We’ve all experienced it. The broken, young man we prayed with at McDonald’s; the mother of teens who visited our church and prayed after the sermon; the drug addict who showed up at our office asking for money; they committed their lives to God and started off with excitement and promise, and then they were gone. What happened? How did they slip away? We had a plan, a curriculum, and a class. We took them diapers for their baby. We picked them up for Sunday School and the church picnic. Where did they go? Was it simply due to their lack of commitment, or did we miss something? Is there something we could have done better? Who has the answers to the problem of how to get new believers to stick?
We have the responsibility to make it as hard as possible for Satan to reclaim a soul that has been forgiven and transformed. Is it completely up to us to get someone to heaven? No. Keeping a soul is ultimately God’s work. Is any human person the expert on flawless discipleship? If so, I’d love to meet them or read their book! The challenge is not an easy one, but it’s ours to claim. But coming from the challenges and successes of pastoral ministry, here are some strategies we’ve learned for keeping that little lamb from re-escaping the fold.
1. Replace Their Sinner Friends with Christian Friends (Mark 10:29-30)
In Mark 10:29-30, Jesus promised a hundredfold replacement of family and friends for anyone who left theirs to follow Him. That’s an incredible promise, but here is the scary part: He left that promise for us to fulfill! When a sinner leaves behind sinful influences and chooses to identify with God’s people, they make a life-altering commitment. Our commitment to them needs to be just as strong. When our commitment is not sufficient to fill their need for spiritual and social support, loneliness can drive them back to the people who “were always there for them.”
Without support and friendship, loneliness can drive new believers back to the people who “were always there for them.”
We must more purposefully and fully incorporate new Christians into the body. We, as believers, are called to be the glue that keeps a believer connected long enough to experience full transformation. Our love is the “sticky” agent that makes it hard for them to walk away. Of all the strategies that may be employed, this element is one of the most critical for the new believer’s success.
2. Find a Stable, Wise, Reliable, Teachable Person to Commit to Them (Php. 3:17-19)
Perhaps you noticed the tension between points one and two. It is true that we should all commit ourselves in brotherly love to a new believer, but it is also important for one person to be the “Apostle Paul.” In this passage, Paul provides the focused, intentional discipleship and example that is needed. Why is it important that the discipler fit these qualifications?
Stable: A collapse in the life of a disciple-maker will result in confusion and loss for the person who is following them.
Wise: Biblical understanding and discernment will aid a disciple-maker in responding to the unique challenges that arise with every new Christian. Unwise leadership will be demonstrated in agenda pushing or overreaction by the leader, resulting in confusion and defeat in the new Christian.
Reliable: Intentionality and consistency are core traits in this person. If they do not show up to church regularly, they likely will let the new Christian go for an extended period without contact, and that could spell failure.
Teachable: If a person is not teachable, they will not model and reproduce this trait in their disciple, and the new Christian’s over-independence will result in their straying. Additionally, a person who is not teachable likely has significantly incorrect doctrine, and they are the wrong person to be establishing a new Christian.
This commitment should be one that is not easily abandoned, no matter what personal affronts must be endured or failures must be restored. I recently realized that I was no longer connecting with a new Christian like I thought I would and should, so I asked for help from another Christian who had connected with them in the past. God caused their paths to cross, and now we have two Christians who are committed to the spiritual success of that person.
3. Inject Confidence Into Them (1 Thess. 3:2-7)
Affirm their faith. One primary tool of Satan in destroying a new Christian is to tell them they can’t do it. They are a failure. A disciple-maker’s role is to combat this by affirming what faith may be affirmed, by pointing to whatever spiritual desire may remain, and by standing in the way of the new believer casting away their confidence and faith in God. Yes, we warn them when they start to wander. Yes, we instruct them that a spiritually alive person must spiritually feed themselves daily. Yes, we call them to repentance when they err or sin, understanding that sin destroys and separates from God. But we also join Jesus in advocating on their behalf before the Father. We must attempt restoration before we turn them over to Satan.
We inject confidence into straying believers by pointing to whatever spiritual desire may remain.
Give them a place to serve. Of course, we affirm the need for wisdom as we determine what is appropriate. Certain service positions may unwisely present a spiritual baby as a model of Christian behavior. However, there are many meaningful tasks that can give a new Christian a sense of belonging and responsibility without risking compromise. If that task gives that baby Christian another reason to show up one more Sunday, it’s worth having someone open a door who doesn’t have a suit on.
Teach them to study the Bible for themselves. As nice as it feels to have someone rely on you for their spiritual sustenance, the goal should be to teach that child to feed themselves. A healthy child eventually gets off of formula, and if the goal is to make disciples who make disciples, your disciple needs to know how to read and understand the Word. Additionally, a person who is discovering truth for themselves now has personal ownership in the process. It is no longer your relationship with God that you are showing them. They have experienced the reality of communication with God.
4. Encourage Them to Experience Transformation (Ro. 6:1-3; 1 Thess. 2:7)
Paul discipled gently but firmly. Conversion should not be understood as an enlistment into spiritual formation boot camp, but neither should we avoid tough conversations. If they were sick of their sin, and we allow them to continue to indulge in their sins without experiencing the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, what we “offer” is no better than what they had. They are still stuck with the feeling of guilt and shame they wanted so badly to escape. However, when they can testify in church that God is changing them in a specific way (which should be modeled by their disciple-maker), that change will inspire them to experience further change.
5. Immediately Prioritize Their Church Attendance (Heb. 10:25)
It is vital to a Christian’s spiritual success that the practice of church attendance be established early on. If there is some reason why your church is not ideal for that person, then find another church whose doctrine is sound and who has a passion for making lifelong, Christlike disciples. We are not called to build our church, but to build His Church.
The practice of church attendance must be established early on.
However, when possible, bringing that person into the fellowship of your own church is, of course, a worthy, biblical goal. Just as there are no “Lone Ranger” Christians, so too have we missed the plan if the “one another” and “body of Christ” passages are unnecessarily restricted to only two people. The church’s functions of accountability, encouragement, and example, and the corporate activities of worship, prayer, and proclamation are essential to a healthy new believer’s development. Additionally, these relationships will provide more “sticky” to help keep that new believer connected, as discussed above.
For any church that is actively making disciples, this need for intentional development in retaining new believers has surfaced. We know too well that Satan does not quickly give up on his plan to destroy every one of us. Though this list is not exhaustive, these strategies can go a long way in helping us to care for the flock as Christ’s under-shepherds. Identify the greatest needs in your church’s context and commit yourself to being the answer in someone’s life. We cannot save or keep anyone; that is the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Yet may God give us the grace to be effective and to endure in the work to which He has called us!