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FIRST-PERSON: Assimilation through Sunday School

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“Assimilation” is a term all too common to church leaders. Some churches even employ a “Minister of Assimilation.” While the word has a breadth of meanings, in churches it is typically used to describe the process — or to identify the problem — of helping folks who only attend worship move into fellowship and discipleship. Sunday School has a proven track record as an effective assimilation tool.


In the popular book “Simple Church,” authors Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger report research findings that suggested one of the reasons 400 “vibrant” Southern Baptist churches (and 100 non-SBC congregations) had shown consistent growth (5 percent for three consecutive years) was that they encouraged members to move through a simple, clearly communicated disciple-making process.

With Geiger, I conducted an analysis of those 400 SBC churches, discovering that 87.5 percent used Sunday School — or its functional equivalent by another name — as the second step in their process (the remaining 12.5 percent used off-campus small groups). What could be simpler than accomplishing the first two steps of your disciple-making process with every member of the family making a single trip to the church?


On a typical Sunday morning, about 6 million folks gather for worship in about 40,000 Southern Baptist congregations. About 4 million, or two-thirds, will attend one of about 400,000 Bible study classes either before or after that worship experience. Since those numbers include churches that do not operate a Sunday School, the benchmark “assimilation ratio” is around 70 percent. While we should certainly strive for a higher percentage, that is a pretty strong ratio compared to the averages of other “step two” approaches.


That’s one of the questions Rainer and his team wanted to answer with the research reported in “High Expectations: The Remarkable Secret for Keeping People in Your Church.” The team tracked new Christians in a sample of churches over a five-year period. The results were disturbing on the one hand and dramatic on the other. Of those who attended only worship, just 16 percent remained active after five years. Of those who participated in both worship and Sunday School, 83 percent remained active. (See pages 44-45 in the book for details.)


In my new book, “Great Expectations: Planting Seeds for Sunday School Growth” (download it free at www.lifeway.com/sundayschool), you’ll find brief definitions for two foundational principles of Sunday School work: Open Groups, which “expect new people every week,” and Open Enrollment, which means someone can “belong before they believe.” These principles are the key to making Sunday School an effective vehicle for assimilation. New people can join a group any week. Even before they join the church. Even before they decide to be a Baptist. Even before they pledge allegiance to Christ.

When a person becomes active in a Sunday School class before making those kinds of decisions, guess what happens to the problem of assimilation? There’s not one! They are already assimilated. Some would call this “pre-conversion discipleship.” It’s at least “pre-conversion fellowship.” Whatever you want to call it, it works.
David Francis is director of Sunday School at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • David Francis