Sandy, the server, looked at the name on my credit card and said, "Why does that name sound familiar?"
"I'm the Sunday School and Discipleship guy for the Church of the Nazarene."
"Naw, that's not it," she said, "but I am a Nazarene. I go to a Nazarene church, but I don't know why—probably because I grew up there. After my divorce I've left several times, but I keep going back. I feel so disconnected. I'm there but not really a part. I keep hoping I will find a place to fit in, where I belong. Somehow it just doesn't feel right."
I met Jean and her husband at a retreat in a resort town where they live. They are life-long Nazarenes with global Nazarene connections. Jean said, "We go to the Baptist church. You wouldn't believe how many Nazarenes live in this town, but they go to the Presbyterian, the Community, and the Baptist churches. Do you remember Pastor Hank? He lives here and attends the Methodist church. His wife plays the piano for them." Then she said, "If we just had a decent Nazarene church here, the place would be packed."
Recently a letter came from Natalie. She wrote:
Emily told me she is having a difficult time with the loss of her Nazarene church. Some folks have left, and the new people know nothing of our doctrine. Words like sin, repentance, salvation, holiness, and sanctification are never spoken here.
Last week, pastor created a study guide for those who wanted to read the Bible. He stated that he prepared it only for the New Testament because the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy would scare and bore those who read them. He said Mark, Third John, and Revelation could be eliminated because they did not add anything.
Numerous families have left. I've tried to talk to our pastor, but he doesn't listen. As you know, mom was a charter member of this church. One Sunday when I picked her up for church, she said, "Can't we go somewhere else?" I feel like she gave me permission to find another church.
Emily now attends Village Church and says the pastor preaches from the Scripture and speaks of salvation and holiness, words we do not hear from our pulpit.
Sandy, Jean, and Natalie are Nazarenes from three different Nazarene churches from three different areas. One is thinking of leaving, one wants to leave, and one is already gone. Can we help them or just say, "Good riddance?" Are there measures we can take to conserve our members? How do we retain our members?
Jesus said: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last" (John 15:16).
Some might teach, "Do such and such and you will close the back door." That is like an instructor at a football or soccer clinic proclaiming, "Here is the play that will win every game." Do you know of any team who approaches every game with the same plays in the same order? Winning teams build on principles that apply to every game, but adapt to the gifts and abilities of each player. Every church needs to develop its own strategy for membership assimilation and retention.
Here are three principles that might be useful as a foundation for a membership conservation plan that will help close the back door.
1. The first principle involves the priority of prayer. John Wesley knew without fervent prayer for, in, and by the church our efforts would be empty. He understood, Psalm 127:1. "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain." Wesley said, "Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises . . . whether you like it or not read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way, else you will be a trifler all your days."
Ultimately, retaining members is spiritual work.
If we are not men and women of personal piety and devotion, then our work is little more than our best efforts. When we abide in Him through prayer, He produces disciples who remain in Him through us.
2. The second principle places a high priority on knowing and living God's Word. Churches successful in retaining their converts connect them to the Bible. Far too many ministries get stuck in a rut of non-transformational religious activity. Emotive sermons stir hearts but may not transform lives. God's living, active Word penetrates the mind, will, and emotions with transforming truth. When we neglect the power of God's Word, we create consumers who may be nice people but who make little difference in the world.
3. High-retention-rate churches have discovered a third principle in the power of "relational glue." Churches deploying cell leader multiplication strategies often see retention rates jump to over 50 percent. People want and need the sense of love, friendship, and care found in the connecting points of small groups, Sunday School classes and affinity groups.
Churches who maintain their converts provide these relational groups. They have developed an infrastructure that leads to the multiplication of leaders among its members thus creating multiple connecting points that engage and keep our people.
If we want the Sandys, Jeans, and Natalies to stay connected to the Church of the Nazarene, then these essential elements should be part of a deliberate assimilation plan. Prayer, the Word, and intentional disciple-making can be a part of the conservation strategy for keeping Nazarene members.
Woodie J. Stevens was global director of Sunday School and Discipleship Ministries International for the Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, July/Aug 2010
Please note: This article was originally published in 2010. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.