How do we assimilate people into our healthy congregations?
By Randy Bloom, US East Regional Director
When a renowned church leader taught that pastors need to get used to the idea that more people will come and go from church than come and stay, I felt encouraged and a bit frustrated. I was encouraged because it helped me not feel inferior about myself or the church I was pastoring; I was frustrated because of the reality his statement expressed. He said this trend was true for almost every church. Why? Why don’t more people return to or stay with a church they visit? Over the years I’ve heard countless pastors ask the questions, reflecting in their facial expressions the same frustrations I felt.
There are many answers, some of which we can do little or nothing about, but there is one answer that we can do something about: people don’t return or stay after they visit our churches because they don’t feel needed, or are not provide opportunities to participate in the congregation. This is called assimilation.
Here is my working definition of assimilation: the process of helping people (at any point in their spiritual journey) become an active part of the life of a congregation. It entails their becoming whole-life stewards of their time (participating in the church mission), talents (using their gifts in service) and their treasure (being generous financial donors).
Why do we want to be concerned about assimilation? Assimilation is living out the theology we espouse. Our Triune God has “assimilated” us into his eternal life of love and missional living. The apostle Paul reminds us: “You are a member of God’s very own family…and you belong in God’s household with every other Christian” (Ephesians 2:19 TLB). God wants everyone to be “at home” with him. We want everyone to know they are included in the same family that we have been included in. We want to make room for others and not just fill seats or church coffers. We are here to participate with Jesus in helping other people know and enjoy the blessings of the life we have, and which is theirs as much as ours, in Christ.
How we can know when people are assimilated into a congregation? In The Pastor’s Manual for Effective Ministry, Charles Arn provides some characteristics of an assimilated person that can help us develop appropriate assimilation processes. When assimilated, people should:
- Be able to list at least seven new friends they made in church.
- Be able to identify their spiritual gifts
- Be involved in at least one role/ministry
- Be involved in a small group
- Be able to demonstrate regular financial commitment to the church
- Understand and personally identify with the mission and goals of the church
- Attend worship services regularly
As we see, assimilation takes time. Yet the way many churches function, the default expectation seems to be that people come and either “automatically” become followers of Jesus and members or they don’t (and we often judgmentally shake our heads in wonderment). Helping someone become an active member of a congregation takes time and attention.
We want to be deliberate in providing multiple ways for newcomers (this applies to everyone) to participate in the life of the church and we need to invite them (ask them) to participate. The assimilation process needs to be holistic. That is, everything a church does should be designed to make it easy for people to participate.
How did you become assimilated into your congregation? Most likely your story is like mine. When you started attending there were a multitude of activities provided to draw you into the life of the church: Weekly services, Bible studies, special days, social events and clubs. There was an intentional plan and process that enabled you to participate in and feel a part of the life of the congregation. Your assimilation into the church did not happen automatically.
Reflecting on this accentuates another important aspect of assimilation: it’s the responsibility (privilege) of church members to help people become assimilated. Are we making every possible effort to help people feel welcome, wanted and liked? Arn also informs us that the number one reason people select a church is that they felt accepted. Do your guests feel accepted? How do you know? This is not something we can take for granted.
Something that can help us assess how accepting we are is to understand the difference between being a friendly church and being a befriending church. I don’t know of any church that does not think it is friendly (even the unfriendly churches I’ve visited told me they were a friendly church). But befriending entails more than giving a warm welcome and a cup of coffee to guests. It involves getting to know them, spending time with them, listening to them and sharing with them. It entails putting the New Commandment to practice—loving others as Jesus loves. This includes making time in our busy schedules, overriding any exclusivistic tendencies we may have and taking some minimal risks to engage newcomers, especially outside the walls of our weekly worship services. It is entering into their lives and walking with them. If we have activities during the week (small groups, outreach events and social events) we have ready made opportunities to draw them into regular fellowship.
People will always come and go more than they come and stay, but practicing assimilation increases the possibility they will stay. In future articles we will explore various ways to help us focus on assimilation. In the meantime, know that people who walk through the doors of your churches are there by a series of miracles that have occurred in their lives. I’m sure you want to do everything possible to be another miracle for them.