I've been thinking through the issue of "assimilation" and the local church - a lot. This has been one of those areas in which I feel weak. The theology of the church (ecclesiology) is something I am passionate about and comfortable with. But systems and methods for doing church where Scripture does not explicitly speak are more difficult for me. Assimilation is generally considered to be the process of leading visitors to the church to become active, healthy members of the church. I believe every church needs to put serious thought in this system, method, or whatever you want to call it, as it is clearly a part of Christ's Great Commission to make disciples. So what should it look like? Whose model will we adopt? Some assimilation models are based around a well designed program with classes that emphasize education. For example, there may be four classes that relate to different stages of assimilation. One completes a class and moves ahead. I don't think this is wrong. Classes are helpful tools in assimilation, but it's easy to adopt this method (or any other method) second hand without first laying a theological/philosophical foundation on which the system can be built. New churches want to get going, don't want to reinvent the wheel, and therefore sometimes adopt a program for assimilation that can amount to running people through formalities without ever really accomplishing the goal of producing mature members who are on mission. So here are my thoughts on a foundation for assimilation. You can think of it like a skeleton on which muscle and flesh must be added. Or you can think of it in terms of our goals concerning general experiences and spiritual progression. Like most of my thinking, this is very simple stuff, but perhaps you will find it somewhat useful.
Gospel-Centered Assimilation (sketch from my journal)
I write and draw everything out in my Moleskine journal. This is what my thinking on assimilation looks like visually. It breaks down into four progressive experiences/spheres that overlap with one another. When a family or individual comes to an event or gathering - or even into a member's home the process begins. For more info on [circle, triangle and square, see this post.]
Gospel Encounter The first sphere is a gospel encounter. At every event, in all our gatherings and ministries, and in even our homes as we practice hospitality, we expect visitors to encounter the gospel in word and/or deed. This is something we are completely in control of. While we cannot ensure that an individual will embrace the gospel, we can ensure the gospel is demonstrated through works of mercy, preached in our worship gatherings, seen in our parenting, fellowship and dialog with the world.
The unchurched, non-Christian and the mature believer who has walked with Christ for decades will both encounter the gospel. A gospel encounter is not dependent on a particular program, but can use them as appropriate. The point is that in every point of entry to the body (worship gathering, mercy ministry, etc.) the gospel is exalted and people are in some way confronted with it.
Gospel Experience The second stage of assimilation for us is experiencing the gospel. This is out of our control, but is the aim of all our ministry. By gospel experience I mean people are not only confronted with the gospel, but are in some way affected by it. Conviction of sin, seeking God, and eventually faith and repentance (conversion) are progressive goals. There is overlap between the gospel encounter and gospel experience, for some will have been prepared for this in advance, and some will be Christian. Therefore, some who come into our midst will encounter and experience the gospel immediately. Others will experience it later as they continue with us.
For many of our visitors, the first two stages of assimilation focus on the gospel and them as individuals and families. People are more the recipients of the gospel, rather than the servants of it.
Gospel Service The second stage in assimilating into the church is gospel service - where people begin to see the gospel as something not just for them, but for everyone. Consequently they begin participating and serving with the church in her mission. It is our goal and expectation that everyone at Redeemer will participate in and serve both the body and the community with the gospel. At some point in this stage covenant membership is expected. How a church moves forward with membership varies greatly, but I like the idea of a class or classes to help in this aspect of assimilation.
Gospel Calling As believers are growing in grace the church must work to help individuals identify their spiritual gift, mature as followers of Christ, be able to reproduce themselves via discipleship, lead in whatever capacity God has equipped them, and determine what God has called them to (in church life, family, vocation, etc.).
These latter two overlapping spheres orient the indivudal outwardly. Rather than focusing only on the "gospel and me" they are brought to live out a "gospel and me and the world" perspective.
I have not addressed the issue of new visitors and the parking lot, visitor's centers, worship guides (bulletins for the old schoolers), etc. All of that is relevant - even important in my estimation. But first, I needed to work out in a clear way what assimilation really is. I do not believe assimilation is simply becoming a member of an organization. It is the spiritual progression of an individual with Christ and his people. It moves one from conviction, to conversion, to covenant membership and beyond. In ym view it should rely less on a program and more on immersion into the church's culture (and counter-culture).
While this doesn't spell out all the ways we, or any other church, may practically carry out assimilation, it is a helpful foundation from which we are developing the ins and outs of this process in our fellowship.
Of course, I am always curious how others are doing it, thinking about it. From big picture stuff to the practical details - please share your thoughts on this.