Pastors' Forum


Discipleship and Assimilation

It seems that the only discipleship format out there that is working is the cell group. Is anyone doing anything different that is working? How are pastors plugging new believers into their churches and assuring that they are getting grounded in the Word and in fellowship?


Pastor Bill McRay—Nashville, TN
I believe that both scripturally and practically, corporate teaching and small group ministry are still the most effective means of discipleship. Teaching alone will not mature a Christian. Teaching and Mentoring will. That is the example that Jesus set before us as He developed His disciples. Through corporate teaching in our worship services and whatever other teaching opportunities that our churches may provide (Bible Schools, etc.), believers receive the impartation of the Word. Through small groups in whatever form they may take in any given church, people live life together applying the Word as they go. Under the oversight of a qualified mentor (small group leader) this becomes a lifetime process of growth and maturity. None of this is just going to happen. We must put workable systems into place that cause it to happen in a systematic way. Too often we become so spiritually minded that we neglect the natural side necessary to release the things of the Spirit into our lives. One of the reasons many of our churches have not been as fruitful as they could have been is that we have not put the natural systems in place that form a framework through which the Word and Spirit can work and produce fruit.

One of those systems is assimilation. Assimilation is what takes place from the time a first time guest first drives onto our parking lot until he becomes a fully functioning member of our church. The average church manages to assimilate approximately one out of 20 first time guests. A church with a strong assimilation system in place can actually assimilate up to one out of three. That’s where your disciples are my brothers and sisters. The Lord sends them to us through many different ways and we expect to land them with our spirituality and anointed teaching. But we lose them and never see most of them again before they can even recognize the presence of God or the things of the Spirit. When people come to our churches, most of them are almost entirely naturally oriented. As Brother Hagin used to say, they wouldn’t recognize the Holy Spirit if He met them at their car in a red jump suit. The reality is we have seven minutes from the time a first time guest drives on to our parking lot to make a first impression. That first impression usually determines whether they will ever be a second time guest. Thus an assimilation system is imperative. Allow me to recommend a book to you entitled, “Fusion, Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church,” By Nelson Searcy, published by Regal Books. ( This little book will take you a couple hours to read and contains a powerful assimilation system all laid out and ready for you to put in place. It is exceedingly simple, yet powerful.

Pastor Sam Smucker—Lancaster, PA
We are using the Alpha Course as a way of reaching seekers. Many give their lives to Jesus as they go through the course. Close to the end of the course we take them on a retreat to teach about the Holy Spirit and give them opportunity to receive prayer to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.

The next step for them is the Beta Course which teaches the fundamentals of faith and the Christian life. We also help them get involved in a small group to interact with other believers. After the Beta Course we encourage them to serve in the church in some way and bring others to the Alpha Course.

Also, we offer many other courses on Wednesday nights such as parenting, finances, marriage, Bible study course, etc., that they can take on an ongoing basis. We are having a good percentage of new believers following through with this path.

Pastor Matt Beemer—Manchester, England
I see Discipleship and Assimilation as two separate things that work well together but should not be limited to only working together. Programs are great and I want as many discipleship options as possible so that people who have different ways of learning and different backgrounds can find a discipleship format that fits their ‘bent’. But I’m most passionate about developing a culture of ‘discipleship and caring one for another’ throughout the entire ministry. We are working to create a culture where people take responsibility for each other in these areas instead of looking to one particular person, or a program to do it for them. It takes time to change culture so its early days still, but this way of thinking is starting to get into the hearts of everyone in the church.

The following is some of what we do, but our focus is on developing the culture of discipleship throughout.

For Assimilation (I like ‘connecting’ better), there are two things we do that work especially well for us. Firstly, we have a “church that works” team that meets occasionally to watch over the entire ‘connecting’ process to continually evaluate and improve it. Everything is looked at from how does a person make first contact with the church, through to their being established in the place of service that is a perfect fit to their grace.

When the team discovers gaps or weakness in the process, they are responsible to brainstorm and implement solutions. Also, when there’s an area they need to bring real improvement, for example the welcome team, or maybe the website, they then invite that teams leadership to the meetings so they can discuss ideas about how to ensure there is a seamless and helpful journey for all who come to the church…

Secondly, as part of our ‘connecting’ process we have what we call partnership. This is our version of membership, but it has been especially designed to help people connect with the ministry. We kick it off with a special “Meet the Pastors” fellowship for anyone who is new to the church. Here everyone new to the church has opportunity to get to know each other and they start getting to know the pastors and other leaders in the ministry. We have some laughs, a question and answer time, and then introduce partnership telling them how to attend.

The following five weeks are five 1 hour sessions where the focus is two fold, “Connect with the Church & Connect with their Calling.”

The first sessions tell about the history of the church, we show some pictures and video clips and tell some funny stories of our pioneering days. Then we share our annual vision as well as talk about our future aspirations. All of these sessions are designed for people new to the church to quickly connect with where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. We even have a glossary of terms to help them understand our churches ‘lingo’. We are working hard to assist every new person in the church to establish a quick and vital connection. There are also a couple practical sessions about what partnership is and isn’t. Finally, we focus on getting to know the persons gifting, dreams and passion. Every evening has plenty of tea and coffee time for fellowship and connecting with each other as well.

These final ‘connect with your calling’ sessions are the most important part of the process because we want to help people find a place in the ministry where their graces are expressed to the fullest; a place where they will be able to serve with joy and be fulfilled personally while enabling the ministry to fulfill its mandate. So they complete a questionnaire and that is given to a trained guide who schedules a ‘guidance chat’ and then helps them connect with a ministry team. The guide will assist them until they are fully intergraded into a team and doing well.

This is where our ‘connecting’ process and discipleship meet—in their team. The team leader, having caught the vision to disciple their team members, takes on a discipleship responsibility for that person as long as they are part of that team.

If the person wishes to switch teams at some point then they meet with their current team leader and do a kind of casual exit interview. Their current team leader’s job is then to ensure that they leave the team properly, but also they are to ensure that the person gets plugged into a new team quickly so the discipleship process can continue.

The leader will also ask if they can communicate any issues and ‘personal development goals’ that may have arisen in their appraisals to their new team leader so that the new leader can build on the success and advances they made in the previous team.

Because everyone who is a ‘Partner’ must serve at least once per month in some ministry team, we are sure that all the Partners are being discipled.

So our assimilation process links into the discipleship culture we are creating throughout the ministry, but we also do many other programs to disciple church members.

We also have small groups that we call Covenant Groups and in these groups the focus is on relationships and ‘caring one for another’. The Covenant Group leaders are to disciple those in their group and facilitate the ‘care one for another’ culture among the group members.

Pastor Gary Hoffman—Covington, VA
We have offered all types of different classes. Guess who does not attend? Those for whom it was designed for. In the 15 years that I have pastored here in Virginia, we have grown from 30 people to 675 people now attending. I have come to see that through all the services that we have that people are being discipled through the services. Discipleship has a beginning, but has no ending; we are all still being discipled. I don’t think that “discipleship” is a class. Jesus told us to be followers of Him. Discipleship happens over time in the Word and being around other believers. I have taught on being a good follower. Following Christ will automatically disciple any believer. Teach on the importance of staying in the “house.” Apostles Paul and Peter gave us the goal of finishing our race until the end. This growth in grace never ends while here on earth. Try to give your church the mindset of following till the end!

Pastor Dean Hawk—Colorado Springs, CO
We run a Discipleship 101 class two to three times each year on Sunday mornings during one of the two services. This is a 10-week course that covers the basic fundamentals of who we are in Christ, baptism of the Holy Spirit, and various foundational beliefs. Yes, there are those who only attend the class and skip attending the church service, but we have found we get a higher participation by offering it on Sunday mornings when they are already in the church mode.

Pastor David Emigh—Sand Springs, OK
We have a 7 week Foundation class on Sunday mornings that has worked well on grounding the new believers. We also provide it on CD for those that work on Sundays. We then let them fill out an application for helps ministry. Also, our “Welcome to the Family” membership class has been real successful. I spend two hours going over the history of our church and then do an interview.

Pastor Dave Williams—Lansing, MI
For some reason or another, I’ve never been able to make cell groups work at Mount Hope Church. I believe the cell group method is not as important to disciple making as the principle it illustrates, which is education and delegation. Educate lay people for the work of the ministry and delegate it to them (Numbers 10:11-17; Acts 6:1-7).

We have found that new believers should develop about seven healthy friendships within six months. And, since cells have never worked for us, we have formatted another plan that has been successful.

First, when a person comes to Christ, we invite them to a free dinner and a six-week course that explains all the fundamentals, such as “Who is God?” “Who is Jesus?” “Who is the Holy Spirit?” etc. During this time, the participant develops relationships with fellow believers, both new and mature. We have several mature believers in these meetings.

It’s strange. We have no planned, tightly organized cell structure, yet we have hundreds of natural occurring homogeneous groups ranging from motorcycle enthusiasts to quilt makers.

On the training end, we provide a pathway for “champion disciples.” Just about every evening there is a Bible training class in which people may participate. Membership class is sometimes offered as a six-hour Saturday seminar. Each church department is broken into smaller relational groups and provides training in a way that applies to that particular group. Then we have our satellite, off-campus, churches that offer a smaller church setting for more tight-knit relationships and personal care.

Cell groups are great, I know. I’ve read all the books and even attended Dr. Cho’s meetings. Yet, after three major pushes, I still have come up short. Maybe it’s because the principle probably is more important than the method.

Pastor Andy White—Chandler, AZ
What every joint supplies – I ran into an unexpected enigma. As part of our processing of new members ,I had made up a series of questions that could be answered on a scale of 1-10 such as, “I enjoy organizing.” Without any conscious plan I asked two questions back-to-back:

Please answer from 1 (low) to 10 (high) the following:

“I really like to be involved in the church.”                  1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8..9..10

“I always wait to be asked before I get involved.”       1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8..9..10

That is where the unexpected enigma revealed itself. A surprising number of people who were joining our church answered 8, 9 or 10 on both questions! A significant number of people who really liked to be involved in the church would wait until they were asked before they would get involved. It meant there were probably some really great workers who would get involved if we would ask them to help. It also meant there were a lot of people who would never get involved if they weren’t asked.

And so we ask. In fact, one of our goals is to staff each and every event with 50% of volunteers who have never worked on the event before. With big smiles and lots of encouragement, we ask them to try something new. We know that Ephesians 4 says that we “join and knit together by what every joint supplies.” Based on this, a fundamental principle of assimilating new members is: No supply—no join and knit.

Sometimes it helps to speak of how a person ‘supplies’ in addition to how a person ‘serves.’ Ephesians speaks about the “effective working by which each part does its share.” Each means 100%. So our goal is 100 percent of our members (as opposed to attenders) are connected through supplying and sharing.

How We Assimilate New Members

We have a staff member who is in charge of member services. Her entire purpose is to connect people into the body by finding ways for them to supply. When we teach new members we speak about how we are the Body of Christ, not the body parts of Christ. If you walked outside and saw an eyeball on the sidewalk, you would know something was wrong. That part is supposed to be connected and supplying and we feel the same way about members. We graft people into the body. We actually sit down with them, one at a time,  and with those same smiles, laughs and encouraging words; we find them a place and people to connect with.

Part of our growth was in making a change in our ministries from a focus on “how people serve” to “how people share.” A ministry in a church must be more than simply a place where people punch in and punch out and no one even knows how they are doing. We believe ministries must be a place where people care for each other as well as serve together. They are sharing a slice of life together.

Intro to our Foundations Booklet

I have been asked, “What do you want your church to be?” My answer is: “We are already that church, I just want to keep what we have as we grow.” We all have tenets of faith, but the Bible also speaks of a like precious faith. Even though our tenets may match, how we practice those tenets can differ significantly and this booklet is intended to help explain our tenets, our “like precious faith,” and our culture. It answers a lot of questions and it is readily available to visitors, on our website and it is covered in our Foundations class.

Download PDF

Pastor Jeff Jones—Kalamazoo, MI
Our church has been using a discipleship workbook called, Getting a Grip on the Basics by Beth Jones. It’s a thirteen chapter, fill in the blank workbook that we teach in 13 week sessions throughout the year. We use the book as a first step in our membership process and see awesome results from systematic teaching of the Word. We offer classes during one of our worship services so that people can go to class and then attend a service if they would like. But, if they just want to bring their kids to church, attend the class and go home, we’re cool with that too, although we would prefer that they attend our worship service, but we don’t require it.

Our discipleship track goes something like this: Getting a Grip on the Basics—Membership Class—Start serving somewhere—Getting a Grip on Serving God—EPIC School of Ministry.

Pastor Larry Millender—Tallahassee, FL
I think that all of us who have pastored for any length of time, often find that we have to change, adapt, and explore new methods of assimilating and discipling our new church people. We have used many methods and ideas here over the years and keep exploring new ones even now. When we have people born again, we encourage them first to join the church via church membership. This requires them to go through 2 classes explaining what church membership is and isn’t. It gives them insight into what is required of them as members and of us as pastors over them. It always allows us to ask them to commit to tithe, support, pray and serve in the local church. This we do via a ministry profile form which asks them to list previous church experience and service and to list 3 areas of interest to be involved in at our church. We then allow the leader over those areas that they list to seek them out for involvement. Over the past 2 years, we have also offered a Sunday evening bible school class as a Rhema-Bible-School-type of class to help mature them. We periodically do discipleship classes on Wednesday night in place of Wednesday night services using videos, etc., of other ministries. Occasionally we will do these same classes on Sunday nights as well.

We have a number of small groups/home groups meeting either weekly or monthly. These are somewhat effective, but really are for fellowship more so than for discipleship. I think that every local church has to find what works for them, their locale, and for their diverse groups. Things change from one place to another.

Pastor Mark Garver—Madison, AL
Over the fifteen years of the church, we have tried a few things. But in everything you have to find what best fits the culture of your church. We currently do a few things in conjunction with one another that has helped us with our new believers and new members. First, we have a catch team (caring about Christ’s Harvest) that helps us to follow up on our first time attenders. They go out of their way to meet new people and then follow up with a phone call. Then we have a six week “Faith Foundations” class that meets every week on a continual basis that covers basic topics such as the integrity of the Word, prayer, the Holy Spirit, and others. We have a brochure that all first time guests get in the mail and we encourage each of them to come. We also host regular dinners for newcomers. If you feed them, they will come!  At these dinners we introduce them to the staff and the volunteer leaders of each department. This is a fun event that helps the newcomers connect with the core of the church. We also put a lot of emphasis on membership class, where we give them vision and get them involved. The best thing however for our church in assimilating and discipling new members is our Bible Institute. We have a two year program that meets every Sunday night from 6 PM to 9 PM. Each quarter there are three classes taught by different instructors. Every new quarter someone can start, so they are not waiting around until the next year. Anyone can come; it is run similar to a school but it is not a Bible school or a training center. It is a place where people can be discipled, taught the word of God, make heart friends, and get the heart of our church. It has worked well for us these twelve years. It causes people to grow quickly and those who go through seem to stay. It is not a quick fix or an over night solution. It is long term and it causes long term stable growth. The people that go through the Bible Institute then help minister to the next newcomers of the church. This program started out small but has caught on and continues to grow.

In the past we have tried home groups, but it did not work for us. I have found that whatever is in the pastor’s heart will work. You get the plan from the Lord, be passionate about the plan, have your leaders help execute the plan, and it will work.

Pastor John Brady—McAllen, TX
We tried small groups in our church in an effort to disciple our people. I have heard the only way a large church can disciple is through small groups. That did not work for us.

I believe that we have to be flexible to the culture and life-styles of the people we are ministering to within our individual communities.

We felt God gave us a strategy. Each of our weekly services has a specific purpose to move people through the discipleship process. Our plan is truly a simple model:  Our Sunday service is our main connection with our people. It is built to touch a wide range of people, including the lost. It is not a seeker service, but I think it is broad and tends to deal with life issues. It is an entry point for people to come. The people that are saved in this service are then connected to a group of our workers that will help them through the process of water baptism and our basics class. We do not have a Sunday Evening Service.

Everyone is then encouraged to come to our three-week “Family Connection Classes.” People learn about our church history, vision, and the mission our church. Our mission is for them to mature in Christ and fulfill the calling upon their individual lives. These classes are held on Sundays. They meet and connect with our entire staff.

Then people are encouraged to come to our Wednesday night meetings. Our Wednesday night meetings are our discipleship night. We have six week courses with many electives. A member of the Pastoral staff will teach the larger main class in the sanctuary on a Biblical subject meant for the growth of the people. We also offer many different electives held in individual rooms scattered around the facility. Most of these classes are on DVD’s of well known speakers. This helps control the content and to make sure we are giving our people quality. Each class has a facilitator for group discussion after the DVD. Some of the classes that we have are Marriage on the Rock, Love and Respect, Crown Financial, Contagious Christianity, various teachings on parenting, leadership, and many on Bible subjects that we believe are important to their spiritual growth. We will have five / six week sessions throughout the year and as many as five electives at each session. We have done this for a little over a year and it has been a huge success!  We are constantly revamping it to keep it fresh and relative.

Our ladies have also started some small group Bible studies on all kinds of subjects that we include in the discipleship track. Women tend to gravitate to small groups and love the process of growing relationships.

The final step of the process is for people to meet with our staff and join a “Serve Team” in the church.

Our job is to move as many people as possible through this process. We have found that if we can move them through each phase, they are firmly connected to the church and have taken ownership of the church’s vision.

Pastor Stan Saunders—Chillicothe, MO
As needed, I teach a three week Sunday school class called, “Welcome to the Family.” In this class I am able to personally meet our new people. I share our church history (including my personal testimony) and vision and also how our church operates. I explain in the church operation week how we make decisions, how the money is handled, etc. I share that our church is not perfect but that our structure and procedures work for us. We ask new people not to try to change us, but to accept the way we do things. I or an associate teach a foundations class as needed. We cover the New Birth, Knowing God, Renewing the Mind with God’s Word, Ministry of the Holy Spirit, Establishing a Strong Prayer Life, and Knowing the Enemy. Often, individuals will disciple new believers. All that being said, I do like to plug new people into established small groups. Small groups work best for us.