Advice on Church Growth and Assimilation
For a long time now, the church growth world has told us to get as many people to our church services as possible and keep them there as long as possible. The thought is that if they are in church they will hear the Word, be saved, and go to heaven.
We even classify people in two categories: “the churched” and “the unchurched,” as if they were those in Christ and those who are not. But of course this is wrong, and now we are realizing it. Lately the fastest-growing segment when it comes to attending church is the “uncommitted.” These people may actually be highly committed when it comes to Christ, but they’re just not church service attendees.
In church-growth-speak we used to hear about assimilating visitors so they become attendees and, hopefully, members of the church. The language we used was that we needed to “close the back door” to the church—implying that we need to keep people from leaving. Wow, that sounds awful doesn’t it? [Cue the sinister Vincent Price laugh—ha ha haaaa!] While it sounds like a mousetrap offering cheese at the end—but no escape—nevertheless (much to the chagrin of the fire department) that is the language we pastor-types would use.
Lately, however, I am of a different opinion on the matter. Having become more familiar with the important parable of the soils (Mark 4:1-20; Matt13:3-23; Luke 8:4-15), I have come to think we ought to open the back door as wide as possible and let the people go. Actually, I’ve come to realize that this is the Jesus way.
According to Jesus’ words, two thirds of the people are not good soil and will not bear fruit (okay, I know the passage is not prescribing a percentage, but it is clear that more will be bad soil than good). Keeping them in the church may not be the best solution if you desire a fruitful church.
I think if people want to leave, let them leave. Don’t waste your life trying to make people want something they don’t really want. I often say: if the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus isn’t enough to motivate these people, my sermon isn’t likely to do it.
Jesus let the rich young ruler walk away, even though He loved him very much (Mark 10:17-22). He never tried to convince people to follow Him. In fact, He did the opposite. He intentionally tried to thin the crowd on more than one occasion (Luke 11:29; 14:25- 26; John 6:60-71). When a large crowd was gathered, He would tell the few disciples it was time to go somewhere else (Matt 8:18; Mark 1:36-38).
Jesus invested in a few disciples and never gave his affection and trust to the larger gatherings (John 2: 23-25).
I’ve said for years: what you win them with is what you win them to. If you entice people to come with entertaining services, then you’ll need to keep them the same way. Suddenly you find yourself competing with other entertaining churches to keep people attending your service—people who only want to be entertained. Open the back door!
Too often, in our desire to keep people, we change church to accommodate bad soil and end up with larger fruitless congregations that want all their needs met and have no desire to serve others. Open the back door!
Jesus drew huge crowds. But the Gospel accounts specifically tell us that He never gave His heart to the crowd because He knew that their motives were selfish. Open the back door!
Large crowds never changed the world. Real movements always are ignited with a few highly committed people. Open the back door!
This article appeared on Neil Cole’s blog, cole-slaw.blogspot.com, in May of 2013. Neil Cole is a church planter and the founder and executive director of Church Multiplication Associates & CMA Resources, which have helped start thousands of churches in all 50 states and at least 40 nations. Cole is one of the key founders of the organic church movement. He is also the author of multiple books, including Organic Church, Church Transfusion, Journeys To Significance, Church 3.0, Organic Leadership, Search & Rescue (Ordinary Hero), Cultivating a Life for God, TruthQuest, Beyond Church Planting and Raising Leaders for the Harvest. He lives in Long Beach, Calif. with his wife Dana.