Assimilating New People into the Church
By Dr. David D. Durey
The Problem of Assimilation
As early as the 1960s Earl Waldrup addressed the challenge of assimilation by dramatizing the loss of Southern Baptist members to active and vital relationship with the church. The annual loss of active members is greater than the number of men which American Armed Forces have lost killed in battle in all the wars of this century. One out of every two persons on our church rolls is lost to kingdom service through his church. One out of every two persons bears a negative witness to the world as to the relevance of a vital church relationship (3). Another denominational study found that over 75 percent of church attenders who became inactive did so because they did not feel a sense of belonging (Shelley 3).
Not only is membership dropout an issue in the North American church, so is the assimilation of newcomers. Herb Miller states that in the average congregation in America, only 12 percent of first-time visitors return the following Sunday and eventually become members. A few congregations have 20 or 25 percent retention but rarely would any church surpass 30 percent (Magnetic 1). In The Teflon Church, John Savage describes the challenge of assimilation: Assimilating someone into the life of the church is different than helping them become a member. Rounding up bodies and getting them to join the church doesn’t finish the task. People who join a church may well drop out a few months later. The church needs to incorporate them into the life, the emotion, and the ministry of the congregation. People need to become a part of the church body rather than be merely attached to it (31).
Assimilation is the task of moving people from an awareness of your church to attendance at your church to active membership in your church (Warren 309). The first issue is getting the attention of those you wish to reach so that they choose to visit your church. Once they have visited, the issue is follow-up that is effective in getting them to return on a regular basis. Then the issue is clearly and convincingly communicating the gospel so that they can make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. After making a commitment to Christ and the church, the new believer needs to grow in vital relationship with Christ as a disciple and in fellowship with other Christians. The final step of assimilation is that every Christian needs to take up the responsibility and stewardship of personal ministry.
Many churches experience some success in one or more of these assimilation steps but fail in the others. Some churches experience a degree of success but still lose far more people than they assimilate into their local body. Most churches, however, reach few, if any unchurched people. In North America, over the past several decades, the church has generally failed at retaining its members, failed at reaching the unchurched, and it has failed to assimilate those few that it has evangelized.
Questions Concerning Assimilation
How can a congregation retain the active involvement of its members? How can it increase the number of first-time visitors who become incorporated into the life of the church? And how can unchurched people be attracted and assimilated? These are the representative questions that have prompted literature on the subject of assimilation. One of the first books exclusively addressing the issue was Lyle Schaller’s Assimilating New Members, which was published in 1978. His central thesis for the book was that it is un-Christian for a congregation to seek new members unless it is also willing and able to accept them into that called-out community (128). Schaller is truly concerned about assimilating people after they have been evangelized.
Assimilation is a relatively new term in church language but in reality it is as old as when the church was born on Pentecost and 3000 people were added in one day (Acts 2:41). In spite of the wonderful fellowship enjoyed by the thousands of new believers in Jerusalem the difficulties associated with assimilation were made evident when complaints arose among the Hellenistic Jews regarding the daily distribution of food to their widows (Acts 6:1-6). Even more profound was the issue of assimilating Gentiles into what began as a Jewish church (Acts 15:28-29).
Definitions and terms for assimilation vary. Some use the word incorporation as a synonym for assimilation (Anderson 135; Arn 137; Dennison Incorporation 8). Elmer Towns prefers the term bonding to joining or assimilating (228). Ron Jenson and Jim Stevens refer to it as absorption. They define absorption as the process by which people are taken into the life of the church and by which a strong sense of identity and belonging develops (138). This process can often be assessed by what takes place during the length of time between the first visit and the application for membership and complete commitment to the church (139). Rick Warren says that, assimilation is the task of moving people from an awareness of your church to attendance at your church to active membership in your church (Purpose 309).
Others define assimilation as feeling part of the congregation, belonging, feeling connected, or demonstrating a sense of ownership with comments like, this is my church, or he is my pastor (Lobs 17-18). In New Member Assimilation, Joel Heck states that to assimilate means to make similar. We assimilate people when we help them to acquire similar knowledge about our Christian beliefs and our congregation, similar attitudes towards Christ and His church, similar feelings of belonging, and similar patterns of behavior (12).
Characteristics of an Assimilated Person
What are the characteristics of someone who has been assimilated into the life of a local church? Win and Charles Arn offer nine characteristics of an incorporated member, which parallel Bob Logan’s assimilation continuum:
1. Identifies with the goals of the church.
2. Attends worship services regularly.
3. Experiences spiritual growth and progress.
4. Becomes a member of the Body.
5. Has 5-10 new friends in the church.
6. Has an appropriate task or role that matches spiritual giftedness.
7. Is involved in meaningful fellowship in a small group.
8. Regularly tithes to the church.
9. Participates in the great commission by spreading the Good News to friends and relatives (Arn 49-55; Beyond 109).
Heck’s listing represents a more traditional American Protestant church ministry. He suggests that the following characteristics may be considered a description of an active church member, a disciple of Christ and a Christian. He states that an assimilated member will possess most if not all of these:
1. Identifies with the goals of the church.
2. Is regular in worship attendance and in attendance at special services (Hebrews 10:25).
3. Attends Communion and Sunday school regularly and has Bible reading and family devotions in the home (Acts 2:42).
4. Attends some special functions of the congregation such as council meetings, church picnics, special workshops, and midweek services.
5. Is growing spiritually (2 Peter 3:18).
6. Has affiliated with the congregation.
7. Has six or more friends in the church.
8. Has a task or role that is appropriate for his or her spiritual gift(s) (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4; 1 Peter 4:10-11).
9. Is involved in a fellowship group (Acts 2:42).
10. Gives regularly and generously (1 Corinthians 16:2).
11. Tells others about the Lord and His church (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8) (Heck 54-55).
Each local congregation will need to determine its characteristics of assimilation and put in place a system or process that helps newcomers reach those objectives. There is no assimilation plan that will fit every church. Though churches vary in size, worship style, and location, the stages that a newcomer transitions through in the process of assimilation often follow a general pattern:
1. Attraction/recruitment: the new person is drawn to the church.
2. Testing: the new person attends for the first time.
3. Returning/affiliating: the new person revisits and begins to participate.
4. Joining: the new person takes official steps to become a member.
5. Going deeper: the new member identifies gifts and talents and finds a meaningful place of service.
6. Being sent: the new member is enlisted in outreach ministries (Oswald 104-109).
Many congregations have not been intentional in their efforts to incorporate new people. Roy Oswald and Speed Leas studied sixteen growing churches of various sizes located in stable communities in two metropolitan areas in the eastern United States. These churches, which included Lutheran, United Methodist, Unitarian, Episcopal, and Presbyterian, had almost no formal assimilation systems (16-17). Though this has been typical of mainline churches in recent years, Loren Mead warns that the future demands a new approach. Congregations in the church of the future will have to have strong entry processes, assuming very little previous knowledge or experience of religion or Christianity. Such congregations will have to set aside the time and energy to put first class attention on this need, year after year after year (51).
Perhaps the assimilation model that is most widely known at present is the baseball diamond which has been popularized by Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church in southern California. The four bases of the baseball diamond represent four stages of commitment in what he calls the life development process. The first base represents leading people to faith in Christ and a commitment to church membership. Second base represents growing toward spiritual maturity. Third base represents equipping and mobilizing people for ministry. And home base represents a commitment to witnessing for Christ and sharing in his worldwide mission (Warren Purpose 144). Denominational leaders have adapted these basic stages as have many local congregations who are successfully reaching and assimilating unchurched people (Garlow Team 15; Gospel 3; Hornsby 4; Martin Issachar 125-128; Wright 74-78).
John Wesley provides a positive example of the assimilation process from church history. Wesley’s genius lay in his ability to organize seekers and converts into vital discipleship groups called societies, classes, and bands. Each group represented a systematic, progressive step in spiritual maturity. In order to join the Methodist movement a person was first involved for three months in a small group that taught the basics of the faith and discipleship. Then, if the person was willing to submit to accountability and discipline of the cell (which met weekly), one could be recommended for membership. Continued involvement was evaluated quarterly (Slaughter 73-74).
From: www.aog.org/discipleship web site. July 2008