employed dad spends 2.5 hours a week with his children.” 2 A specialist M.D. says, “Kids don't do meetings. You can't raise them in short, scheduled bursts. They need lots of attention.” 3
When someone just gets saved, he is the most impressionable, like wet cement. Set up an appointment within 48 hours after conversion. The Lord from Glory invested three years, at 14-16 hours a day, parenting 12 spiritual babies. Jesus changed spiritual diapers, and patiently listened to “gu-gu” baby talk. We may not have that kind of time, but we can introduce them to simple Bible study immediately after spiritual birth. Among other resources, I suggest our First Steps booklet using John's Gospel.
Begin specific prayer for the new believer immediately. Ask God to give them hunger for the Word, conviction about sin, and availability to be mentored. Why not begin “preventative medicine”? For 40 days pray for each convert or new church member, passing out a prayer list. Use the Epistle prayers of Paul. “Arise, cry out in the night. . . ; pour out your heart. . . in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for. . . your children, who faint from hunger” (Lamentations 2:19).
Modeling The Word
Assimilation is done by someONE, not someTHING. Who is responsible in your church to immediately follow-up new converts? I started a 13-week new members class where I pastored. But, this class was secondary to critical one-on-one mentoring of new converts.
Recruit and train your sharpest men and women for this ministry. New Testament converts drank warm bottles of Bible milk from the correspondence of Paul, Peter, and John. In addition to writing the Word of God, these mentors modeled it. It's no wonder that we read about godly Timothy, Titus, Priscilla, Philemon, and more who were all encouraged by a mentor. Paul reminds the Thessalonians: “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Ghost, . . . as ye know what manner of men we were among you” (1 Thessalonians 1:5 KJV ). The Word, plus modeling! Every spiritual baby needs one or more caring parents to pattern God's Word. Mentoring from the pulpit to the pew just doesn't cut it! Doctors have discovered with a baby that “the best a care center [nursery] can hope to do is approach. . . the benchmark of a single caring adult.” 4
Warm, Evangelistic Environment
“And you also became imitators of us and of the Lord. . . so that you became an example to all. . . in every place your faith toward God has gone forth. . . ” (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8 NASB ). All through the book of Acts there was a warm, evangelistic environment. People were getting saved and living their talk. A new convert responds to his environment. If it is warm and exciting, he heats up! However, he will learn bad habits from the carnal. When I pastored, I avoided putting a new convert in a “lukewarm” Sunday School class, even if that meant I had to by-pass age grouping.
Evangelistic fervor is contagious! While my son Bruce was on staff at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, they had 200 single adults witnessing every week! They insisted that each new Christian be immediately invited to go on visitation with his Sunday School department. Surrounded by committed Christians, a high standard was raised, and he developed a heart for the lost world.
1 Dale Schlafer, Promise Keepers' Dinner, Tampa, FL, May 15, 1997.
2 “Time For Life,” Penn State Univ. Press, 1995 estimates, Newsweek, May 12, 1997, p. 65.
3 “The Myth of Quality Time,” Newsweek, May 12, 1997, p. 62.