Pathways to participation

The final stage of an effective membership recruitment process happens when the constituent actually affiliates with your congregation.

For some that will mean “joining,” as traditionally understood. They will attend a membership class, sign a document signifying membership, make a stewardship commitment and, if they are coming from a different faith tradition or from no faith tradition, they might seek baptism and/or confirmation. You will expect to see them in worship on Sunday. You probably will ask them to take a Sunday role, perhaps as a greeter (because new members make especially effective greeters).

That is a path that most church leaders recognize. We have protocols and liturgies for it. We have learned to ask people about their faith stories rather than load them down with church history and doctrine. But there are other ways to affiliate, and the smart church will also maintain those other pathways.

Participating but not joining
Many people are simply averse to joining a church. They don’t value the institutional side of faith life. Perhaps they were hurt in a previous church or they have heard stories of people getting hurt. Recovering addicts, for example, tell harrowing stories of being abused by churches. So do victims of sexual misconduct and of church conflict.

Participating, but not in Sunday worship
We need to recognize that Sunday worship doesn’t interest everyone. It may be the wrong time of week or an activity they find boring. If we keep pressing them to come on Sunday, we will lose them. We can offer additional worship at a time other than Sunday, such as a midweek evening. We can encourage them to join or form a small group, perhaps a house church that worships in a non-traditional way, or a study group, a discussion group, a parents group. The group will offer community, which is probably what they want anyway.

Signing on to a mission team
Many people are drawn to a faith community because they value its mission work. They want, for example, to build Habitat houses, serve food, advocate for the disadvantaged, join community dialogs across lines of division such as race. Their heart lies in social justice, community development, and hands-on service.

These are some common avenues to affiliation. How common are they? I think you would be surprised, especially by how many people want to belong to a faith community but not to worship on Sunday.

You will want to name and affirm these alternative pathways. When pastors build relationships with new constituents, they should ask specifically what form of affiliation the newcomer might value. Don’t just assume everyone is headed for a Sunday pew. Make sure to introduce these new affiliates as part of the fabric, perhaps by presenting them in the newsletter. Make sure they are considered for appropriate leadership and service roles.

And always remember that recruitment of new constituents isn’t the final stage of membership development. Now you need to work at retaining them and helping God to transform their lives.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York. His new Fresh Day online magazine offers fresh words about faith and life, fresh voices, fresh ideas. For a free trial go to