Glen Martin & Gary McIntosh

My attitude has always been: If it’s worth playing, it’s worth paying the price to win.
-Paul “Bear” Bryant

If you want to win in the 21st century, you have to play the service game and play it very well.
-AT&T Advertising Slogan

An amusing example of technology gone bad is seen through this hypothetical voice mail received when a caller dialed 911.

Thank you for calling 911. In order to serve you better, your call is being routed to the police department, fire department, hospital, or mortuary best able to help you.

If your home is being broken into, press 1. If the intruder is armed, press 2. If the intruder is in the room from which you are making this call, press 4. If you are attempting to avoid detection and have turned off the lights, press 2339200976, followed by the pound sign.

I’m sorry, that is not a valid number. Please try again.

If you have been attacked since your last choice, are dazed and unable to recall long strings of random numbers, press 1. If you are bleeding, press 4. If you are bleeding all over the rug, press 5. If you would like the number of a good cleaner, press 7. If you want more options, press 1776-star, in honor of the choices opened up to humanity by the American Revolution.

If you want to know the choices in other states, press 1776 followed by the number of stars indicating the order in which that state was admitted into the union. For a listing of the order of admission, press 4. To repeat this message, press 2. If you are still bleeding, press down hard on the wound.

You’re probably thinking, It can’t be that difficult to get help when you need it. And you are correct. But more often than not, newcomers feel like they face the same kinds of obstacles when trying to find acceptance in a church.

Churches across the United States have determined that “people flow” is a primary concern in programming, especially in the area of assimilation. Effective churches which are reaching their community for Jesus Christ and helping people assimilate into the body make people flow a priority.


This is now… That was then…

* Visitors
* Reserved parking for staff
* Home visits
* Visitors introduced
* Responsibility is with visitor
* Happens by accident
* Lecture-styled facilities
* Membership class
* Information packets
* No funds
* Ushers solicited
* Back rows for members
* “Open your Bibles”
* Find friends after the service
* Random follow-up
* Assimilation by staff
* Guests
* Reserved parking for guests
* Phone visits
* Guests anonymous
* Responsibility is with church
* Happens by plan
* Relational-styled facilities
* Membership process
* Video on the church
* Budgeted item
* Ushers trained
* Back rows for guests
* “Take out your study guides”
* Find a guest after the service
* Organized tracking
* Assimilation team

Assimilation Trends

Every church falls into one of three categories.

Category 1: Hospital Churches. These are the churches which seek only to care for their own. Their programs and methods focus solely upon the felt needs of the flock and thus have an inward orientation.

Category 2: Army Churches. These churches resemble an army on the march. They have people to be won to Christ, battles to be fought, and ground to gain back from the devil.

Category 3: Mash Unit Churches. These churches combine both aspects of an army and a hospital. They are on the march, while simultaneously caring for the wounded and helping in their recovery so they can once again get into the battle.

These Mash Unit Churches are using some of the following strategies to assimilate newcomers into their body

1. Up-to-Date Membership Class

Membership classes are nothing new. However, increasing numbers of churches are setting higher standards for membership. By placing greater expectations upon the prospective member, churches not only educate newer people about their vision, but they also challenge them to greater commitment in the church. Several factors help membership classes be effective.

First, they are offered in a seminar format rather than a classroom format. Tables are provided for the people to take notes as the instructor teaches using an overhead projector. Refreshments are provided at the appropriate breaks, all giving the feel that the people are in a seminar.

Second, people share their testimony during the class. Various leaders and members discuss their “door of entry” into membership in the church. The time ends with a question-and-answer segment where the newcomer asks questions, practical, doctrinal, or otherwise.

Third, the vision of the church is clearly outlined. For people to stay for a short time in a church, they will need three things friends, a ministry, and a small group. But to keep people for the long haul, they must be able to identify with the direction and vision of the church. The membership class is the ideal setting to share these kinds of things with the newcomers.

2. Pastor of Assimilation

Staffing a church for growth requires a different philosophy of hiring staff than that normally employed by churches. History has shown that most churches hire a youth pastor as the second staff person, on the theory that building a youth ministry will attract adults. While a solid youth ministry is a crucial element of a growing church, in a majority of cases a youth pastor should not be the second staff person called to a church.

Some growing churches are adding pastors of assimilation in an effort to keep as many newcomers as possible. The average church keeps about 16 percent of its guests, but churches employing pastors of assimilation often keep as high as 30 percent of their newcomers. The ministry description of a pastor of assimilation includes many of the following responsibilities:

* Recruiting, training, and overseeing greeters, parking attendants, and ushers.
* Designing an effective follow-up process for first-, second-, and third-time guests.
* Developing and teaching a new member class.
* Coordinating a refreshment table for newcomers.
* Organizing a welcome center.

3. Phone Visits

The use of the phone has changed immensely in the past ten years. In the thirty years since the first communications satellite, Telstar I, was launched, we have seen the advancement of microelectronics, microprocessing, photonics (light wave devices and systems), and optical fibers. Cellular phones are used by more than three million people in the United States, and there are more than five million radio paging units in place. And today, facsimile machines are commonplace.

The impact of this technology has been introduced into the church as well. In 1955 many churches began broadcasting recorded prayers continuously over the telephone. By the late fifties, churches across the United States were offering “dial-a-prayer” services. New York’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church still uses this program and averages over five hundred calls a day.

Churches now fax their Sunday school order to a company across the country. Church secretaries correspond to pastors via cellular phones. You can even order your staff luncheons by fax from the local deli. And what about that portable, wireless phone that is the size of last year’s pocket calculator? You don’t have one yet?

Telemarketing has become a predominant means of planting new churches and reaching out to the unchurched. Home visitation is declining due to increased neighborhood crime, commuting, and the saturation of contacts experienced in everyday life. In response, many churches use the telephone as a means of pastoral care. Phone calls have about the same appeal as a personal visit. A phone call offers the contact, the encouragement, and the impact of a visit, while respecting people’s personal time.

Churches are using personal phone calls to follow up on guests and perform basic pastoral care. The coming years will see continued development of ministry by telephone. Just as pizzas are delivered, food will be provided door-to-door, videos will be rented at our driveway, and pastoral care will take place by phone.

4. Detailed Tracking of Newcomers

In every church, people are coming and going all the time. A pastor located in a major city once remarked, “It’s like preaching to a parade.” That being true, a system for tracking newcomers is helpful to keep up on people flow.

We will introduce a system for assimilating people into a church later in this chapter. Let us for now simply say that growing churches offer a program to follow up and follow through on new attendees. Phone calls are made, welcome letters are sent, membership classes are taught, and new people join the church. People are recruited into entry point ministries to provide a way of expressing their gifts. Small groups are started to assist people in developing friendships and the purpose, vision, and values of the church are communicated.

5. Visitor’s Privacy Respected

Most of us can likely remember a time when it was expected that visitors would be publicly welcomed to a worship service. Newcomers were often asked to stand and give their name and introduce the members of their family. Some churches attached ribbons or flowers or a name tag to any visitor as a means of helping regular attendees recognize and welcome the newcomer. In days when relationships were strong and people tended to have a neighborly friendliness, this public approach to welcoming visitors worked well.

However, times have changed. We live today in an era of broken friendships, fractured families, and disconnected networks. The pressure of our informational age causes people to seek the privacy of their homes and cars, as well as protecting their personal anonymity. While visitors to a church want to be recognized, they do not want to be embarrassed by speaking publicly or being singled out with the placing of a ribbon on their clothing. Effective churches welcome their guests without embarrassing them.

6. Up-to-Date Facilities

Walk into many churches today and you will discover carpet, paint, and furnishings which look like they are from the 1950s. The interior and exterior decor of church facilities communicates much to visitors. Visitors make many judgments about a church while they are driving up to the church building and within thirty seconds after entering the doors.

Wise churches take a cue from national department and grocery chains. These stores know that times change and they must present an up-to-date image or risk being thought of as out-of-date. That is why these national chains remodel their stores on a regular time schedule. Remodeling every five years is a normal rule of thumb.

In contrast to this are churches which remodel, repaint, or recarpet their facilities only once every ten to twenty years. Is it any wonder that younger guests feel the church is out of touch with their needs? Growing churches maintain a regular remodeling schedule to keep their facilities looking great by using up-to-date colors, new carpet, and new furnishings.

7. Culturally Relevant Follow-up Plan

Follow up of first-time visitors always has been a strong point for churches. Home visitation fit the culture of a more neighborly time, and people expected and wanted a visit from the pastor. With the rise of crime, the crowding of cities, and the desire for privacy, however, home visitation is not as culturally relevant a way to follow up visitors. Churches find it better to focus on second and third time visitors through a series of less confronting contacts. Letters, phone calls, personal invitations to the pastor’s home, and special dinners for guests at the church building have taken the place of home visitation. “Let’s do lunch” not only fits the business scene but also the church scene as many guests would rather meet the pastor for lunch or breakfast. This is particularly true in communities where people are used to meetings over lunch. Of course, home visitation continues to work in some communities, but in general it does not fit our information age culture quite as well as it once did.

Increasing Assimilation in Changing Times

Church leaders understand that effective follow-up of guests is an important ingredient to their church’s growth mix. Traditionally, churches have approached the assimilation of visitors simplistically with a personal visit to the home by the pastor or visitation team, Today many churches find that this method of assimilation is no longer as effective as it used to be.

1. Organize an Assimilation Process

No one assimilation strategy works in every church, but specific ingredients work more effectively than others. The process we would like to share is not new; in fact, we have seen variations in Chicago, Houston, California, and all places between. Pastor Rick Warren has taken this to a new level at Saddleback Community Church in California. In using this format his church now provides ministry to over six thousand people in worship services. What we propose is a process that we have found to be successful.

Imagine church as a baseball field. On the field are all the “players” who know the rules and how to play. They know the songs and when the offering will be taken. They know how to “play” church. In the “on-deck” circle stand the newcomers. Their desire is to play and become a part of the team, but they are a little intimidated by the game and perhaps doubt their ability.

The preaching pastor is on the mound. He has three options as they get up to bat. He can throw them a “fast ball” sermon: “Open your Bibles to the Book of Leviticus. Today, we are going to discuss the propitiating work of the sacrificial system under the dispensation of the law.” He can also choose to throw them a curve ball; “Open your Bibles to 1 John which says, ‘God is love.’ Close your Bibles. Let’s talk about the economy and the mess we are in.” These two pitches (messages) either confuse or overwhelm the newcomer, Last, the pastor can throw them a “slow-pitch” sermon: “Take out your study guide and fill it in as we talk about How to Develop Loving Relationships.” In other words, the slow-pitch sermon allows the newcomers to hit the ball. The idea is to help the guest get to first base so that they can “get in the game” and begin the process of becoming assimilated into the church.

The first baseline in the assimilation process teaches the newcomer how to belong.

How to Belong

Here the newcomer is helped to learn the A. B. Cs.

* Accept Jesus Christ as Savior.
* Be baptized.
* Commit to this church family.

Not every person wants to join or become a member, but everyone wants to feel a part of the group and know that they belong. So a class is designed to provide instruction for the newcomer on how to sense this oneness within the church. This class can also run in conjunction with a new believers’ class which provides the basic instruction and understanding on what the Christian life is all about.

The assimilation process does not stop at first base. Few games will ever be won from there. Thus the newcomer is challenged to round first base and keep going to second base by learning how to grow.

How to Grow

The design of this class is to motivate people to learn the basic ingredients that bring about maturity in their lives. At second base newcomers learn how to become F.I.T. for the Lord. After all, in order to grow, we’ll need to be in shape.

* Faithfulness in the Word and prayer.
* Involved in giving.
* Tied to a group.

So, if a person makes it to second base, they have an active devotional life, have learned the importance of giving as a spiritual discipline, and are active in a small group, recognizing that this will be the environment for mutual accountability and continued growth.

The next step is to keep them running to third base where they can learn how to serve.

How to Serve

This class focuses on the uniqueness of the individual and God’s desire for people to give their lives away in and through service. It is therefore our desire to have everyone dig into ministry. And they will do that by using their S.P.A.D.E.

* Spiritual gift
* Personality type
* Abilities
* Delights
* Experiences

By developing an understanding of these five areas and identifying their giftedness, newcomers will much more likely dig into a ministry. Typically we recruit people to fill positions in the church in two ways. The first is the institutional approach. “We have a need…who will fill it? Any volunteers?” Here the positions may be filled, but few really own their position and have a deep sense of God’s calling on their life. The second is the relational approach, which is more effective. People discover their abilities and talents, and, through a time of interview with a ministry guide, are introduced to ministries that are a match for them. Designated people are trained to teach and enable newcomers to find ministry positions that are right for them.

Obviously, no baseball games are won if the runner stays at third base, and this is true for assimilation also. Thus, to get people to home plate, we must motivate them to learn how to tell.

How to Tell

People learn how to tell by sharing their L.I.F.E.

* Love for God and others
* Invitation to church
* Faith in Jesus Christ
* Experience of God

Each of these baseline classes are designed to move people from the front door to the very heart of the church. They each must be manned with personnel who are enthusiastic, competent, and can articulate the vision of the church.

2. Enhance Your Friendliness

Growing churches generate a friendly environment. To create this kind of atmosphere, the attention and focus must shift from the long-term attendee to the newcomer visiting your worship services. To accomplish this, try applying the following four principles.

The principle of inclusion. On any given Sunday you will have four kinds of visitors. You will have (1) Positive Transfers – those who have recently moved into your area and want to find a good church: (2) Negative Transfers – those who have become disillusioned with their own church and want a change; (3) The Saved Unchurched – those who no longer regularly attend church for one reason or another; and (4) The Unsaved Unchurched – those who have no relationship with Jesus Christ but may be searching.

Which of these groups is your primary target? How will each group view your church differently? What are their major concerns as they seek to assimilate into your church? Evaluate the practical issues of the church. Do we have enough parking? Is the seating adequate for a 10 percent increase in attendance on any given Sunday? Are visitors included in the goals of the congregation?

The principle of interpretation. Seek to understand the visitors, their world, and their dreams. Do not be afraid to use your imagination. Identify those ministries in your church that may have lost effectiveness. Step into your visitors’ shoes to see through their eyes the acceptance of the people, the atmosphere when they enter the church. If it is true that most people’s number one fear is the fear of strangers, then your visitors will want friends and to be in a friendly place.

The principle of appreciation. Anyone who has ever bought a house knows that appreciation is what happens when something becomes more valuable over a period of time. Depreciation is like buying a car the moment you leave the parking lot, your car becomes less valuable and you lose money.

As a church we must grow in our appreciation of the visitor. You accomplish this by people being willing to say, “We’re glad you’re here.” This process becomes easier when visitors are directed to an information booth where they will be assisted in finding various rooms such as the nursery. This is simply a congregation’s ability to stand in the gap between non-acceptance and acceptance.

The principle of selection. Select your target. Remember, when you aim at nothing, you hit it every time. Identify visitors and program for their attendance. Select the appropriate music to draw them into the body. Choose the kinds of services and messages that will make them feel at home and sense the relevancy of the Scriptures. Use terminology that is easily understood. Sensitize yourself to future perspectives rather than purely past reflection. After all, everyone can get excited about the future, but only those who have “been around” for a while can relate to the past.

3. Hire an Assimilation Pastor

Some churches are calling associate pastors that specialize in assimilation. Their job includes responsibility for developing an overall assimilation plan including some of the following elements:

* follow up of all guests
* tracking members’ attendance at worship services
* recruiting and training ushers, greeters, and parking attendants
* overseeing the welcome center and refreshment table
* organizing the new members’ and new believers’ classes

4. Recruit a Phone Team

“Telecare” is the name given to pastoral care completed by phone. You might consider using this means of providing basic care for your people. Here are a few steps to implementation.
Step 1: Identify callers. Select key leadership to oversee the program. Choose those who like to talk on the phone. Recruit people by phone to hear how they sound. Do not overlook home-makers or shut-ins as possible callers.

Step 2: Train callers. Train in sessions of about two hours. Teach callers to understand the power of words, listening skills, and how to keep a record of the call. Have callers practice by phoning each other. Provide an outline of questions to ask or ideas to talk about.
Step 3: Find phones. Use the phones at the home of the caller, or allow callers to do their work at the church using the church phones. Install an extra line dedicated for pastoral care at church.

Step 4: Call. Contact active and inactive members, shut-ins, and teenagers, excited people and apathetic people, quiet ones and compulsive talkers everyone.
As people continue to withdraw, the church in the nineties is going to play a vital role in overcoming the loneliness that will result. The telephone may be an instrument your church can use to “Reach Out and Touch Someone.”

5. Develop a Welcome Center

Visit a large shopping center and you will find an information booth where you can ask questions or receive directions. Managers of these centers know that people unfamiliar with the center need help, so they provide an easy way for people to receive help.

Establishing a welcome center shows that your church cares about its guests. Place the center in a high traffic area, and staff it with friendly people who find it easy to talk to strangers. Provide information sheets on your church. If your church has several entrances, provide small welcome centers in each traffic area.

6. Use a Hospitality Table

Prior to and immediately following the worship service are good times to show hospitality to newcomers. However, guests often find it awkward to stand around waiting for someone to talk to them before the service, and after the service they are the first ones out the door and in their cars.

The well-planned use of a hospitality table provides a way to greet visitors in a comfortable setting. When people have a cup of coffee or juice in one hand and a donut in the other, they are more relaxed and willing to talk together. Locate the hospitality table where newcomers will walk by it. Recruit friendly people to be hosts, and encourage your greeters to hang around it to meet newcomers. Occasionally change the location of the table and use different colored tablecloths so that people notice it.

7. Train Hosts and Greeters

The communication that occurs in the first four minutes often determines whether strangers will remain strangers or become better acquaintances and lifetime friends. Obviously, the first four minutes are not the only criteria, but represent the critical time and opportunity to contact the people who walk through the doors of our church. The people in the ministry of greeting are the front line representatives for that important period. In a very real way, greeters hold the key to a newcomer coming to know Jesus Christ.

Every Christian is an ambassador. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Second Corinthians continues that thought with these words: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (5:18). An ambassador is a representative with a specific task. The same could be said of the greeter.

The main goal of a greeter is to extend a warm greeting to those attending your church, especially newcomers, and to treat them as guests. There is a difference between a guest and a visitor. A guest can stay as long as he or she wants. A visitor is expected to stay for a while then move on. We are to treat newcomers as guests, helping them to enjoy themselves and feel accepted. One church in southern California identified these seven objectives for their greeters:

* Generate a comfortable atmosphere.
* Respect a person’s anonymity.
* Extend a hand of friendship.
* Express your genuine interest.
* Treat others as the Lord would.
* Encourage them to come back.
* Request to meet their needs.

In addition, three basics should be encouraged in the ministry of the greeter. First, greeters should remember the names of newcomers. The better the greeter becomes in this area, the more the newcomer will feel good about the church. Second, you must learn the importance of non-verbal communication. Everyone that a greeter comes in contact with will be affected by:

* your handshake,
* your posture,
* your smile,
* the expression in your eyes,
* facial expressions,
* your appearance,
* your voice tone,
* your hairstyle,
* your clothes,
* how close you stand,
* how you touch,
* how you listen,
* your self-confidence,
* your breathing,
* the way you move,
* the way you stand.

The third need is to help newcomers get connected, by introducing them to other people. Greeters should take a lesson from the mosquito. She never waits for an opening she makes one.

8. Track Participation

While churches are not called by God to be truant officers, they are expected to shepherd the church of God (1 Pet. 5:3), and one way to do that is to track participation. Note the simple tracking system which follows. It is designed to track people through the assimilation process suggested in #1 above. The system you choose does not have to be identical to this one, but identify the process right for your community and establish the data base to accomplish the task.

Recently we visited a large church. As we stepped up to enter the front door, a lady greeted us by saying, “Hi! Is this your first visit with us?” After we replied in a positive manner, she introduced herself, asked our names, and walked with us to a welcome center. At the center she introduced us by name to the person at the desk who immediately offered help and gave us directions to important areas of the church such as rest rooms and the auditorium.

As we were about to end our conversation, an usher walked up and she introduced us to him. He then led us to our seats in the auditorium. In just a few short minutes we had been introduced to several very friendly people, had our names mentioned three times, and been given all the initial information we needed. With such a well-planned strategy, there is no wonder that this church is growing. While every church may not wish to follow this church’s exact procedure, to assimilate people in today’s changing times churches will need to develop a well- planned assimilation strategy.

This article ‘Assimilation’ by Glen Martin & Gary McIntosh was excerpted from: The Issachar Factor. Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN. 1993. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

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.’