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 hadn’t 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 eight years to the last 18 months at Calvary. In the last year and a half we’ve 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 as a result of some key decisions we made. What we learned is that just because you reach people, that doesn’t mean you have the infrastructure in place to keep people. So while our initial challenge was that we weren’t reaching anyone, our next challenge was our lack of being able to keep those we reached. Today, 85 percent of those we reach decide to call Calvary home.
Unfortunately, there’s 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 three major mistakes that churches make in particular. If you fix these areas, you’ll 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 Aren’t Asked to Indicate their Decision
You cannot follow up with someone if you aren’t 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 Aren’t Given a Clear Next Step
Many churches get the contact information of new believers yet still find most of them falling through the cracks. The reason they disappear 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. It’s like taking someone to the Cheesecake Factory for the first time. There are so many options, that without a friend to help you decide, you’d probably eat the free bread and go home. New Believers have just made the biggest decision of their lives. Quite honestly, many wouldn’t be able to even completely explain the decision they just made. That’s 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 “that’s where the real life change happens”. The majority of people wonʼt make the jump. It’s not because they’re against small groups (they might not even 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 newfound faith.
(*Free Download: Starting Point: First Steps for the Journey, a free eBook to help new believers from Bob Franquiz.)
Mistake #3—New Believers Aren’t Valued in the Church’s Culture
It’s next to impossible to reach new believers and help them grow to maturity if your culture says that new believers don’t matter. Reaching new believers and retaining them only happens when your entire church is in alignment with the vision of reaching people and discipling them. I have learned that while the pulpit steers the ship, the church’s culture can lean the ship in a certain direction. A church culture that doesn’t value new believers cannot help them take steps of faith. The reason is, new believers don’t 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 can’t help new believers grow without the help of the congregation. If people aren’t inviting their friends, there won’t be much evangelism needed. If those who do invite their friends won’t 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 to 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 overcome these mistakes and get about the business of making disciples.