Rainer’s Four Legs of Assimilation

When Dr. Tom Rainer served as Dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Seminary in Louisville, he ran a consulting company that helped churches across America. In his consultations, he discovered that the overwhelming majority of the churches needed marked improvement in the area of assimilation. As a result, he began to teach about the “four legs of assimilation.” Here are some of Rainer’s words on the concept:

While there is neither a secret nor a neatly-packaged process, there are four key principles to membership retention and involvement. Our research has shown that if a church improves in all four of these areas, assimilation will likely improve, and often dramatically improve.

Many times when I speak I am given a stool upon which to sit. Since I usually speak for a lengthy time, I appreciate a stool where I give my fallen arches an occasional break. These wooden stools have four legs. Most of the time the legs are balanced and even. Sometimes one leg is off balance, causing a wobbly stool. But if any one of the legs was missing, the stool would immediately collapse.

Assimilation is built on four key principles. Our research had not been able to identify any one principle as more important than the others. We do know, however, that a church weak in one of the areas will have some degree of assimilation problems.

Let’s look at these four principles that Dr. Rainer routinely discussed.

  • Expectation. Rainer’s research indicated that one of the key commonalities among the growing churches was a sense of expectation of members and prospective members. For them, church membership was more than placement on a church roll; the clear expectation was that the member was to make a difference through the ministries of the church. Giving was not touted as optional but expected among church members. And membership or inquirer classes were often the place where these expectations were most clearly articulated.
  • Involvement. Rainer also discovered that a church member’s involvement in some type of ministry in the church was key to retention. Because of this, the church leadership must seek to move new members to places of ministry. If more than six months lapses between the points of new membership to ministry involvement, the person will likely be already moving toward inactivity in the life of the church.
  • Relationships. The most effective development of relationships with new members takes place before the member joins. If the new member has no relationship with a church member when he or she joins the church, it is exceedingly difficult to create relationships. As a result, it is critically important for church members to become highly intentional about developing relationships with unchurched persons before that person visits the church.
  • Small-group involvement. New members can get involved in discipleship groups, home cell groups, ministry teams, choirs, praise teams, and sports leagues, to name a few. Rainer’s research shows that the most effective assimilation group is the Sunday School, which is the open-ended small group that typically meets on the church campus. A person involved in a Sunday school class is five times more likely to be active in the church five years later, than a person who attends worship services alone. (See The Sunday School Revolutionary for tons of help in the area of Sunday School).

How is your church being strategic about keeping each of the four legs balanced and strong? What is taking place with intentionality to monitor progress in these four areas? Conceptually, the process looks simple. In reality, it is often laborious and never-ending.

Here are additional posts that can help in these areas:


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