Christian Formation: Building the Church
It’s a typical Sunday morning at your church and you notice visitors coming in the door. You’re eager to welcome them — and hope they’ll become part of your church family. What do you do?
Most vestry members feel that their job is to greet the person or family — perhaps introduce them to others and make sure they get to coffee hour. You might even remember to ask their names and addresses to pass along to the church office. Having done that, you go home, content that you’ve done your job. But have you? Will that visitor return? If he or she does come back next week, what will happen then? How will that individual or family become a part of your congregation?
Be intentional about adult opportunities
Most of us want our churches to grow — and that means incorporating new people into the congregation. But when we think about the incorporation process, most of us focus on hospitality and forget about Christian formation — the importance of establishing an intentional process to help people of all ages grow in their faith and knowledge of God.
Episcopalians understand that children and youth need Christian formation. But we tend to forget about the adults. Once we’ve been confirmed…or certainly once we’ve left youth group...we’re “done.” We might occasionally attend the rector’s adult forum. A few folks go to a weekly Bible study class or join an EFM group. But most adults do not see weekly, intentional study as important; few congregations convey that lifelong learning is an expectation for all Christians.
Just take a look at your congregation’s budget. Most churches have a sizable education budget for Sunday School and a reasonable budget for youth ministry. But the adult education budget in the average Episcopal Church usually is zero! And even the best churches tend to have less than $500 allocated for adult faith formation.
Provide an easy entry
We need to provide our newcomers with an easy entry into the community. Where does that visitor go when he or she comes back? How do you help that person become a part of your church family? Research shows consistently that there are three simple things any church can do to grow in faith and numbers. And your probably know two of them. First, invite people to attend church. Over 80 percent of all newcomers attend your church because a member invited them. Less than 2 percent come because the clergy invite them. Second, visit every newcomer within fortyeight hours and bring a simple gift — homemade bread or cookies, a small bouquet, or, my favorite, and Episcopal bear (it’s cute, lovable, and puts the Episcopal “brand” into the home. Someone needs to deliver the gift, offer a brief (two-three minute) welcome and invite the visitor to return the following week.
But third — and finally the best way — to incorporate newcomers is to have them join a small group. Small groups allow people to bond with one another. And one of the most powerful motivators on Sunday morning are the relationships you have with the people at church.
Aim for diversity in groups
My rule-of-thumb is that every congregation needs to have at least one adult education opportunity for every twenty-five people in church. So, if your average Sunday attendance at all services is 150, you need six adult education opportunities. Aim for diversity, not for the one popular program that everyone will love. You are better having six different programs with six to fifteen people each, than one with fifty to seventy-five attendees. One large group, low-involvement event (like the Rector’s Forum) is important for those who are most comfortable in that setting. But the other five options need to be small groups where people can bond with each other and grow in faith and knowledge.
There are a host of great small group programs available; many of them are reasonable in cost and can be led by the group members or a moderately skilled leader. Gather twice the number of programs you need and see which ones appeal to those in your congregation. Ask the participants to help pay for the costs — people value what they pay for more than what they get for free. And then make sure that every visitor who returns finds a home in a group where he or she will be welcomed, nurtured and accompanied on the faith journey. So what can a vestry member do to help all of your congregation’s members, new and old, grow in faith? Yes, invite people. Yes, visit newcomers. But also make sure your church budget and program has at least one adult education program for every twenty- five adults. In other words, invest in growth: personally, programmatically, and financially. You can’t expect results if you don’t invest something.
Formerly the adult education staff person for the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Linda Grenz is publisher and CEO of LeaderResources which publishes education programs developed by Episcopal churches and dioceses. Their newest adult education program Journey in Faith and other programs can been previewed at www.LeaderResources.org or call 800-941-2218.