From Pastor to Elders

What New Believers Need

James A. Cress was the General Conference Ministerial Secretary when he wrote this article.

We often neglect the sobering work of discipling in favor of the much more exciting process of gathering new converts. The dazzle of public preaching, coupled with the joy of witnessing thousands being baptized, makes disciple-building seem mundane and, thus, too easy to neglect. 

We neglect follow-up at our own peril and at risk to the kingdom we hope to advance. Jesus’ great commission intends that newborn believers will be continuously preserved, nurtured, and built into His body as strong disciples. All of this is evangelism—the whole process. As Peter Wagner so eloquently reminded his church growth classes, “Any scheme which separates evangelism and follow-up into distinct functions has already built into the system its own defeat.”

So what do new members need? In a word, everything! Just as newborns depend totally upon their parents for survival, so newborn believers depend completely upon their church.

Evangelism must always be understood as a process, not an event. Jesus intentionally chose the familiar imagery of love, family, conception, gestation, birth, development, and maturity to describe the process by which individuals are brought to belief and matured into discipleship. If we wonder what new believers need, we can simply apply what newborns need to the spiritual development of new believers.

TOTAL CARE. Loving nurture, tender care, acceptance, affirmation, companionship, conversation, admiration, high-touch bonding, appreciation, security, simple food, cleaning, copious companionship, and consistent attention are vital for the survival of babies and believers.

DISCIPLINE. Long before reasoning allows an infant to comprehend dangerous situations, a firmly-worded “No!” command is essential to protect the baby from placing its hand in a fire. Such protection is essential to learning the authority of both God’s Word and the responsible parent. Discipline is not harshly punitive; it is protective. Abandoning a baby to its own conclusions would be destructive abuse. 

INSTRUCTION. The milk of the Word is repetitive assurance of God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness, freighted not so much with information as with reassurance and taught by mentoring example, not reasoned logic. Infants learn to walk not by a discourse on the dynamics of locomotion but by a patterning of “walking with them” until they eventually take their first steps.

EDUCATION. Believers must next be taught to think for themselves. Education is not just an assimilating of information. Education is learning to reason for oneself rather than merely reflecting the thoughts of others. “Why?” questions are essential in the educational steps.

DISCERNMENT. Youngsters must learn to distinguish between the genuine and clever counterfeits. When my brother John was a toddler, he drank a glass of gasoline thinking it was ginger ale. Deadly consequences were averted only by immediate intervention. Believers must be taught to test the “winds of doctrine” that are swept their way by all manner of well-meaning and ill-intentioned individuals.

DEPLOYMENT. Believers must receive ministry assignments; otherwise, they cannot grow and will remain immature and dependent. The work of the pastor is to “work” the members.

PARTNERSHIP. Those being deployed must also be partnered with experienced leaders who teach by associative example what they have experienced themselves. From the very beginning, Jesus designed a partnership role for the most effective pursuit of any good venture. It is dangerous to work alone.

SUPERVISION. The deployed must also be closely supervised to assure their success and to prevent mistakes from becoming habits. When Jesus sent His disciples twoby-two, He also brought them back together after a short time to evaluate their performance, rejoice in their successes, and instruct them for even greater achievements.

ACCOUNTABILITY. Maturing disciples must embrace accountability both to leadership and to their fellow members. Independence in belief or action indicates immaturity. Unwillingness to accept the counsel of the wider body disqualifies anyone. 

RESPONSIBILITY. As disciples mature, they will value the things their Savior values. His priorities will be their priorities. His mission will become their mission. They will earnestly pray and diligently work to build up His church and to hasten His coming.

REDUPLICATION. Maturity exists only when disciples are winning other new believers and helping them to become disciples. When these disciples are effectively engaged in birthing new believers, the church’s evangelistic process is complete. 

James A. Cress
General Conference Ministerial Association Secretary