Innovating Multiplication: A Fresh Approach to Fusing Assimilation with Disciple Multiplication (part 1)

By Dave Rhodes with Cory Hartman and Shane Stacey

Two different sized funnels, one red and one tealish colored

As the rise of secularization in American society continues to increase–with nearly 30% of the population indicating zero religious affiliation–the way churches think about how they make disciples must also rise to a new level. An over-reliance on the ministry models of the past couple of decades will prove inadequate for the context that is before us. 

To better understand the disciple-making convictions and practices churches need to adopt in this decade, we should first explore the fundamental assumptions underlying today’s prevailing ministry models. These assumptions continue to influence many existing practices.


We’ll do this by using two shapes to contrast two ways of growing a church. The first shape is a funnel that people pass through from the wide end to the narrow end; it is called the “assimilation funnel” or an “engagement funnel”. This funnel, which is associated with a program-driven church, is the most efficient way to get people engaged in a church and to make them feel that they belong.

The second shape is a turned-around funnel that people pass through from the narrow end to the wide end; it is called the “multiplication funnel” or an “empowerment funnel.” This funnel, which is associated with a church being driven by shared disciple-making vision and practices, is the most effective way to empower the people of the church to make disciples of Jesus.

Chart contrasting two ways to grow a church: assimilation and multiplication.

Many existing churches need to integrate these two “funnels,” but achieving this integration means prioritizing the multiplication funnel over the assimilation funnel. For most church leaders, this necessitates significant shifts in personal thinking, focus, and practices before implementing broader changes within their congregations. This is a challenging task as the assimilation funnel often competes for the time and energy needed for the multiplication funnel.

It is essential to keep multiplication superior and defend the assets devoted to it, because the multiplication funnel yields compounding returns while the assimilation funnel only yields diminishing returns.


The assimilation funnel is a model that depicts a person’s typical step-by-step path to full engagement and belonging in an organized church. In fact, this is often identified as “a next step process”. Each step represents involvement in a program or activity that they haven’t engaged in before. So then, the more activities a person engages in—the further they proceed through the funnel—the more connected they are and the more energy, time, and money they personally contribute to the church.

The assimilation funnel is a creation of church leaders in the late 80’s to early 2000s. Prior to that period—and still in most churches today—church activities looked like a menu, not a map. The bulletin, newsletter, and calendar listed a variety of events that had no obvious connection to one another.

Participants were free to pick and choose any combination of programs they wanted to attend, and many picked none other than the one they started with (usually Sunday morning worship). The jumble of options was confusing, and it wasn’t obvious what one’s next step should be. Again, in too many churches, this is still true today.

Many attendees, especially newbies, heard announcements about this or that upcoming event and interpreted them as invitations for someone else.

The assimilation funnel was invented to improve this situation. It simplified the process of belonging by presenting each person with a clear next step—the next program they were invited to participate in. It also muted, limited, or even eliminated programs that didn’t fit the funnel, which streamlined the church calendar and aligned the whole organization to bring people to deeper involvement.

Today, the most common assimilation funnel typically consists of three steps: worship attendance, small group participation, and volunteer service. However, there’s a growing trend, exemplified by the Church of the Highlands in Alabama, where a four-step funnel is gaining popularity. This approach includes adding a membership class–before the volunteering step–that places a strong emphasis on discovering one’s personal calling.

The most elaborate assimilation funnel that’s widely known is Saddleback Community Church’s five-step funnel, described in Rick Warren’s 1995 bestseller, The Purpose Driven Church

The Assimilation Funnel was a great ministry innovation in its day, because it made the church comprehensible for participants and manageable for leaders. For a church that was already good at drawing people in, the assimilation funnel was the most efficient way to get as many as possible glued as firmly as possible to the church.

It was also the most efficient way to recruit the volunteers needed to staff the funnel and expand it to engage even more people—in other words, it grew the workforce to accommodate a growing church.


Although these benefits to churches were great (and still are), the assimilation funnel also has significant drawbacks, especially when it is the only funnel operating in a church—that is, when there is no multiplication funnel running at the same time. 

Hear us loud and clear: The assimilation funnel is not inaccurate… but it is inadequate. An efficient Assimilation funnel is needed. Yet, for the sake of the missional task before us all, we need to have a clear understanding of what the Assimilation Funnel can do and what it can’t do, no matter how much we improve it.  Otherwise, you’ll continue to make more efficient that which is not holistically effective in making and multiplying disciples in our increasingly secularized contexts.

1. The assimilation funnel assumes inflow. 

Back when the assimilation funnel began to be deployed in dynamic, growing churches of the 90s and early 2000s, it was hard to see that it wasn’t multiplying disciples because the churches were adding new attendees so fast. It also became really easy to confuse correlation with causation—people got the idea that since growing churches had efficient assimilation funnels, the assimilation funnels must have been causing the growth.

The question that those growing churches were trying to solve was: “If you found yourself up to your neck in baby Christians, what would you do?”. 

The assimilation funnel did help churches grow by providing volunteers to run high-quality programs that Christians gravitate to. Even so, this was still only one ingredient to growth. If your church was located in an area with a booming population, and if the new residents were predisposed to go to church, and if you had an electric teacher and a heart-pumping band, then good programs could help you bring people in and keep them.

Still, even with the assimilation funnel doing its part, the church relied on other sources to pour people into the wide end of the funnel.

What do you do, though, when those sources dry up? What do you do to reach a never-churched generation that doesn’t think of the church as a place to find answers to their questions about life? What do you do when even Christians are disinclined to attend or tune in frequently?

Your assimilation funnel may excel at driving people toward greater engagement at the narrow end, but its effectiveness diminishes if fewer people are entering through the wide end..

2.  The assimilation funnel yields diminishing returns.

However many people you have participating in the first stage of your funnel, you’re likely to have half as many engaged in stage two and a half again as many in stage three.

Another way to say it is that you’ll always have a lot fewer people doing everything than those doing a couple of things or just one thing.

A common three-step assimilation funnel with percentages of participation
A common three-step assimilation funnel with percentages of participation

In the parable of the soils, Jesus talked of scattering lots of seed (and seed casters) and only a portion of it falling on good soil—sort of like the assimilation funnel—but the good soil was so productive that it more than made up for the seed that didn’t produce (Matthew 13:3–8, 18–23). The assimilation funnel doesn’t generate that kind of fruitfulness without the multiplication funnel running alongside to deploy more “seed casters”.

3. The assimilation funnel produces mistaken results.

I’d like you to notice that the description of the assimilation funnel above is in strictly organizational terms. The assimilation funnel is a tool to solve a specific problem—how to get interested new participants to stick in a voluntary organization so that the organization is strengthened. Indeed it solves that problem quite well.

Yet, the leaders, designers, and developers of the Assimilation Funnel, both in the past and present, do not merely frame it in organizational terms; they imbue it with a layer of spiritual ideals and expectations, often viewing it as the key to the kingdom..

It has then become not just a technical solution for an organizational challenge but God’s process for making and maturing disciples. 

This spiritual interpretation of the assimilation funnel is based on two dangerous assumptions. First, it assumes that moving people into a new ministry environment equals spiritual growth. Second, it presumes that moving people into service will multiply disciples. 

Our friend Robby Galaty, pastor of Long Hollow Church, often tells the story of a parishioner in their congregation who checks all the Assimilation Funnel boxes – attending weekly, engaged in a small group, and serving as a greeter on Sundays. This same parishioner also introduces himself as a self-proclaimed atheist.

On a typical church’s scorecard, this man is a poster child of ministry success and yet by his own confession is not a disciple of Jesus. 

The problem is not the assimilation funnel itself; it’s the reailty that it over-promises and under-delivers. It promises to do everything listed in the chart below, but most often only delivers on the left-hand side. Again, it’s not inaccurate, it’s simply inadequate for the task at hand.

[table here]

4. The assimilation funnel fosters attachment to the provisions rather than the vision.

People become emotionally attached to the programs, people, personality, and places that the assimilation provides.  The output of the assimilation funnel is the labor force and donor base it provides.

There’s nothing about the assimilation funnel itself that requires a person to climb to embrace and see themself as an active agent of the shared disciple-making vision of the church.  

Now, a church can do its level best to get people thinking and embracing a larger God-empowered vision. For instance, many churches include in their assimilation funnel an orientation for new members, and there they talk about the church’s mission, values, and vision.

Still, if the language of mission and a vision of making disciples is only a label pasted onto the assimilation funnel, not a disciple-making identity, then a new member’s commitment to the mission and vision often moves to celebrating and helping their pastors with the organizational vision.

5. The assimilation funnel promotes leader distraction.

The engagement steps of worship, small groups, and volunteering are embedded in the American Church’s version of the Great Commission which is more about making worship services, baptizing people into small groups and teaching them to volunteer.

No pastor or leader embraces this distorted commission intentionally, but it’s what they are slaving away doing even with all their good intentions.

It’s possible for someone to be employed on a church staff and have no time or margin to work on the multiplication funnel. In fact, it’s not only possible, it’s probable. Consider: who are the three to ten people you’re personally discipling?

Every leader on a church staff needs to answer this question. In most churches we’ve worked with, both large and small, three-quarters of the staff can’t name three.


Ironically, it’s just here that the assimilation funnel can become part of the solution to its own problem. For us to begin forging a disciple-making vision and culture, all staff members must free up at least 20 percent of their time and devote it to making disciples personally as living models.

The only way to do this is to become increasingly efficient at servicing the Assimilation Funnel. Fortunately, efficiency is just what the assimilation funnel is good at. The assimilation funnel simplifies church programs not only for participants who enjoy them but also for leaders who run them.

Liberated from an endless list of events to plan, resource and oversee, leaders can carve out the time they need for personal disciple-making.

Our problem is that we’ve frequently used the time savings yielded by the assimilation funnel to make existing programs more irresistible instead of making the shared disciple-making conviction and vision more accessible.

I once asked one church staff team how much of their time they put into Sunday morning. Without batting an eye they replied that it was 95 percent. I asked them, “So are you a church or a production company?”.


To transfer 20 percent of your time to the disciple-making multiplication funnel, you must make the assimilation funnel more efficient.

First, if your programs still resemble a menu rather than a map, utilize the assimilation funnel to thoughtfully streamline your programs. Determine the primary path for the majority of people’s engagement and identify secondary ones. Your entire leadership team should reach a consensus on this. Decide which programs to maintain, merge, modify, or eliminate. Innovation requires some elimination.

Second, assess where you’re investing excessive time and energy within your existing assimilation funnel. For instance, if Sunday worship consumes 80 percent of your effort, you may need to consider whether you’re functioning as a church or a production company.

Recent research by scholar and researcher, Ryan Burge shows that, at best, only 25% of Americans attend weekly worship services, and the figure is even lower at 14% for Europeans. Focusing our best leaders, resources, and creativity primarily on weekend services will, at most, engage just a quarter of the population.

The prevailing ministry model has led the vast majority of the 300,000 Protestant churches in America to invest their best imagination, creativity, resources, and energy toward a strategy that will engage only 25% of the population. It’s imperative that we pause and reevaluate that current model.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll look at the other second funnel, which is sometimes called the Jesus Funnel or the Multiplication Funnel.


Here’s a simple but useful tool for your leadership team to work through to get you started. The aim at this stage is not to move immediately to implementation, but rather to initiate the conversation that stirs evaluation and interpretation. The aim is to clearly and objectively see the ministry the church’s current ministry design.

Part A: Assess Your Current Assimiliation Funnel

  1. Identify the primary environment (event, program, or group, whether in-person or online) that new people engage in when they first connect with your church.
  2. Determine the second most common environment or activity you’d want the majority of people to engage in as they step deeper into a relationship with the church.
  3. If applicable, identify a third and fourth primary environment or activity.
  4. Create a visual assimilation funnel on a whiteboard or easel pad, dividing it into stages (two, three, or four), and list the activities you’ve identified within each stage.
  5. Separate from this sequence any other significant activities or secondary environments that do not depict the essentials of your assimilation funnel (i.e. retreats, men’s events, etc.). Many churches have more of a menu than they do a clear map that illuminates their primary disciple-making pathway. So, be sure to only identify the primary steps.

Part B: Analyze Your Church’s Assimilation Funnel

  1. Evaluate each program based on its impact on life change and the level of resources it requires (people, leadership, money, time). Use a matrix to classify programs as consistently resulting in high or low life change and as requiring a high or low level of resource investment.
  2. Calculate the percentage of time, effort, and resources allocated by your leadership team (staff in a large church, top volunteers in a small church) in a year for reaching the unreached, supporting believers, and developing leaders.
  3. Imagine a scenario with no negative consequences. How would you modify your assimilation funnel or resource allocation to create a 20 percent margin for leaders to engage in personal disciple-making? Consider combining, scaling back (caging), or discontinuing (cutting) specific programs.
  4. Identify any obstacles, challenges, or risks hindering the implementation of these changes.
  5. Reflect on the potential risks of maintaining the status quo and list the potential gains that could be achieved by making these

Please note that the purpose of this exercise is to identify your primary Assimilation Funnel. However, keep in mind the ultimate goal: fusing a Multiplication Funnel with your Assimilation Funnel. This can be challenging if you struggle to locate your Assimilation Funnel.

In the upcoming parts of this series, we will elaborate on the Multiplication Funnel and discuss essential elements, mindsets, and practices that should be incorporated in order to create a Disciple-making pathway that fuses both funnels.

This article is a modified excerpt from Dave Rhodes’ forthcoming book, Forging the Future Church. All rights reserved.


About 3-in-10 U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated. Pew Research Center. December 14, 2021

At Clarity House, we love being a safe place for leaders to wrestle with these sorts of questions. We specialize in assisting church teams in discerning a shared vision that is coupled with disciple-making clarity. Let’s build a disciple-making future you can believe in!