Assimilation, Reclamation, and Church Growth
By Thom S. Rainer
“When churches seek to get people into their fellowship, they are attempting to open “the front door.” Keeping those members in the church, active and fulfilled, is called “closing the backdoor.” Keeping the backdoor closed is a major problem in most churches today. A church with half of its membership in
attendance is considered successful by most standards. . . . What can we do to regain the spirit of the early church where Christians “devoted themselves to the . . . fellowship” and where “all the believers were together” (Acts 2:42, 44, emphases added)? How can we assimilate new members, and how can we reclaim inactive members? Those are the two “backdoor” questions.”
Paul and Melissa joined our church with great enthusiasm. They became friends with another young couple in their Sunday School class. They could not say enough good things about their church. Yet after nine months they stopped attending. Sunday School members were diligent in keeping in contact with Paul and Melissa, but their absenteeism continued. Six months after they stopped attending, we received notice that they had joined another Baptist church in our area.
I must admit that I am hurt each time we lose a member to inactivity or another church. I feel like the shepherd who has seen his sheep stray, perhaps never to be found again. In the case of Paul and Melissa, I am grateful that they are active in another church. Most drop-outs leave all church activity
for years, perhaps forever.
Later I learned that Paul, who had ambitious career goals, had not been accepted into graduate school. He was embarrassed and did not want to face his peers in Sunday School. The members of the class had certainly done their jobs. What could we have done differently? Was there anything we could have done to keep them?
When churches seek to get people into their fellowship, they are attempting to open “the front door.” Keeping those members in the church, active and fulfilled is called “closing the backdoor.” Keeping the backdoor closed is a major problem in most churches today. A church with half of its membership in attendance is considered successful by most standards. Would Jesus be content with half of His followers missing at a given moment? Even if we allow absenteeism for sickness, far too many members are AWOL each week.
What can we do to regain the spirit of the early church where Christians “devoted themselves to the . . . fellowship” and where “all the believers were together” (Acts 2:42, 44, emphases added)? How can we assimilate new members, and how can we reclaim inactive members? Those are the two “backdoor” questions.
Assimilating New Members
Gary McIntosh and Glen Martin, in their book Finding Them, Keeping Them, identified five strategies for assimilation. 1 Friendship with other church members is the first step toward a new member’s assimilating into the church. Lyle Schaller says that “there is considerable evidence which suggest
that at least one-third, and perhaps as many as one-half, of all Protestant church members do not feel a sense of belonging to the congregation of which they are members. They have been received into membership, but have never felt they have been accepted into the fellowship circle.” 2
Church members obviously need to develop relationships with new members. This is rarely successful with programs. Instead regular emphasis on friendliness and openness motivates members to welcome newcomers into their friendship circles. One family in a church that I pastored in Louisville, Kentucky, invited most new members to a meal in their home. As church leaders encourage and applaud such actions, other members will follow their example.
An even more successful approach is for the relationship with the new member to begin before the new member comes into the church. If we as leaders are successful in motivating church members to invite and bring their friends to church, evangelism and assimilation can become one victorious step.
As important as relationships are in closing the backdoor it is important that new members become involved in ministry in the church. A review of chapter 20 might help at this point. Are we as church leaders giving our laity “permission” to start and become involved in ministries? Or is involvement in the church limited to redundant committees, where the committee members are chosen by a select group? Do we encourage or require spiritual gift assessments to involve people in ministry according to their giftedness?
Or are we choosing June or John for the kitchen committee because they are not doing anything else? Do we teach, preach, and show that ministry is done by the people of God, rather than by some artificial ecclesiological hierarchy?
Ministry involvement, real ministry involvement, is a key to assimilation.
In the next chapter we examine the impact of small groups on various factors, including assimilation. For now it is important to note the beauty of small groups in creating a sense of belonging. What is “small”? Most studies indicate that ten is a maximum size where everyone can have the opportunity to
interact with the rest of the group. Sunday School, therefore, can operate within the dynamics of a small group, but only if the class is small. Church members in classes of twenty, thirty, forty, or more are not reaping the benefits of a small group. Though I am not aware of any studies in this area, I sense that small group dynamics may operate better in a non-church location.
The importance of vision has been mentioned frequently in this book, but it cannot be overstated. A clear, Great Commission vision creates a sense of “being on the team.” Who has not identified with a sports team that has a vision for being the best? You see fans wearing their hats, displaying their bumper sticker, and naming their children after the stars. A similar dynamic can happen with a church that has a clear, challenging, and exciting vision.
New members are assimilated because they identify with the “team” and its vision.
The final key to assimilation, say McIntosh and Martin, is spiritual growth. Such is the discipleship thrust of the Church Growth Movement. The deeper the level of discipleship, the more likely assimilation is to take place. Church leaders must seek innovative and challenging ways for all members to have opportunities to grow in Christ.
If churches effectively integrated all new members, reclamation would not need to be addressed. In a given year a church will lose up to two percent due to death, three percent to transfer, and six percent to reversion. 3 For a church of two hundred in attendance, up to twelve people will simply “walk away.” Though we will focus in this section on reclaiming those who have drifted away from the church, we must recognize that reclamation is the most difficult type of outreach. Something negative usually preceded their leaving.
The negative factor may have been a singular event such as a dispute with another church member. Most dropouts, however, simply became bored with church because they never felt like they were part of the body. 3 Convincing these people that the church still cares for them and has a place for them is
difficult at best.
Often reclamation begins with a systematic effort to visit every inactive member. I once thought this would be impossible. Then, in anticipation of a building program, we assembled a large group of church
members who visited nearly every home of our members. It was amazing what we could do when we had a financial need! What if we had used those same people to visit the inactives simply to minister?
A word of caution: those who go into the homes of the inactive must be fully trained and prepared. New Christians are best suited for other tasks.
Many of these visits will be painful, and the worst perceptions of the church may be conveyed. Church members who make these visits must be prepared to encounter anger, pain, and indifference. They must be willing to listen more than talk. They must keep the perspective that the church is not really so bad
as they are hearing; and they must have a Christ-like attitude that conveys to these inactives: “We do care for you.”
The best opportunity for reclamation will be reclaiming those who express indifference toward the church. They have no barrier of hostility and hurt to overcome. The inactive person simply does not believe that church is that important. Other areas of life have higher priorities.
The key to reclamation here is finding some area of the church toward which the inactive may not feel indifferent. For example, some area of the children’s ministry may attract the inactive. They may decide to send their sons or daughters to children’s choirs, Vacation Bible School, or Sunday School. Baby boomers especially are concerned about the welfare of their children. If the children get involved in the church, the parents may soon follow.
Though evidence is sketchy at this point, there are some indications that small groups may be good re-entry points for the inactives, especially if the small group meets off the church campus. We in our church are looking at the possibility of giving the name of one inactive family to each of our small
groups. If a few families come back into the church as a result of this effort, it will be a greater success than anything previously attempted.
One final point to be considered in the attempt to reclaim inactive members: inactive members may not be Christians. Church membership is not the final certification for the Lamb’s book of life. If our church members attempt to visit inactives, they should ever be aware of evangelistic opportunities.
If I understand Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son correctly, our Lordrejoices when one of His children returns “home.” (Luke 15:11-32). When we seek to assimilate new members, we are attempting to keep the “children” from leaving. When we seek to reclaim the inactive, we are attempting to get the “children” to return.
Though inactive members should never be forgotten, prevention is much easier than reclamation. A multilevel ministry of assimilation from the day a person expresses interest in our churches will reduce dramatically our inactive roles. Sadly, most churches today are cumbered with a bureaucracy
that hinders assimilation and excludes newcomers.
Also, leaders must accept the fact that they will lose some church members to other churches. Once a vision becomes clear and a style of ministry established, membership transfers are inevitable. Rather than becoming burdened over the loss, we must learn to praise God that His children are in another church with which they identify and can best make a contribution. Yet some members will leave because a clearly cast vision shakes them from their comfort zones and the status quo. Such losses are reasons for sorrow, for those people have considered the cost of discipleship and decided that the cross was too heavy to carry (Mark 8:34
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.