Assimilation through Identification

Assimilation through Identification
By Gary McIntosh & Glen Martin

As you fly over the North Atlantic Ocean you will see awesome icebergs floating in those cold and icy waters. If you look carefully, you will see a pattern develop: small icebergs move in one direction and gigantic icebergs move in another. The surface winds drive the small icebergs while the huge ones are controlled by the deep ocean currents.

There is a lesson in this for us. Lives are driven by two forces. “Small lives” are driven to and fro by the surface winds of change, petty problems, and disagreeable circumstances. Despair, depression, and discouragement overwhelm those “small lives.” On the other hand, there are “great lives,” gigantic in stature, which are never moved by the petty blowing of surface winds. These “giant lives,” with foundations running deep in immovable faith, are controlled by the deep-running movements of a wise, loving, and all-powerful God. Let the winds blow! Let them move others around! Despite what happens, these lives remain steady and sure.

Just as there are the deeper currents that motivate us in our faith, there are also the deeper currents that motivate people to become assimilated into your church. They are drawn along by unseen factors which they identify with and support. This principle of identification includes three distinct areas of alignment necessary to the incorporation process.

Identification with the Purpose

Why are we here? What does God expect from the church? Is there any one given direction that we are to follow? These are the kinds of questions that people in today’s churches are asking of themselves and of the leadership. Robert Dale calls this statement of purpose the “kingdom dream” in To Dream Again. He writes:

A congregation’s dream must be clearly known by its members. Yet a statement of a kingdom dream is rarely encompassed adequately by a few words. God’s purpose of redemption is always greater than our imaginations, hopes, and vocabularies. But our continuing witness in word and life is our best vehicle for telling his story. Stating and publicizing your congregation’s dream is critical. Either the sharp focus of your congregation’s resources of people, facilities, money, energy, and information is on a defined dream or your church is using its resources ineffectively to some degree.

The church needs direction. It is searching for the leadership to provide it with direction. The purpose statement of the church provides the biblical reasoning upon which this direction is formulated. Let’s take some time to provide some guidelines for writing and helping people to identify with the purpose of the church.

First, establish a ministry area. A desire to “save” the world is a wonderful ideal, yet in all practicality improbable. Research has determined that the following is an accurate picture of the typical driving times for most church members.
20 percent drive 0-5 minutes
40 percent 5-15 minutes
23 percent drive 15-25 minutes
6 percent drive 25-35 minutes
5 percent drive 35-45 minutes
3 percent drive 45 + minutes’

A church’s incorporation strategy must focus on those people within a three- to ten-mile radius. If people have to drive much farther than this, they will have trouble identifying with your church.

Second, establish a target audience. Whom do you hope to reach? What type of church are you building? If families are to be the focus, then the people need to hear the word family in the purpose. If the evangelism of the local community is the aim, make that clear. The purpose must provide a sense of direction by using words like reach and teach. Spend time evaluating the new residents, or people experiencing crisis, or the families with new babies. Establish your purpose based on their needs.

Third, condense this purpose into twenty-five words or less. This exercise causes the leadership to think through and prioritize the purpose. It makes the purpose easily memorized by the people. It becomes an opportunity for the pastor to spring-board into a complete series of messages on “The Direction of __________Church,” or “God’s Purpose for __________Church.”

Fourth, make the purpose visible. Repetition is the key to learning. We must expose the people to outside experts who will validate and confirm the purpose. Seminars are appropriate. Consultants are extremely useful. Use a variety of media to convey the message. Slide shows, banners, newsletters, testimonies, prayers, and films can all be very effective. We must teach the purpose, especially to all the new members. The Pastor’s Class or new-member orientation class is the best place to begin. Then, every Sunday School class must hear it, every leadership retreat must discuss it, and all planning must include it.

Fifth, the purpose and growth of the church must become a standing agenda item for staff and board meetings. Vital statistics must be gathered on attendance and Sunday School involvement. Critiques of curriculum and worship must be sought. Updates on follow up and visitation must be stressed. We all have our opinions, but facts are hard to argue against. Do not be afraid to ask for the presentation of charts and graphs to maintain a vivid perspective of the purpose and its fulfillment.

Identification with the Vision

If the purpose gives us the direction, then the vision provides us with the motivation for accomplishing the purpose.

There is a fear that permeates churches throughout our land, a fear based upon a warped view of church growth and God’s vision for His church. For any church to have an active assimilation program, these misconceptions must be silenced, or the church will continue to stagnate and maintain instead of growing. Let us look at three major misunderstandings that we must correct before we can provide a means whereby the people in our churches can identify with the vision.

Large Is Not Lethal

On the Day of Pentecost, the early church in Jerusalem, made up of 120 members, added 3,000 to its fellowship. That’s a 2,600 percent increase in membership! Those new members reached out into the urban community around them, gaining favor with other people. And day after day the Lord added to their numbers.

Quality and quantity were merely two aspects of the same reality. Evangelistic effectiveness was a quality measured in quantitative terms. Follow through the Book of Acts and see dynamic church growth. Large was not lethal; it was the vision to reach out to more and more unsaved. We saw the early church grow from a small band of 120 disciples to 3,000 more believers on the Day of Pentecost. But do not stop there. In Acts 4:4 we read, “But many of them who had heard the word believed; and the number of the men [was] about five thousand.” With careful detail, Luke recorded the growth pattern since Pentecost. The membership of the Jerusalem church then stood at 5,000. The church was growing.

As we come to Acts 5:14, we see a change in emphasis as Luke wrote, “And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (KJV). Here the emphasis is upon the fact that there were multitudes of men and women added. Notice the change in attention to multiplication instead of addition. We can be certain that this was a growing church.

Any church that makes a decision not to embrace this truth fails to realize the priorities outlined in the Scriptures. Large is not lethal. It is the outcome of a church realizing the Great Commission and structuring its vision to work toward it.

Evangelism Is Not Inclusion

People need to belong. It is possible for our churches to be evangelistic, yet cold and exclusive in their fellowship. Don’t get me wrong. People need to be reached, baptized, and taught sound doctrine. But can all of this happen while people sense exclusion from the internal fellowship of the church? This is why small-group ministry discussed in the previous chapter is so vital. Many
churches with whom I have consulted and worked portray a virile desire to reach the lost. Yet, just as people walk in the front door, so too, they can exit via the back door. Church growth statistics have demonstrated that new members must identify with the church. If they don’t establish relationships and a sense of belonging, they’ll stop attending or go elsewhere.

The problem with finding ways to include people is the incredible complexity of social schemes in our society. We see the need for singles ministries, ministries to the divorced, single-parent ministries, abuse recovery-the list goes on and on. Smaller churches tend to isolate themselves from these “fringe” personalities. This doesn’t happen consciously. These kinds of people do not feel welcome, so they do not stay. However, we are convinced that inclusion is the main ingredient to identification.

Lyle Schaller illustrates this principle by two concentric circles.

From the perspective of the leaders, the long-time members and heritage-oriented people inside that inner circle, the line marking the boundary of the fellowship circle is no higher than the line painted on a gymnasium floor. Anyone who is interested and willing to take the initiative can step across it very easily and become a part of that inner circle. Some of the members of that inner circle go one step further and insist either that the line does not exist or that it is actually coterminous with the outer membership boundary.

A radically different picture is perceived, however, by the members who are outside that fellowship circle. Instead of a thin line painted on the floor, many of them perceive the boundary of that fellowship circle to be a circular masonry wall six feet thick and thirty feet high. They see a high, thick, and forbidding wall with several doors in it.’

He concludes that assimilation transcends heritage and traditional loyalty but involves an identification with the people’s dreams. Inclusion is much more than evangelism.

Needs Are More than Knowledge

Education is a vital ingredient to an effective church program. Unfortunately, there have been some who are proponents of the notion that people will join a church solely upon its ability to “feed” them. Have you not also heard people say that they left a church because they were not being fed?

Today’s church climate is much more complex than this simplistic attitude. We need to balance “reach out and teach” with a “reach out and touch” attitude. Relationships do not develop through education and knowledge. They develop as our churches identify with the needs of people.

Society seems to be falling apart around us. Marriages are on the rocks; the suicide rate of teens is on the increase; and sexual immorality appears to be a norm. Where can people turn for the “experience” of Christ’s love? Where are people going to “experience” acceptance and care? The education system or the local church?

Specialists in the area of church dynamics and church growth contend that 75 to 90 percent of all the people in today’s churches are there because a friend or relative invited them. We have already seen that people need to develop friendships within the first six to twelve months of attendance. One need not be a paid consultant to see that people in search of a church yearn for relationships.

Teaching deserves more of our attention. It is a great way to promote spiritual growth and endurance as we will study in detail in the following chapter. But teaching ministries must blend with the “need” ministries of the body. One church in Southern California that I worked with extensively for three years established a task force to enable it to check up on new members and to follow up on their continued success. That’s a great idea. Lay-shepherding programs, pastoral care staff, and visitation ministries all provide ample means of touching people where they need, not where they know.

Scripture explains that “[without a] vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18, KJV). But I want to tell you that with a vision, the people in your church will not only tackle the impossible, but accomplish it. I heard a story about a gang of laborers digging a hole five feet square by ten feet deep. After grueling hours of hard labor, they finally got the hole dug. The boss had never bothered to tell them the purpose for digging the hole. In fact, after they had finished their task, even before they could glow in their accomplishment, they were told to fill in the hole.

Immediately, the men walked off the job and said, “We quit, we want our pay now!” When the boss asked why, they replied, “Digging holes and filling them up only makes fools of us.” Then the boss took the time to explain that there was a distinct purpose for his request. A leaking gas line in the vicinity was endangering the lives of the community. Once they found out there was a purpose in their digging, not only did they stay on the job, but they also identified with the vision.

Every man and woman who comes to your church wants his or her life to count, and a vision will give meaning and purpose service. People will come to your church to look. They will not stay out of duty, they will stay because the enthusiasm of a vision has caught their hearts, and they have been swept up in the desire to thrive, not only survive.
Identification with the Great Commission

The cockpit of a plane is filled with a myriad of gauges and dials. The altimeter gauge enables you to determine your elevation and rate of climb and descent. A fuel gauge is vital for the pilot’s calculations of distance and range of travel. One gauge primary to the well-being and ease of flight of the pilot is the attitude gauge. The performance of the plane depends upon its attitude. Changing the attitude changes the aircraft’s overall performance. The pilot need only bring the airplane into a nose-high attitude in order to climb and slow down. Bringing the plane into a nose-down attitude causes the vehicle to dive and speed up. This is what some pilots have called “attitude flying.”

Leading a church takes an attitude adjustment. Win Arn speaks of the church today in need of a “Great Commission Conscience.” In his Basic Church Growth Seminar he shares:

It is an attitude which permeates the thinking and decision-making process of a church. It is an attitude which sees people outside of Christ as lost. It is an attitude which resonates with the Great Commission found in its various forms throughout Scripture. It is an attitude which sees missions as both “over there” and “right here.” It is an attitude which motivates both corporate and personal action in prayer, giving and service for Great Commission results.’

Arn suggests ten self-evaluating statements that can enable the church, its leadership, and each individual to evaluate their attitudes toward the Great Commission. How many of the following questions can you answer with a “yes”?
1. I see the primary purpose of the church as responding to the Great Commission.

2. I have participated in an outreach/training event in the last year.

3. I have invited an unchurched friend/relative to a church event in the last six months.

4. I would support a motion to designate at least ten percent of our budget to outreach events/ training/activities to reach our own community with the gospel.

5. I would prefer that the pastor call on nonmembers more often than members.

6. I would be willing to take a new member/ visitor home for dinner at least once every six months.

7. I have intentionally introduced myself to a new member or visitor in the past month.

8. I have talked to an unchurched person about my faith in the past six months.

9. I have prayed for a specific unchurched person in the past month.

10. I would be willing to be the pioneer in a new group or new church fellowship to help reach the new people.

A score of seven or more is a great indication of a “nose-high” attitude for the direction of your life and/or church. And remember-if there is a nose-low attitude, descent is rapid.


Effective churches have specific ministries designed to help people identify with their purpose, vision, and commission. Briefly list the ministries of your church which are specifically designed to help people identify with your body.

Transfer these ministries to figure 17 and list the number of identification ministries still needed.

On a cold Sunday morning in Chicago with the wind chill factor fifteen below zero, a little orphan boy walked four miles to church. An older man met him at the door, shook his hand, and greeted him with his usual smile. “Glad to see you; sure is cold today,” the older man said. The young boy smiled back and shared that he had walked four long miles in that cold. Surprised, the older man inquired, “You mean that you walked in this cold wind to church this morning?”
The boy replied, “I didn’t have the bus fare.”

The old man was a little stumped and asked, “How many churches did you pass along the way?”

“Sixteen,” was the boy’s answer. “Sixteen.”

“So why did you walk such a long way to come here today?”

The boy didn’t hesitate and, as he took off his wooly jacket, told the man, “Because this is my church.”

Young and old, people will go to the church where they identify, where the deeper currents of their faith continue to move and the deeper currents of their relationships continue to be met.

Article Assimilation through Identification excerpted from Finding Them, Keeping Them. Written by Gary McIntosh & Glen Martin.

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.