Just about every time I work with a local church, there are always two subjects that come up; assimilation and discipleship pathway. I have heard some say they are one in the same, while others believe there is no need for assimilation if the discipleship process is right. The reality is, it takes both assimilation and a discipleship pathway for a church to function properly. While they are both different, they work together; and one cannot happen without the other, especially in the church world.
Assimilation obviously isn't a sacred church word; it exists in nearly every organization that develops people. By definition, the word assimilate means: to cause (a person or group) to become part of a different society, country, etc. In the church world, we want people who are far from God to become part of a different country too; we want people to become part of God's Kingdom and the community of His church. We want a process that will cause people to move from where they are to where God wants them to be. It starts with assimilation, but it can't end there...at least not in the church world.
Here's how most assimilation processes are flavored:
- First time guests are sent to the welcome center for a gift where their information is retained for follow-up.
- If they return, they are asked to mark "Returning Guest" on their card and/or prompted to a second location, that is sometimes baited with a second gift.
- If they take the bait, the returning guest is usually asked to attend a class, in which the church hopes, will help the returning guest become a disciple.
This isn't a bad process if Baptist Billy or Methodist Martha are your returning guests. They love Bible classes and can't wait to receive their membership certificate. But what if the returning guest was an unchurched person? What if the lost, Pabst Blue Ribbon drinking guy, who just went through a life crisis, wandered into your church looking for hope? A membership class or Bible study probably isn't going to help him. If membership classes and Bible studies made disciples, our churches would be full. There are no shortage of either in most churches. This is why assimilation MUST eventually MERGE with a discipleship pathway. What does that look like?
Imagine walking down a stream on a warm sunny day. In the beginning, the water is shallow. It's easy to walk and navigate. However, as you continue to walk you notice the water becomes a little deeper. Eventually you come to a bend where another stream merges with the one you’re in. Now the current is a little swifter and there’s more depth. This is how assimilation should flow. It begins with people taking simple, shallow steps; steps they can navigate in there own time. Eventually, however, their steps must lead to relational opportunities where there is depth and current to help guide them to follow Jesus more deeply.
If your assimilation ends with a membership class, chances are you'll make a lot of members, but few disciples. And the Pabst Blue Ribbon guy who needs hope probably won't make it to your class. You must determine a place where simple next steps begin to merge with another stream that has deeper relationships, more depth and intentional movement.
Thoughts to Ponder:
- How effective is your assimilation process? How many new guests actually fill out a card or go to a designated place?
- Are first time guest steps simple and clear? Are you using the right language?
- When and where does your assimilation begin merging with a discipleship pathway?
- How are you measuring progress? What is the win in the end?