On Monday I shared about a change in my life a little over a year ago as I transitioned from being a youth pastor in to a position at our church that combined the leadership responsibility for small groups, assimilation, and guest services into one role. In reality, I had next to zero practical experience for this new position, other than having led small groups for teenagers as a youth pastor. When it comes to assimilation—the practice of helping people become connected into the local church—I’ve learned a ton in the past year, mostly from others who have been willing to put down in book form what they know as well as from my own mistakes. Here are some of those lessons:
1) Assimilation is a weird church term to anyone who has never led or worked in a church.
This is true especially for those who are Star Trek fans (resistance is futile). And as much as I love systems—my pre-ministry background is in mathematics—it’s a really impersonal term. Assimilation is about helping people connect with your church, so about two weeks into my new position I asked if I could change my job title from “Pastor of Small Groups and Assimilation” to “Small Groups and Connection Pastor.”
2) Connecting people to your church does not happen “organically,” no matter how nice you are.
I get it: creating a system that helps move people from a first-time visitor to an “all-in” member at your church seems at the surface cold and calculating. Wouldn’t it just be more spiritual to let your regular attenders naturally meet your guests, invite them into their small group, and help them feel like part of the family right from day one? In reality, that doesn’t happen, even in the friendliest of churches. The point of a system to connect people is to hold you and your church accountable to being focused on those who are not yet “insiders” at your church—especially those who don’t yet know Jesus.
3) A connection system is really about discipleship.
And it’s not a one-size-fits-all discipleship system, either. It’s simply about creating environments and next steps to help people explore and grow in a relationship with Jesus by being connected with a local church.
4) You need to define what it means to be “connected.”
In our church, our goal is to get people connected with either a small group or a serving team as soon as they are willing to. That’s because we’ve seen God work in people’s lives by being connected with other people who are pursuing a relationship with Jesus. We hope that people feel connected to God when they attend a worship service, but we know they won’t stick around long if their only connection to our church is the Sunday morning service. If you don’t know what you’re trying to connect people to, your connection system probably won’t work very well.
5) An assimilation/connection system holds you accountable to caring for people who aren’t insiders.
When an insider in your church wants to get into a small group but finds the process difficult, they’ll probably let you know. But what about the shy, 22-year-old college student who’s trying out church again for the first time since high school? If you don’t have a system for helping new people get connected, they aren’t going to force themselves into one of your small groups or into a volunteering role. They’ll just simple stop coming to your church after a few weeks or months.
6) When you follow up with people, you aren’t being pushy (unless you’re being pushy).
We have discovered in the past year that people love to be followed up with after their first visit, or after they express interest in getting more involved, such as asking for information about joining a small group. It’s not uncommon for someone to thank me for getting in touch with them so quickly after the fill out a card in our worship service. And if people aren’t ready to commit or need some time before they want to take a next step, they’ll let you know.
7) Contact information is gold.
You’ve probably had this experience: You talk with a new couple on a Sunday morning, let them know about getting into a small group or registering their teenager for summer camp, and later on in the week you realize you have no idea how to contact them. We use a “connection card” that is in every single bulletin as well as at our guest services tables on Sunday mornings. It not only includes a space to enter contact information, but boxes people can check to get more information about a relevant next step. Not everyone will readily give you their contact information, but at least give them an easy way to share it easily if they want to.
8) Phone calls are better than emails.
When you’re following up with a first-time guest or someone who’s attended for a while but would like to get more connected, emails are impersonal. I know it’s easier to fire off a pre-formatted email, but a phone call works better every single time. If you need to, enlist a friendly volunteer who can help you make calls during the week.
9) Send first-time guests a gift and personal note.
We send every first-time guest a gift card to a local bakery/café and a nice, hand-made card. Some churches do hand-written notes, but we opt to print a note in our cards with the signature of our lead pastor. We have found that people are very surprised to get a thank you gift in the mail a few days after their visit, mostly because people don’t expect that from a church.
10) Create your assimilation/connection system to do something for people, not to get something from them.
If your mindset is to create a system so that you can manipulate more people into volunteering on your already-depleted children’s team, your system will not work. The point of a connection system is to serve people so that they can get connected to the body of Christ and grow in a relationship with God. But don’t worry: if you serve people well, they’ll be far more likely to join you as your serve your church and community.
Note: When designing our system, we used Nelson Searcy’s book Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church as a guide. We would not be as far as we are without this book when it comes to connecting new people into our church.
And if you’d like to read about lessons from my first year in guest services, you can check that out here.