For part of my time as a student I lived in college ‘digs’. In those days students didn’t enjoy ensuite facilities – rather we had bedroom-cum-study, and shared a bathroom. Our landlady did not encourage daily use of the bath – rather baths had to be a weekly observance! So on a Saturday night I would sit in the bath, and forgetting my landlady’s desire for economy, I would fill the bath to the brim. What a luxury!
On one occasion I conducted an experiment. With the taps full on, I pulled out the bath-plug to see what would happen. Would the bath empty – or would it overflow? Interestingly, the level of water in the bath remained constant.
Over the years I have discovered that this bath hole phenomenon can be replicated in churches. It is very easy to be a church where Sunday by Sunday new people come in, and yet the church never grows: for while people are coming in, others are going out. Or to use another metaphor, people come in through the front door, but at the same time people leave through the back door. For a church to grow, there must be a way of putting in the bath plug – or shutting the door.
In my experience the key to integrating and retaining new people are home groups. Indeed, as a rule of thumb we can say that the more a church engages in home groups, the more likely it is to be a growing church. Certainly in a church of any size, home groups are vital, for in a larger church home groups tend to be the only place where people are loved, valued, and affirmed.
And yet there are times when home groups do not ‘do the trick’. Here at Central Baptist Church for instance, we have many home groups – and yet the truth is that we are also experiencing the bath hole phenomenon. At almost every service we have new people trying us out, but we are growing ever so slowly. Somehow we are failing to integrate and retain newcomers. Why is this so? What do we need to do if we want to ensure that people do not go out the ‘back door’?
I believe the key is for us to be more pro-active in welcoming people into home groups. I find it significant, for instance, that in the last three months of the newcomers who have filled in welcome cards and have specifically asked for more information about home groups, not one of them has actually become a member of a home group. And yet information about home groups was given to each one. What went wrong? On reflection I wonder whether we could have been more inviting. It is not enough to give information about home groups in general; we need to give a specific invitation to a specific home group. What’s more, this information needs to be personalised: rather than send an e-mail, on a Sunday morning we need to be looking around for newcomers and saying to them, ‘we would love to see you at our home group’; of even better, ‘may we come round and take you to our home group next Wednesday evening (or whenever)’. Only in this way are we going to have any hope of putting in the plug.