Involving New Families in the Life of the Church
Assimilation Questions to Consider
As your congregation or school considers the awesome task of reaching out to uncommitted and unreached people with the Gospel message, you might have questions about the process of assimilation. What does assimilation have to do with Friendship Ablaze? Will those you reach out and touch be one-time or frequent visitors and eventually join your church/school family? What is assimilation, anyway? Isn’t assimilation something that only large churches need to do? Don’t we need a professional to handle assimilation? What if we don’t have the finances to staff for assimilation? And so on….
Hopefully, you will find answers in this Friendship Ablaze! Assimilation Guide with practical assistance for involving new members, new Christians, in the life of the church.
“Assimilation begins with a passion for the lost” (from Welcoming Church As Home: An Assimilation Manual. This and other sources referenced are detailed in Assimilation Resources. Through assimilation, closer relationships are gained–with other Christians, with the life of the church family, and, of course, with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. A synonym for assimilation could be “connection.” It is through “connections” with people Ablaze! that the unreached and unchurched see, hear, learn and understand the love and hope of Christ. Steps toward building a bridge to a closer relationship with Him – Friendship Ablaze! – include: Go! Pray! Learn! Give! Tell! Send! Celebrate! In order to take these steps, understanding the importance of involving new Christians (not just new members) in the life of the church/school is key. “Relationships Ablaze!” are key on every level, as an unreached or unchurched individual moves through involvement in a community of faith to a closer relationship with our Lord.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20)
A. What is assimilation?
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10 RSV)
Although there are a variety of definitions for assimilation, one of the most comprehensive is inAssimilation: The Church Involving and Keeping Its Members:
“Assimilation is the process by which a congregation [school] welcomes, receives and incorporates members [families] into its community of believers. Whether the process is managed or unintentional, effective or not, it describes how members [families] begin and continue to fit into the worship, nurture, witness, service and fellowship of the congregation [school].”
The Assimilation Committee of one LCMS congregation, St. Luke, Itasca, Illinois, succinctly defined the mission of their assimilation ministry as “to actively assist individuals [and families] in becoming incorporated into our community of faith.”
Regarding involvement or “incorporation” of new members into church or school ministry, it is vital to remember that:
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” (1 Cor. 12:4-6)
Volunteer ministries of time and talent/spiritual gifts take responsibility for matching individuals and families with opportunities to serve in the church or school. Often Stewardship committees or boards, or special committees, have these ministry areas within their official descriptions. From the “Developing God’s People as Volunteers” section of the Congregational Stewardship Workbook comes this definition of a Christian volunteer:
“God’s ‘chosen people’ are the most valuable resources in the Church today! Spreading the Gospel message depends on the power of the Holy Spirit working through people – gifted, dedicated, motivated, inspired, trained, empowered, enabled and affirmed people. Spreading the Gospel message is God’s mission.”
B. What are the challenges of assimilation?
Why is it necessary to assimilate new members, new Christians, new families? Think about some of the reasons why people you know have joined your church family – and about why people you know have left the church. Among those reasons you might uncover some of the following challenges of assimilation.
Challenge #1: Prevention of Back Door Losses
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has been in decline since 1971, with a loss of 350,000 people during that time. The number of all Lutherans worldwide increased by 1.4 million in 2001; however, the number of Lutherans in North America decreased 23,622, down to about 8,500,000 (as reported by Lutheran World Federation in The Lutheran, November, 2002).
At their 2004 convention, the LCMS initiated “One Mission Ablaze!: Igniting the World with Christ’s Love,” a worldwide mission movement to share the Gospel with 100 million unreached and uncommitted people by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Ideally, on the congregational level, this “movement,” this call to action, will involve increases in previously unchurched, unreached, uncommitted people entering the “front door.” The challenge: closing the back door by effectively preparing our front door ministries for this wonderful possibility.
In “The Parish Paper” (Nov. 2004), Herb Miller quotes a study of 152,681 adults baptized in the Southern Baptist Church that can give insight to congregations from every denomination. One section of that study lists influences for conversion. The following percentages of adult converts indicated that the following influences were important:
76.9% Attending worship services
57.5% Reading the Bible on your own
56.6% Someone personally sharing the plan of salvation
53.0% Watching the way a person lived as a Christian
47.2% Someone telling about their own personal experience
46.6% Attending Bible study
46.6% Experiencing a personal crisis
27.9% Attending a revival or crusade
21.6% Watching/listening to religious programming on TV/radio
16.9% Reading a religious book or tract
What does this research tell us about the importance of paying attention to the front door?
Challenge #2: Recognition of Signs of Inactivity
Methods of recognizing the signs of inactivity in an individual and/or family household who have entered the front door, and have become involved in an activity or ministry, depend again upon front door planning and relationship bridge building. If newcomers have become a member, indicators of inactivity might include:
- Decrease in worship & communion attendance
- Decrease in financial support
- Decrease in participation in activities or ministries
Of course, in order to recognize these symptoms, it is necessary to know each newcomer in each household as an individual. And how might that be done? Note these “Foundational Assumptions about Becoming Connected.”
- Incorporation begins with the first contact a person has with the church.
- The responsibility for connecting newcomers to relationships rests with the church, not the newcomer.
- The number of friendships made prior to membership is directly related to whether or not that person stays involved after becoming a member.
- Incorporation doesn’t happen automatically with membership. 75-80% of all people who become inactive do so within the first year of joining (actually, most do so within the first 6 months).
- The first indication that a person is dropping out of church is their attendance at worship. Follow up on 3 absences in a row.
- Assimilation is an ongoing process. Sometimes long-term members drop out because of burn-out, conflict, or other issues.
- Most churches can increase their effectiveness in forming connections with and for newcomers.
Prevention of inactivity and back door losses through front door planning is more effective than trying to re-activate an already inactive member!
Challenge #3: Keeping the Front Door Open
In order to “keep the front door open,” there need to be multiple “open doors” to fellowship, church and school ministries, activities, Bible studies, and worship services. Provide multiple opportunities for new members to experience who they are as God’s children, and who you are as God’s caring people. Barriers to involvement, constitutional or personal, need to be minimized. The front door is all about nurturing, caring for the people of God.
10 Things True of Newcomers Who Are “Connected:”
- Have developed a minimum of 7 friendships in the first 6 months
- Assume at least one role or task appropriate to his/her spiritual gift(s)
- Are part of a fellowship group
- Practice good stewardship
- Understand and identify with the goals of the congregation
- Worship regularly (3-4 times/month)
- Are growing spiritually
- Have publicly identified with the church, i.e., calls it “my church”/talks about it.
- Are clarifying his/her values through study of God’s Word, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer
- Identify and witness to unchurched friends and relatives for the purpose of reproducing new Christians
Friendship Ablaze! – “reproducing new Christians”….
Challenge #4: Recognition of Opportunities for Involvement and Service
If involvement in the activities and opportunities for service are key to connecting new members, then the congregation/school needs to know what those opportunities are. Many churches utilize Time & Talent or Spiritual Gifts surveys so that individuals and families know what opportunities for service and involvement are available and appropriate for them. These listings can be created through surveying staff and leaders regarding their needs for volunteer help and to determine what your congregation/school has done, is already doing, needs to do, and is willing to develop or change to maintain and grow their ministries.
The Volunteer Ministries Process Checklist on this site, from the Congregational Stewardship Workbook, is a detailed, step by step plan for the development of effective volunteer ministry.
Challenge #5: Recognition of Symptoms of Need for an Intentional Assimilation Process
When diagnosing the need for an intentional assimilation process, consider some of these symptomatic factors:
- New members leaving after 6 months to 2 years.
- New members not involved in activities.
- Growing number of inactives (defined by individual congregation)
- Staff & leaders are doing assimilation-related activities, but not intentionally or cooperatively coordinated.
- “Complaints” by new members about lack of caring connections (“community”) with staff, leaders and other members.
Do you recognize any of these symptoms? Have you found effective ways of dealing with them? See “10 Things…” list under Challenge #3 for indicators of new member “connectedness.”
Challenge #6: Development of Assimilation Strategies that “Fit” your Congregation
The primary ministry areas involved in the assimilation process in most congregations will be evangelism/outreach, stewardship, elders, volunteer ministry, and all ministries interested in the creation of Christian disciples and in the prevention of inactivity and back door losses. Those responsible for the development of an assimilation process need to consider all these ministry areas.
C. Who does assimilation?
Everyone does assimilation! In other words, everyone is involved in the connection of new members to the life of the church or school. Even if there is a specific committee or person responsible for the development, planning and implementation of an assimilation process, EVERYONE is involved! We are all to seek and save the lost; we are all to help connect those who decide to be part of our church family with the love and life of the church, the body of Christ.
D. How do we assimilate/connect new members?
Step by step! Suggested basic initial steps:
- Recruit a volunteer task group or committee to develop an assimilation process that fits your congregation’s needs.
- Volunteer or staff leaders? (full or part time; paid or unpaid?)
c. Position description
- Develop & recruit separate Assimilation task force or team. This first group may be the task group in step #1. After the planning is finished, there may be some new volunteers recruited.
- Assure task force of support from & interaction with pastor(s), staff and leaders.
- Task Force must be supported – in writing and with a commissioning during a worship service – as part of the congregation’s mission, vision and budget planning.
See the sample position description for an Assimilation task force member.
E. What next?
Plan, plan, plan! The Assimilation Life Line Chart shows a progression of steps in assimilation. Remember that this is a suggested plan. You will need to adapt the general categories and activities to fit your congregation. Also, remember that this assimilation plan involved the whole new member household.
Handouts are also provided. The information on the handouts is also included in the discussion below. The handouts are designed for your use (as handouts, overhead transparencies, or copied into a PowerPoint presentation) as you present and discuss the Assimilation Life Line in groups.
The progression begins with “Pre-Assimilation,” the beginning of “connecting” or the evangelism/outreach portion of the process. Some newcomers start with “initial activity.” Have you known someone who has sung in the church choir for 5 years without officially joining the church? When you first reach out to someone who is uncommitted, their involvement might begin with music. Christian schools, pre-schools and day care centers are also often the first connection for the unchurched.
Which of these pre-assimilation opportunities are you using? Could you be using?
- Community Events
- Friendship Pad
- Local Food Pantry
- Web Site
- “New in town” Visits
- Yellow Pages
- “Bring a Friend” Sunday
- Directional Signs
- Cable TV
- Day Care
- Attractive Facilities
- Non-member Weddings
- Day School
- Non-member Building Use
- “Cookie Monster” Visit
- Sports Teams
- Youth Activities
- Newspaper Ads
- Newspaper Publicity
“Interest in Membership” (or stronger connection) may be shown in a variety of ways. Usually this stage in the Life Line involves communication with people in your church or school. Interest might be shown through any of these actions:
- Noting interest on Friendship Pad
- Contact Pastor
- Contact Other Staff
- Contact Church Office
- Web Site Inquiry
- E-mail Inquiry
- Membership Information Requested
- Other Options?
“Membership Classes” are the Christian Education phase of the process. For new Christians these obviously are essential to the assimilation connection. These classes are usually taught by a pastor or commissioned church worker.
- Adult Confirmation
- Reaffirmation of Faith
- 6–12 Weeks - Weekdays
- Intensive Saturday/Weekend
- Other Options?
“Member Pre-Orientation” (one of the final membership classes) needs to cover a kind of “pre-orientation,” explaining some of the congregation’s history and some of the practical aspects of membership. This class can also include the introduction of a time & talent or spiritual gifts survey. Also introduced during this class can be a “get-acquainted interview” or “conversation with a purpose.” This conversation can be with a staff person or with a trained, skilled volunteer.
- Get Acquainted Activity
- Membership Expectations (“Membership Covenant”)
- Stewardship Life Information
- Local Congregation Stewardship Information
- Time & Talent/Spiritual Gifts Information
- Congregation History Information
- Congregation Program Information (video?)
- Get-Acquainted Interview Information
- Other Options?
After participants in the Membership Classes have made a faithful decision to join your family of faith, they are invited to take part in a special “New Member Welcome” when their connection becomes a commitment to the Biblical teachings of the membership classes. This is truly a celebration. Some of those welcomed may also be baptized at this time.
- New Member Sunday
- New Member Photos
- New Member Nametags
- New Member Reception
- New Member Luncheon
- New Member Households - List in Bulletin
- Whole Household Introductions in Worship
- Other Options?
“New Member Orientation” can differ from pre-orientation in that those welcomed can be introduced to leaders and staff of the church and school and to some of the opportunities for service. At this time, appropriate gifts might be in order. More information about the Get-Acquainted Family Interviews can be given, and these interviews can also be scheduled.
- Preparations for Orientation
- Agenda for Orientation
- Introduction of Leaders/Staff
- Congregation Video (if not shown during Pre-Orientation)
- New Member Packet
- New Member Gifts
- Further Information/Instructions
- Regarding Get-Acquainted Interviews
- Other Options?
It is of vital importance to welcome individuals and their families to the church or school one-at-a-time, as individuals and as a family group (children, too). The “New Member Interviews” or get-acquainted conversations (usually scheduled for about one hour) are key to strengthening the church/school connection. During this time specific attention can be paid to each family member, to the potential matching of their gifts and talents, and, hopefully, to their involvement in activities, small groups and Bible study.
- Purposes of Interviews
- Scheduling of 1-hour Interviews (at church or in their home)
- Format of Interviews
- “Welcome” Form for Photo Information
- Personal Information Form
- Time & Talent/Spiritual Gift Survey(s)
- Follow-up Information
- Other Options?
“New Member Involvement/Activity” can vary, depending upon the character, spiritual gifts, talents, and available time of the new church family members. The Assimilation Task Force will need to revisit the time and talent/spiritual gifts process which is already present, and, perhaps, initiate some revisions or changes. (See the “Volunteer Ministries Process Checklist.”)
- Bible Studies
- Small Groups
- Fellowship Activities
- Sports Activities
- Youth Activities
- Service Activities
- Women’s/Men’s Groups
- Mission Activities
- Human Care Activities
- Worship Activities
- Prayer Activities
- Other Options?
As with any process, one of the most important aspects (and, often, one of the least exercised) is follow-up. “New Member Follow-up” is key to front door caring for the individuals and families who have been welcomed to your family of faith. Follow-up contacts from staff, leaders, Assimilation Task Force, and others are essential. Small group Bible study, sponsors, activity interest referrals, follow-up phone calls are only a few possibilities. Follow-up is most important during the first six months to a year.
- Follow-up Contacts (pastor(s), staff, elders, leaders….)
- Time & Talent/Spiritual Gifts Referrals(lists to pastors, staff, leaders….)
- Small Group Connections
- Bible Study Options
- Shepherd/Sponsor Mentoring
- Elder Zone Assignment/Contact
- New Member Follow-up Survey/Phone call
- Other Options?
An unusual step in the assimilation process involves attention to those who are “Leaving the Church” for ANY reason. Whether someone leaves because of moving out of the area, or being peacefully released because of disconnection with your church family, you need to care for them. If those individuals and families who are leaving were connected to your church or school as new Christians, that faith-connection must not be compromised. Communicate with them in Christ-like fashion before, during and after the leaving process. They will be carrying with them their first encounter with the love of Christ.
- Caring Contact(s) Regarding Symptoms of Inactivity
(decreased worship attendance, stewardship life, congregational involvement, increased complaints….)
- Encouragement Regarding Return to Membership Involvement
(by pastor, staff, spiritual leaders….)
- Decisions by Spiritual Leaders of Congregation Regarding Membership
- Notification of Changes in Membership & Suggestion of Congregation Transfer
- Exit Interview
- Counseling for Grief/Loss
First Steps, Next Steps
1. The first step/next step in the outreach home visit process for my congregation will be:
2. Who will carry out this chosen first step/next step? (Name names.)
3. When will this first step/next step begin? (be specific!)