(Brother Knight submitted the following in two parts. We have combined them into one article so that readers can follow all his points.)
The room was painted. The crib was put into place close enough to the window where there would be enough light but not enough to be directly on the new born. The rocker was placed in the corner with a small stand to the right that would hold the mother’s drink and any other needed supplies during the long nights. The changing table was decked out with enough diapers to last the first six months. No detail had been overlooked. The “nest” had been prepared to perfection. Excitement could be felt throughout the house during the final week. Then came the big day! The baby, the pictures, the visits, what a wonderful experience! After three days in the hospital, proud dad, glowing mom and precious baby come home.
After a week and a half of recovery, she returns to church, sits down on her pew and gets ready for worship. People look at her puzzled and one finally asks, “Where is the baby?” “Oh, I put him in the room we prepared for him a week and a half ago, closed the door and we haven’t heard from him since.”
Understandably, this story makes no sense. Yet, this may be what we do in the church sometimes with our new converts. We prepare programs, arrange door knocking campaigns and send out flyers. We spend lots of money and time spreading the word and then one day there is one who says, “I too want to be a Christian. What hinders me from being baptized?” We are all excited. The preacher rushed to put on his waders. The congregation begins to sing “Oh, Happy Day.” The confession is made and before long the baptism is finished. There are smiles and some tears. There are hugs and handshakes. There are words of encouragement and promised support. Then we all get in our cars and go home.
The next service there is an announcement or PowerPoint slide that says that Mr. or Mrs. Blank has been added to the body of Christ and some words of how glad we are to have them. Then after six months, folks begin to look around and ask one another, “I wonder where they are?” “You know I haven’t seen them for several months.” “If they don’t come back soon we’ll have to withdraw fellowship from them.”
This doesn’t make any more sense than the first story, but in many ways they are the same. We need to realize that whether physical or spiritual babies, we need to take care of them. Too often we allow them to sit out on the fringes, that mysterious space that exists between being a non-member and a member in full standing. There they feel like a bug under a glass, stared at to see what they will do. Some lend a few kind but uncommitted words while others speculate how long it will be before they fall away. How sad!
In order to keep a new convert the whole congregation must do its utmost to reach out to that new babe in Christ, not just the preacher or the one who studied with them but the whole congregation. Studies have shown that unless the new convert makes three to four good friendships in the first year there is almost a one hundred percent chance they will leave the fold. Who wants to stay where they are not wanted or loved? Then we have the audacity to say, “I just knew they were not going to stay long.” “I had doubts about them from the beginning.” Yet, did we do anything to help them stay?
If we are going to pull those fringe Christians into the “inner circle,” we must give a little of our precious time to get to know them, to understand who they are, their stories, their aspiration and their needs. We must befriend them, not look at them and smile as if they were a sack of potatoes. We need to take them out for lunch and let them know that they are special and of a great value to us and to the Lord. We need to spend time on their couch and they on ours talking and getting to know one another. Not just one person but many strong Christians must work together as a safety net trying to keep the new convert from falling back out into the world.
How many of our “Oh, Happy Days” will fall flat because they did not finish the race? How many of them could have made it through the Pearly Gate had we stuck with them, befriended them, encouraged them and bore their burdens? I would speculate that there are several new babes sitting on the fringe right now crying for attention in our congregations. What are we going to do about it?
Roy’s Happy Story
I was never a “fringe member.”
A fringe member is one who sits in the space between being lost and truly being incorporated into the Body of Christ. O, yes, they have made the good confession; they have been baptized; they have had their sins washed away and there they sit asking themselves, “What next?” They look at people passing them by, some nodding, and some stopping to make small talk about weather.
They come into the congregation and see things working like a well oiled machine: The preacher getting ready for his class, Bible teachers getting things ready for their classes and children and adults going to their classes. Everyone seems to have a part to play and a place to be, except for them. They sit down by themselves and smile at others around them and they smile back but very few words are spoken.
When the class is over, the machine begins to work again and people move with purpose: Elders to their tasks; the preacher to his; the song leader to his and Christians to their spots to sin and to listen to God’s word. Yet this person sits, looks around, participates but never feels like he or she is truly a part of the congregation. Over time they mysteriously vanish, yet the machine keeps running as it always had except for an occasional question, “I wonder what ever happened to Brother or Sister ___________.”
I was never this person and I tell you why. I had people walking me and some times dragging me every step of the way. As a student at the College of Charleston, my roommate Ivan Adams invited and invited me to go to worship. He patiently studied the Bible with me. He put me in contact with Frank Shepard at the student ministry building. We studied for months. Every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night the van was there to pick us up for worship and Bible study at the North Charleston congregation. There folks (strangers) came up to me, talked with me, gave me hugs (I thought that was strange since I did not know them and they didn’t really know me but I got used to it). They invited me to stay for fellowship meals and many times I went with them to their homes. To make a long story short, after a period of months and hard fought spiritual battles I became a Christian.
It did not stop there. The van kept coming, my roommate kept encouraging me and the congregation kept spoiling me. I’d go over to Ivan’s house on the weekends. Other weekends, I’d be invited to Richard and Karen McWilliams’ for lunch. The young adults would often get together at Frank and Jane’s house. One time, the whole youth group went up to Palmetto bible Camp for a weekend. Other times we practiced together for the Bible Bowl. The list goes on and on. That eventually led me to Freed-Hardeman University and to the East Tennessee School of Preaching. Today, I am a full-time preacher and have been at it for 16 years. During that time I have shared the gospel with many folks and a few of them I have baptized and still see their faces every Sunday morning.
I share this story with you to let you know that we cannot afford to have fringe people walking about in our midst. We must reach out to them and pull them in. We must give them every opportunity to see what the family of Christ is all about and to help them find their place in the church where they can feel a part and be a blessing to others.