For those in church leadership, the issue of assimilation typically comes with questions of effectiveness and strategy. Truth be told, there is no one-size-fits-all plan for assimilation in every church.
That said, let me share a few of my thoughts. I’ll start with an analogy that, although not perfect, is nonetheless helpful to make a point.
Assimilation, I would argue, is a bit like staffing a nursery. You never know who is going to show up. And you barely know who will offer to help. And so you take a Sunday draft and everything goes OK. The babies may not be the happiest separated from their parents but, in the end, everybody got taken care of and there were no major problems. Yet internally you feel it is always an area of struggle.
Assimilation can be like this.
The No-Plan Approach
My first comparison between a nursery and the assimilation plan is the no-plan approach. This is quite dangerous for the baby. And it also might drop an adult who shows up for the first time. The only difference between the nursery and the assimilation is that the parents are ultimately responsible for the baby. And guess who is responsible for the newcomer? History calls the church the “Mother Kirche.” This is not because going to church makes you a child of God. Instead, the church is the place where people are trained up to know God. They are looked after and are parented in a responsible way.
The Mini-Plan Approach
The no-plan approach moves to a mini-plan approach when you have a way to gather names. Somebody visits. Someone is a guest. Someone came to something and you gather that. Perhaps you have registers to pass down the aisle, or you have people fill out cards. If we do these kinds of things on a regular basis, we have moved from a no-plan to a mini-plan.
The Full-Plan Approach
Moving from a mini-plan to a full-plan is all about the hand-off. How do you get the cards out of the offering plate and into the hands of someone who will do something about them? The mini-plan needs a paper trail or it won’t be consistent. Who wants a nursery that is clean some weeks and is a mess the rest of the time?
The consistent hand-off must work every time. It needn’t be a complicated computer program. It just needs to assign the task. Notice the word assign. It sounds like the idea of signing a document. One pastor I know had the follow up members sign a note that they would meet with the newcomers. Although at first glance this may sound odd, I believe it’s a good idea. It helps people to take ownership. Keeping our analogy, it’s like signing the birth certificate.
Moving from a mini-plan to a full-plan means that you have a destination. For me, I want the destination to be the life of comprehensive sanctification and the fruit of leading everyone in the neighborhood to Jesus. I want the goal to be so outrageously biblical that everybody sees it as a dream that is only possible with God’s full engagement with people fully engaged with him.
Now, that is a goal that should be held out for the whole church!
The full-plan goal for assimilation is most likely that newcomers are fully engaged in a group. Then, the group can take them on to the next steps of growth in Christ.
A Little about Groups for Newcomers
So, what kind of group do you places newcomers in? Think 101. Think nursery. Think learning about life in Christ with a group of people who are solid Christians and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.
Ultimately, the goal of the church is to have healthy followers of Christ who get out into the world and live under Christ’s direction. The approach can be stated in three words: collect (their information), connect (them to someone in the church), and convene (them into groups who will help them grow in Christ).
Think of assimilation like a relay race, where runners pass batons. Typically, it’s in the passing, not the running, where people mess up. Our job as leaders is to elevate ourselves enough to clearly see that the baton is being passed well.
Our job is to monitor the baton passing. Why can’t we just do it all as leaders? Because the church is the Body of Christ and together we must take ownership of caring for newcomers. If we don’t, then we will likely build a church that is not integrated.
So let’s fire up the nursery. And get people connected.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.