Discipleship is a difficult thing when a church functions as a closed circle or group. The phrase, "closed set" is mathematical, so I will be misusing the term is this blog. A note, if you have not given thought to having an intentional process for turning converts into disciples, our "Disciple Maker's Training Course" is currently on sale with a 30% discount!. There are over 30 videos, multiple pdfs for you to use, as well as free lessons for you to use with your leaders.
We have been called to make disciples, not converts. Of course, we must make converts before we can disciple them, but there is often a huge breakdown in disciple-making.
A Closed Set
A "closed set" occurs when there are specific numbers within a group. Due to certain necessary qualifications, a "closed set" excludes all other numbers. It does not matter if the excluded number is greater or less. The numbers excluded do not fit into that set. I define a "closed set" church as one where people are so "similar" to each other that there is no room to welcome people who are "different." The similarities can be any number of things. These include:
- Socioeconomic level
- Years since conversion
- Level of Christian maturity
- Amount of education
- Family connections
- Common interests
- Church heritage.
Such distinguishing trait or traits are such a part of the church's identity that the group repels anyone who does not have the same trait(s). There is no open door for a newcomer.
In one visit a guest can determine that the “OPEN FOR NEW BUSINESS” sign has not been switched on for a long time. A church closed to new business is positioned to reject new people rather than attract them.
Marks of a Closed to New Business Church
No church wants to be known as “Closed to New Business." But there are indicators. If these exist in a church, then they cannot be ignored. Our behavior speaks louder than our words.
Please evaluate if your church has these key markers. A “closed to new business” church will have the following:
- It takes a LONG time for a newcomer to find a place to serve in the church.
- There is no structured orientation path for newcomers. Honestly, though not true, “closed set” churches operate with the predisposed notion, “No one will want to go down the path to become a mature disciple for Jesus, so why should we develop a new convert's ministry.”
- The standards of behavior are quickly set very high. If this were a family instead of a church, it would be not allow "dirty diapers" for newborns. A three-year-old would be set out in the cold if they spilled milk. No baby – spiritual or otherwise, can healthily survive in that setting.
- The attitude is, "You can be part of us if you agree TODAY with everything we do and how we do it." Agreement and application is expected even when teaching toward understanding does not exist.
- Prejudices don't just exist they dominate. Newcomers can feel when they are thought to be too poor, too rich, too well dressed, too educated, or have the "wrong" skin color.
- A person's "outside the box" upbringing or life’s choices is too different, or their past may be too "bad." When Saul was converted Jerusalem did not welcome him. Saul had been too bad for them imagine his conversion. Some respond, “Pastor, anyone is welcome here. A member of the Hell’s Angels is welcome to become part of us!” Yes, they are – after the chains are gone, the tattoos removed, a few pieces of body jewelry are unhooked, a haircut, shave, and perhaps a wedding.
- Usage of “churchy” vocabulary. Ask 10 church members to define the words: sanctified, regeneration, redemption and even the word Christ. If saints cannot correctly define the words – how well do guests.
- The use of "excluded" language rather than "included" language. A member of the "closed set" is called "Brother John,” while the lost man standing alongside him is simply "John."
Turn on the “Open for New Business” Sign
Everything I propose is not guaranteed to work. But a combination of various strategies can probably break the "closed set."
The pastor is initially responsible to win new people. The people in the existing congregation do not know how to win newbies and their predisposition is, "Nobody wants what we have." You can rail, cajole, rant and rave all you want, but until you personally show the way, proving that there are lost people who want to be born again, the church body will not buy in.
Teach that a "closed set" does not follow the Lord Jesus' plan. A "closed set" was what the Jews celebrated. They were quick to say, "We have Abraham as our father." This gave the Jews a unique identity. Being unique made the Jews happy, but it was not Jesus’ plan.
Ephesians 5 is full of wonderful material that describes God's inclusive plan. He broke the wall between Jew and Gentile. Jesus has gathered:
- Rich and poor
- Employees and employers
- Educated and uneducated
- People of every kindred, language, and nation.
Aggressively celebrate any new additions. A church is a closed set, if everyone there has been saved for more than 30 years. A church that is healthy will have people in varying stages of development. The variety of people communicates that the church is not closed to anyone.
Be an example. The "closed set" group is not where leaders should put their primary focus. A pastor sets a rhythm. Jesus won criticism for eating with "publicans and sinners." Be guilty of the same, add to the list by spending time with converts.
A few decades ago, Vesta Mangun told me: "Love those who have been part of the church a long time, train them to help you, but invest your time and energy in new converts."
Teach something like a “Take Root” class. "In My Father's House" and several other similar discipleship resources exist. Whether you use my Take Root or develop your own, intentionally do something to focus on newbies.
If necessary, ask someone else to teach a larger group of saints (older members) as you invest energy in the future.
Connect "closed set" people with newcomers who are different from the "norm." Eat lunch with two families at the same time. One family that is a “closed set” family and the other family that is “outsiders.”. A meal together at “Wendy's” can do much more to bond people than them sitting across from each other in church. Unfortunately, people tend to distrust those with whom they have not had a personal conversation and budding relationship.
Bring people together through the use of structured “fun” church events. What you are trying to do to break a "closed set" is not a quick process. It is somewhat uncertain. Not all members of the "closed set" will accept it.
Now a warning!
If you focus on newcomers rather than the "closed set," you will lose people. When this happens, and it will, expect it. Do not speak ill of whoever is leaving. Accept this as part of the process. Hopefully, they go elsewhere and become great soulwinners and disciple-makers.
What you are trying to overcome is a sociological dynamic. Imagine moving to a remote area of the Amazon rainforest and deciding to become part of a tribe that lives along the river. You wouldn't quickly become part of the tribe, if you ever did. This is true even if you knew the language of the tribe.
Why? Sociological factors are against you. It is the same for the "closed set" of the church.
Celebrate Being Open for New Business
Win new people and "get over" the feeling of being in a "closed set.” What you want to achieve is to win and disciple new people.
As this unfolds, honor and celebrate anyone's effort to connect with newcomers in a welcoming way. The things that are honored are repeated. When the saints in a "closed set" have lunch with people who are "out of the set," you find a way to mention it in an upcoming service. It is best if your comment is almost an "aside." Honoring action will do more for others to do similar things over anything else.
The issues of caring for new converts are important. I'm a bit obsessed with us being more effective at that. Tell me what has or is working for you. I have seen more "closed set" churches than I have ever experienced. Others of you will have fought a great battle opening the door to new people. Please share your experiences, thoughts and ideas with us.
For more tools on disciple making, check out these books:
"You Wouldn't Want an Ostrich for your Mama!" Read Job 39:13-18 to see how this applies to dealing with spiritual babies. The book talks about and gives solutions for how to overcome several other challenges to caring for newcomers.