Church Health: Retention, Incorporation, Enfolding and Assimilation

Do you know how people are assimilated into the life of your church?

Why assimilation of new people happens (or does not happen) is key to understanding the health and sustainability of a congregation. Do outsiders soon become insiders? Are newcomers transforming into belongers? How long does it take for a guest to turn into a family member in your congregation?

Ten questions about assimilation in your church

  1. How easy is it for a person to move from the fringes of the congregation to the "inner circle"?
  2. Who are the last three families or people who came to your church and stayed?
  3. Why did these families or individuals first attend your church?
  4. What brought them back the second time?
  5. Why did these people stay? Why was their experience different from that of other visitors who did not return?
  6. What does the senior pastor do to welcome newcomers?
  7. What does the "culture" of the congregation expect that long-time members will do when faced with first-time visitors?
  8. What specific things are done at the time of their visit?
  9. What kind of intentional follow-up contacts, if any, are made by church members or pastoral staff after a person's first visit to a church service or other gathering?
  10. What would first-time visitors feel positive about regarding your church?
  11. What about your church might produce negative feelings in guests?

Note: Though assimilation is a widely used term in the church, it may not be the best description. At times, I think "assimilation" sounds like newcomers are being swallowed by a giant amoeba.

Other ways -- perhaps better ways -- to describe the same process include:

Two case studies involving failed assimilation by a church

They only knew my name

How can existing churches effectively assimilate new people?

True story: A young man describes his difficulties "getting plugged in" to a local church.

I found Christ as a child through a Christian family. When I was a teenager, a person came into my life and discipled me like the Apostle Paul did with Timothy. This awesome relationship enabled me to grow spiritually by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, while I was away at a university, my mentor died.

Over the next eight to nine years I lived in three or four states, finally landing in Colorado. I bounced around between churches. I struggled because I had a hard time connecting with others in the church the way I had connected as a teenager with my mentor. Ultimately, I realized that I had unfair expectations, and I have now been able to begin accepting the different relationships I have with other believers for what they are. Even so, I have found it difficult to plug in at churches.

I struggled because the churches I've encountered only offer fellowship within structured church activities. Over time, God worked on my perspective and feelings about this. Eventually, I came to the point where I realized I needed to look for relationships that I could give something to rather than simply take something from. When I moved to Colorado Springs, I went to several churches with every intention of being a giver. I helped when I could, and I tried to put myself in a position to build relationships.

While going to one church, I played pickup basketball a couple of mornings a week with people from another church, including five of its staff members. This was easy to do because, at the time, we lived in an apartment across from that particular church's parking lot. Though I did this for an entire year, I never had more than a casual conversation with anyone, including the staff members. Everyone was friendly, and we got along great inside that environment. However, no one inquired about me beyond small talk. After the basketball games, I would ask about ways to get involved, or opportunities to fellowship with other men so we could encourage one another to grow in Christ. They gave me the schedule of church services and Sunday School, but that was it. They had a hard time thinking about church outside of structured activities.

When I went to play ball, I got along particularly well with two of the staff members. However, I was never invited to do anything else with them. Several guys often went to lunch together after we played, but I was never invited to go with them. Though I played basketball with them for over a year, they knew nothing about me beyond my name and the fact that I was taking classes at a college in the area.

One day, they talked about forming a team to play in a church basketball league. I expressed interest, but, in the end, they did not have enough people interested to put together a league team. Later, I happened to overhear one of the staff members say that another church was playing in that league. When I asked about it, he gave me the other church's phone number. I called, paid the fee, and played on that church's team for its ten-week season. There was great team spirit and camaraderie on the basketball court, but during those ten weeks, not one person from that church knew anything about me beyond my name and the phone number I put on the sign-up sheet when I gave them my money.

I was the only outsider on the team of 10. They all knew each other from church. While friendly to me, they made no effort to really get to know me. I don't think they even knew if I was a Christian. After those ten weeks, I never heard from any of them again.

The saddest part about this is that both these churches had a stranger in their midst — even in close contact with their leadership — for an extended period of time, and they did nothing about it. Several staff members — who may have been very good in their assigned ministry tasks — could not even do outreach when opportunities occurred on their own turf. While they may not have had poor intentions, it did seem that they had no intentions at all. They seemed too busy with programs and church activities to build relationships outside of those activities and with people outside of the circle they were used to being with.

Use this real story as a case study: Imagine you were a "consultant" to one of these churches and came across this story. What concrete steps/changes, if any, would you propose?

Case study: Declining Sunday school class attendance

What could they do? Their Sunday school class had once seemed so vibrant and exciting. Now, interest amd attendance were dropping. Were they in trouble?

Who or what was to blame? Was there a quick fix on the horizon?

The YouAllCome Sunday School class was started some years earlier. Average attendance had been as high as 35 but recently had dropped to under 20. The teacher and class officers are concerned. So, one Sunday night after church, they got together to discuss the issue.

Bob, the class president, spoke first: "This class used to be our church's most dynamic and alive Sunday school class. Anymore, I'm not too excited about coming an hour before the worship service. If I, the class president, am having those feelings, I'm sure others must be as well."

Barbara, the class secretary, chimed in, "It gets discouraging week after week to take the roll and see how many people are not coming -- people who used to be there regularly. Sunday School and church don't seem as important to people as they used to be. There are so many other things competing for our time."

Ron, who was the teacher, slumped in his chair. At a lull in the discussion, he mused out loud: "On many Sunday afternoons, I've thought about resigning as the teacher. You know, I love these people. And I feel that they love me, but I'm not really sure I'm making a difference in their lives. We've been studying material in the Old Testament, but it's not easy to make all those facts about the sacrifices and feasts interesting. I'm giving it my best effort but. frankly, I'm discouraged."

Susan tried to put a cheerful spin on the discussion: "During Sunday school, three couples from our class are now serving in other leadership capacities. Shouldn't we feel good about the fact that we have contributed people to other ministries in the church?"

"Yes, you have a point. But where have the Johnsons been? And the Smiths and the Carpenters? I haven't heard from them for weeks. Have you?"

"Well, I think I saw the Carpenters in worship about a month ago," said George.

"Hey now, we can't give up. Surely there are some things we can do. What can we do to make a difference in the attendance of this Sunday School class?"

The others began to speak up and said . . .

Case study discussion is NOT about having a debate and declaring a winner.

Rather, it involves taking a good look at all aspects of a problem and, together, devising a possible, reasonable, and ethical course of action.

"Case studies facilitate our understanding of others, and even more important, they assist us in understanding ourselves" -- Alan Neely

A strategy for proceeding

  1. Read the case.
  2. Get the members of the cast and the flow of events clearly in mind.
  3. Clarify from whose perspective the case study is presented.
  4. Identify the basic issues.
  5. List possible courses of action. What will be the likely results of each alternative?
  6. What additional information would be helpful?
  7. Go back over the facts of the case and the possibilities for action.
  8. What would be the most appropriate course of action? Why?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

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