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Greg Curtis on Assimilation in a Fast Growing Church

Greg Curtis on Assimilation in a Fast Growing Church



Greg_Curtis_podcastHey, everybody, and welcome back to the unSeminary podcast. Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to today’s interview. We have Greg Curtis with us today, from Eastside Church in Anaheim, California.

Eastside Church has two locations, one in California and one in Minnesota. Greg first came to Eastside Church at the age of fourteen and his experience in the youth group there changed his life path and led him into ministry. Greg says the heart of his passion in ministry is connecting people, and he credits Eastside with allowing him to do that. As Eastside’s Director of Assimilation, Greg talks with us today about the church’s success and how they direct new people to get connected with God and the faith community.

First Step, Next Step, Big Step strategy. // Eastside has a simple church strategy which is essential in moving people from one environment to the next. This is the First Step, Next Step, Big Step strategy. For example, if someone new comes to a weekend service, the First Step the person is lead to take is connecting with God: Jesus is my Lord, and then committing to the church: Eastside is my church. After this First Step there are seven areas a new person will walk through to understand what it means to follow Christ in all areas of their life. Eastside also wants new members to really feel called to Eastside, not just attending it because it’s the church closest to their house or they have a cool worship.

First Step with Gene. // Greg tells us that the answer to virtually every question someone might have about Eastside is “First Step with Gene.” If someone wants to know how to become a volunteer, the answer is “First Step with Gene.” If someone wants to join a connection group or know about Eastside’s mission and vision, or learn how to read the bible, they are directed to First Step with Gene. In this program, Senior Pastor Gene Appel presents the people attending with a decision to follow Jesus and experience real life change.

Faith, fun, and friends. // Once people make a decision to follow Christ and go through First Step with Gene, the Next Step is to go through the 7-week training program Eastside has for new believers. At this First Step Experience, Eastside arranges people at tables based on similar backgrounds or areas where they live. This strategy, coupled with a table host who helps facilitate the conversation, enables individuals to really connect with the people at their table and have the chance to get to know them outside of the program. The people at each table discuss questions together, play games and compete with the other tables and most importantly, build relationships. Ultimately the goal is for the people at these tables to bond over the course of 7 weeks and launch into a Connection Group together.

Leave Christ’s footprint on this world with your little footprint. // Eastside reaches beyond their own community to spread Christ’s touch around the world. The church does a lot of work in seven different countries and sponsors over 7,000 children around the world. This is part of the Big Step strategy and helps to unleash compassion through local and global initiatives.

If you’d like to learn more about Eastside, you can visit their website Greg is also preparing a program called Climbing the Assimilayas to help you find real strategies in your ministry when it comes to assimilation. You can learn more about this at his blog at

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Episode Highlights

00:43 // Rich introduces Greg Curtis and welcomes him to the show.

01:26 // Greg talks about the history of Eastside Church.

04:26 // Greg talks about Eastside’s strategy.

07:08 // Greg talks about the First Step Experience.

08:22 // Greg talks about the success of First Step with Gene.

11:05 // Greg gives an example showing how they push everything towards First Step with Gene.

13:06 // Greg talks about next steps.

16:05 // Greg offers some outstanding statistics relating to getting people connected to the church.

17:24 // Rich and Greg discuss the different volunteer opportunities.

21:35 // Greg tells us the positive impact they’ve seen when placing table hosts at events.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Abide App

Ministries Following // Church of the Highlands, Birmingham, Alabama

Influential Book // The Prodigal God by Tim Keller

Inspiring Leader // Pope Francis

What does he do for fun // Goes to the beach and wine tasting in the central coast of California’s vineyards.

Contact // bubba_greg

Episode Transcript

Rich – Hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, my name’s Rich, the host around these parts. Thank you so much for tuning in, I’m so glad that you’ve decided to take some time with us. We know that things are really busy at your church, particularly as we head into the weekend and it’s our honor that you would take some time to listen in today and you’re going to be rewarded for that because we’ve got a great interview lined up today. I’m super pumped, I’ve been excited about this for a while. Greg Curtis from Eastside Church in Anaheim, California, I’m on the right coast in Jersey, he’s in California, we’re coming together, look at this, the kingdom of God actually does bridge the whole country. Greg welcome to the show.

Greg – Great to be here Rich, thanks.

Rich – I’m so glad that you’ve taken some time out to be with us. For folks that don’t know, Eastside Church is a great church, they have 2 locations, one in California and the other one in Minnesota I believe right, is that true?

Greg – Yeah that’s true.

Rich – Which we’ve got to hear a little bit about that.

Greg – Yeah.

Rich – Currently a church of about 5,000 people. You may know the Lead Pastor there Gene Appel, a great leader. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about Eastside, give is kind of the flavor the church and tell us about your role there.

Greg – Okay. I came to Eastside when I was 14 years old. We moved from LA County to Orange County and my experience in the youth group, Les Christie was the Youth Pastor at the time, it was so impactful it just kind of redirected my life path, my career path. I felt the call to ministry when I was 22, Eastside, which was a church when I got there of about 750, 800 people but when I graduated from high school it was 2250.

Rich – Wow.

Greg – Gene Appel was a young intern, under our Lead Pastor at the time, and he lived in our house and I thought he was a great guy and later on he went onto great things at other churches.

Then I was part of a staff team to start a daughter church in a community nearby where I was at, for 27 years, the last 17 years as the Senior Pastor. In the meantime Gene Appel was called when the pastor retired, the previous pastor retired, and 8 years ago Gene came back and as they went through some facility issues from the growth, we were going through facility issues, we decided to remerge the churches after 27 years.

Rich – Crazy.

Greg – At a new campus, at a Boeing plant that we bought and we just moved them together 3 years ago. 84% of my church is still a part of this whole thing.

Rich – Wow, that’s incredible.

Greg – International ministries, God supported everything. A very successful merge and then my ministry has been really at the heart of my passion which is connecting people, both to God and to the community of faith because when we did this it was such explosive growth, the church almost, over the period of the last several years, like tripled in size.

Rich – Wow.

Greg – We have like 14,000 for Christmas, it’s just huge numbers.

Rich – Wow, that’s a lot of people.

Greg – Yeah and we’re averaging the 5’s but it will be in the 7’s and 8’s for anything special and bigger than that for real big weekends. So we have a ton of guests to assimilate and the church became, through Outreach Magazine, we didn’t even know it, the 11th fastest growing church in the country.

Rich – Right.

Greg – You know, we had a big job. Gene basically gave me a blank slate in creating an assimilation strategy to really connect these people and help them become followers of Jesus. So that’s right in my wheelhouse and I’ve been loving it.

Rich – Very cool.

Greg – Yeah.

Rich – I think a lot of times, when people see a fast growing church like Eastside, it’s easy to look at kind of the evangelism strategies or the like, “Hey what are we doing on the front end?”

Greg – Yes.

Rich – Whether it’s big special Christmas stuff or Easter stuff or maybe some cool series.

Greg – Yeah.

Rich – But the thing that I love about what’s happening at Eastside is really, you’re spending a lot of time, a considerable amount of time working really on the connection side or the assimilation side of the conversation. Why don’t you give us a sense of the scope of that, what is it that you’re doing to help people take steps closer to getting connected to the church and then ultimately obviously to Jesus?

Greg – Well Eastside has a simple church strategy, which is familiar I think to a lot of your audience, but when Gene got here he took the church from 33 ministries down to 3.

Rich – Wow.

Greg – The way we put it…

Rich – And he stood the test of time on that, he’s still there, which is incredible.

Greg – Totally and part of it was because of his history with the church, way back, he’s always been a loved person.

Rich – Right.

Greg – So he had a lot of relationship and Gene, he’s got a book called How To Change Your Church (Without Killing It). He has done this at different congregations and one of his big strengths is change, is architecting change in churches. So he did this well, but it was pretty severe and none of these ministries were ministries that were failing.

Rich – Right, they were working and that’s harder to kill them?

Greg – Yeah, it was stewardship of energy and resources.

Rich – Wow.

Greg – So it broke down to 3 things. We pursue God in weekend services, we build community and connection groups and we unleash compassion through local and global initiatives. That’s all we do.

Rich – Wow.

Greg – We do have a Friday Night of Hope which is more like the hospital for people both new to the church, it’s a good assimilation piece and people who have been foragers for quite a while, who find themselves in a situation they didn’t expect, whether they’re grief share or divorce care or addiction or those kinds of things, cancer support, but that kicks it back into these 3 other environments.

So what we needed was kind of what we call our first step, next step, big step strategy is what we architected to, a design to move people from one environment into the next. In other words, they come to a weekend service, how do we get them connected in the connection group? How do we get them on a ministry team? This kind of thing?

So the way it works is the first step is Jesus is my Lord, Eastside is my church.

Rich – Okay.

Greg – That’s what we want to accomplish.

Rich – Yeah.

Greg – But under Jesus is my Lord we’ve identified 7 areas of training that we want them to receive in order to follow Jesus, basically in these 7 areas of life.

Rich – Right, right.

Greg – So that has some meat to it and feeling called to Eastside, adding to Eastside as a member of the body of Christ, not just I come here because you have a cool youth group or I like the worship or I like…

Rich – They’ve got cool lights. Give me a sense of how people are getting connected from, say the big service to this first step, First Step with Gene and then this experience. What does that look like? How often are you doing that? What is that like? What is that process?

Greg – We do, if I break down first step into Jesus is my Lord and Eastside is my church, this is how that works. The answer in simple church format: even at our info counter we have no brochures, it is as clean as a daisy, because there’s nothing to invite them to except one thing, the joke on our staff is the answer to every question, First Step with Gene.

Rich – Right.

Greg – First step with Gene.

Rich – Okay.

Greg – So, “How do I become a volunteer?” First step with Gene. “How do I find a connection Group?” First step with Gene. “How do I find out what the church believes, its vison? How do I learn how to read the bible? How do I become a member?” First step with Gene.

Rich – Okay.

Greg – That First Step with Gene, he invites them, it’s a free lunch or dinner after the Saturday or evening services, we do it 8 times a year…

Rich – Okay, great that’s a lot.

Greg – Yes 8 times a year and they feed, 2 of them, what we do is a 7 week training course called The First Step Experience, which is what’s behind me, where he says, “I would rather you miss church for 7 weeks than not go to this.”

Rich – Wow, so a huge commitment to it.

Greg – Yeah.

Rich – 8 times a year you’re pushing, “Hey I’d rather you come to this rather than our services,” that’s a big deal. Now do you do anything, obviously within your service you were saying something, “Hey if you’re here for the first time, if you’re new here,” what does that look like?

Greg – What that looks like is every week we have an announcement where people say, “Hey we want to meet you at a guest central,” we have a room and we also have an area on the other side of the church, like a cart and stuff, but we have nice room, like a hospitality suite kind of room and we say, “We’d love to meet you. Would you trade your connection card, we have a gift for you?” They put it up on the screen and it’s an insulated orange Eastside cup and it’s stuffed with homemade cookies and an invitation to First Step with Gene.

Rich – Okay.

Greg – So they come there, they trade their card, so we get their contact info. On the back of it you can sign up for First Step with Gene by checking a circle.

Rich – Okay.

Greg – Our volunteers are trained that their job is not to make them just feel welcome and return to the worship service with a bright orange cup the following week, it’s for them to end up at First Step with Gene because that’s where he confronts them with the decision to follow Jesus and I’m not kidding, one third of the room decides to follow Jesus every single time.

Rich – Oh my goodness, wow. That’s incredible.

Greg – And a lot of these people, we had a Muslim man do that last week, we just did it last weekend.

Rich – Wow.

Greg – We have people from all backgrounds, all ethnicities. A lot of the people, it’s their first time in church that week and he just says, “Follow me over, let’s just do it, come and have pizza with us.” But he shares his heart, his testimony, his story, Eastside’s history and the gospel and then he says, “Now we need to get you trained and Greg and his teaching team will do that.”

Our guest central workers, I think this is worth sharing. What they do also is, in addition to giving them the cup and asking them if they’d like to sign up for First Step with Gene and explain what that is, it answers all their questions, is that they end up writing a card, a little personal gift card, handwritten that we make sure is not run through the postage machine, it’s stamped and it’s hand addressed and they put a gift card for our compassion café, for a free step there, and just mention, “It was awesome meeting you. I’m praying for your mum”, or whatever personal thing, “this weekend. Just use this gift card on me.” Not only does that make them feel welcome but we even contract those second time visits very well through our coffee, our compassion…

Rich – Yeah because you know whether they use it or not.

Greg – Exactly.

Rich – Alright so that makes sense. One thing you’ve underlined there, that I don’t want people to miss, is that you’re pushing everything to this, that it all rides on First Step with Gene, which I think some churches kind of miss that, they drop that ball and it becomes, there’s a lot of different things going on.

Greg – Yeah.

Rich – It’s hard to point people in a direction.

Greg – Let me give you a great example with baptism.

Rich – Yeah.

Greg – We baptize around 800 a year around here.

Rich – Wow.

Greg – It’s amazing, the amount of people that respond to the gospel spontaneously in the services. We do that about 4 to 6 times a year in these big baptism weekends. When a person’s baptized, they come out of the water and once they dry off they’re handed a gift bag with a new bible and an orange bracelet, like a rubber bracelet that says, First Step, which they [Inaudible 00:11:34] that “I just took my first step with Jesus,” which they did but it also kind of connects to the invitation to First Step with Gene with that bag right?

Rich – Oh that’s great, that’s great.

Greg – Then that night they get a text of a photo of their baptism to them that they can use on social media, which helps with outreach but what’s really cool is on Wednesday they get a one minute video from me by email. I do the baptisms with Gene, there’s two of us.

Rich – Yep.

Greg – And we say, “It was an honor to baptize you last week and by Wednesday you’re probably saying what now? Let me tell you what now. First Step with Gene and here’s the link and you can register, although you can come spontaneously too,” but we have them register and invite them and then they get a personal phone call by a staff person relevant to who they are and they hear their story, they say how great it was and then they see if they’ve been to First Step with Gene, if they haven’t they say…

Rich – First Step with Gene.

Greg – I’ll sign you up. Then the following week they get a baptism certificate and a letter from Gene and it invites them to First Step with Gene. So literally, it does everything like you said, drives them to one thing.

Rich – Right, yeah that’s huge. I don’t want church leaders to miss that. I think we have to make it super, it has to be strategic and it has to be obvious. Those next steps have to push people in the direction you want them to go, but you can’t have people wondering, “I wonder what it is.” I love what you’re doing there, layering multiple times the same message.

So let’s say I go through that, whether I’ve accepted Christ or not, I’ve kind of done the 7 weeks, what is the next step from there, what is the kind of outcome out of that experience for people?

Greg – The 7 weeks, it is incredible because what we do is, we put them at tables that are a similar zip code or town and similar life stages. So we ask enough information when they sign up with the First Step with Gene, to put them in some good tables and I always tell them, “We’re going to promise you at the First Step Experience, you’re going to get 3 things, faith, fun and friends. The faith part is, “I’m not going to be your teacher, I’m going to be your coach. You’re going to get a backpack”, and they get a backpack week one, “and you’re going on a journey,” and I explain it like that. I use the Grand Canyon as a metaphor for all of this but I say, “You’re going to get a backpack and each week of the training you’re going to receive a new object for your backpack that will reinforce the training. You’re going to get assignments every week and you’re going to share them at your tables with these friends, how they’re going and do discussion questions with them and build relationships.”

Then the fun part is we have these competitions with great prizes. If one person wins, the whole table wins, so the tables start competing against each other and it goes kind of nuts, it’s real fun.

The friend part is that after 7 weeks, one third to two thirds of the tables in First Step Experience launches connection groups.

Rich – Really?

Greg – Yes.

Rich – Wow.

Greg – And that table launching has affected so much of what we do. We table launch at everything. Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, we do do that and we put them at tables and we launch them as connection groups. People not even from our church, 60% aren’t from our church and we give them a curriculum from Craig Groeschel and Dave Ramsey to do it with. We just launch these groups by tables at every event we do, no matter what it is.

Rich – Very cool.

Greg – And we learnt that from starting it at First Step Experience.

Rich – Right, right.

Greg – And week 5 at First Step Experience is interesting on the volunteer piece of assimilation because what we do at week 5 is an All Access Tour. So the First Step Experience happens during church.

Rich – Okay yeah.

Greg – We offer childcare and all that for that. So they go around and they go behind the stage, we have a huge LED screen, they can see it from the back during game time.

Rich – Oh that’s fun.

Greg – They go in the green room, they go in the children’s areas, they go out in the parking lot, volunteers, compassion café, everywhere and at each stop a volunteer comes out and talks about why that’s the best place on earth to serve. It’s then, when they get back in the First Step Experience room, they sign up for an area of service and it gets going. So many times, by the time that they are done with First Step Experience, they are already taking their next step, which at our church means they’re in a connection group or ministry group.

Rich – Okay, very cool. So then, obviously you’re creating, I’m assuming throughout the First Step Experience, you’re creating all of these hooks, like you’re describing here, all of these, “Hey here’s some potential…” Is there a formal kind of, at the end of First Step, where you’re literally kind of closing the deal, as a sense of kind of asking people to take their next step, to find a team or a group?

Greg – Well yeah, at week 5 they start that conversation. They get assignments and one of the assignments that week is to respond to the contact they get on Wednesday, by that area and hopefully that deal gets sealed within that last two weeks. Week 7, by that time we’ve prepared them for the conversation, “Is your table going to launch or not?” and we have a coach that comes in and meets with them and gets them going, registers them as a group, gets their resources and says, “I’m your ‘go to’ person,” and they’re volunteers.

Most of the time that’s how it’s handled. Then if they don’t do it that way we have other ways to connect with groups and other onboardings for volunteers, but the result of this Rich is after that first year of that explosive growth we had, we had 19,093 guests actually sign a card during that year, so just about 2000. By the end of that year 1 out of 3 got baptized.

Rich – Wow.

Greg – 1 out of 2 got in a connection group.

Rich – Oh my goodness.

Greg – 1 out of 7 graduated from the First Step Experience. 1 out of 7 became a volunteer. 1 out of 14 went on a compassion trip overseas and 1 out of 20 became a leader.

Rich – Wow that’s incredible and have that assimilation, kind of statistics continued to bear out over these last couple of years or what has happened? Obviously you’re tracking the frontend first time guests to then people getting connection, what does that look like?

Greg – The lowest in the 3 years that we’ve ever gotten is about 1 out of 3, or between 1 out of 3 and 4 becoming a connection group and 1 out of 8 becoming a volunteer.

Rich – That’s incredible.

Greg – But we always do these downturns to make sure that it’s staying within a range of health and we’ve goals to better that, that’s not as good as we want to be. So we’ve got plans to hopefully increase those stats.

Rich – Yeah for folks that are listening in, church leaders that are listening in that don’t know those numbers, that’s a great place for you to start, to dig around and figure out where are you first time guests to people being connected, what that means in your church and the fact that your worst case is 1 in 3 is incredible. That, from an industry wide point of view, that is amazing. A lot of churches are less than 10% able to keep their guests. So you’re tripling that in your worst case scenario.

Greg – Well in all honesty, it’s 1 out of 3 get baptized.

Rich – Right, right.

Greg – And 1 out of 7 become a volunteer but 1 out of 2 to 1 out of 3 get into connection groups, so you’re not far, hopefully.

Rich – Yeah that’s incredible, that’s very good. Okay so first step, next step, big step. What is big step?

Greg – Big step is that, I’m leaving Christ’s footprint on this world through my little foot by crossing a border local and globally, locally and globally and we have things like serve days where we do Title 1 schools and all of that stuff and we have prolific works in 7 different countries, Eastsiders that have gone there. Collectively our church sponsors over 2000 children, most of which are in this one community in Mathare that has literally transformed a slum, it’s amazing.

But anyway, it’s crossing a border locally or globally in compassion and then the second is developing my influence.

Rich – Okay.

Greg – We have 3 levels of volunteer positions and I like this, not all churches feel comfortable with this but we have green light, yellow light and red light service opportunities.

Rich – Okay.

Greg – Green light is a Hindu or an atheist can do it.

Rich – Right, yes.

Greg – Okay, we don’t care.

Rich – Right.

Greg – If you want to get under the hood and fix a car for a single mom at our car clinic, or our compassion efforts, join us.

Rich – Happy.

Greg – We have several things that they could do on and off campus, and because we want to move away from the believe, become, belong model, institutional model to belong, become, believe.

Rich – Right.

Greg – So people have to belong, they have to feel that sense of our love and our belonging, the moment we meet them no matter who they are.

Rich – Very true, very true.

Greg – So allowing them to serve alongside of us in green light positions is an important feature of that.

The yellow light positions are just a little caution like, “Let’s get to know you and where are you’re at in your surrender to Christ,” and all that kind of stuff.

Red light is, “Okay we want you to be a baptized follower of Jesus who’s graduated from the First Step Experience because your life is going to directly germinate and positively affect other lives. It’s life on life influence and we will develop that for you.” So we see the big step as not just crossing borders in compassion but also developing your influence in some kind of a red light way, one or the other.

Rich – That’s very cool. Just to encourage people who might be challenged a little bit by your green light roles, we’ve experienced the same thing at our church. We have a wide open on, particularly our compassion experiences and have seen that those experiences are great frontend experiences for people. People are more likely to invite their friends or have been very likely to invite their friends to a…

We just did a thing last weekend where we served, we pulled together 200,000 meals for folks and we had all kinds of first time guests come to that. They’re not coming to our weekend service, they’re saying, “Hey I’d love to get plugged in here.” Now for us that is a way that we begin developing a relationship and there are people within our church that that really is a significant step for them, from out of the seats into serving, through one of those experiences.

Greg – Yeah.

Rich – So I’d strongly encourage people to think that through in their context.

Greg – For sure.

Rich – Yeah for sure, great. Is there anything else you want to share before I move on with the rest of the episode?

Greg – You know there’s one thing that I think is an interesting learning when it comes to this environment. If you have an event like First Step with Gene that you’re trying to drive everybody to and then kind of dispense them into the right fit and connection, when we started that we just had people come in the room and they’d get their pizza, sit down and they were awkwardly silent with all the other people at their table, who may or may not be like them or they’re new. They just looked uncomfortable and, “Please start the program.”

Rich – Right.

Greg – I ended up going to Central Christian Church in Vegas, which is a church Gene had pastored and really grew in the past and saw that they did an event that had table hosts. So what I ended up doing, this secret sauce of the table host was night and day difference. We put a host, usually a First Step Experience grad sitting there and then we assigned the people by birds of a feather to tables as they walked in. So they’ll sit down and that person is in charge of questions, cards and call. The questions is, they ask 2 questions, “Hey how do you find Eastside?” and “What made you come back a second time?” The beauty of that is it’s not personal and everybody has a comment and as soon as one person answers they just… and there’s so much energy and connection that Gene, the first time we did it he goes, “The energy in this room is 10X, what happened?” I go, “It’s table hosts.”

So now we have to do some things to get their attention up front and break the connection. One time a table launches a connection group right there.

Rich – Wow.

Greg – Yeah it just…

Rich – Let’s just keep doing it together.

Greg – It came close to, “I love you,” and they just started a connection group.

Rich – Wow very cool.

Greg – That happened one time but that’s what they do and then they pass out the cards and whatever and talk to them about various parts to get them signed up and answer their questions. Then at the end they take down their contact info and they call them by Wednesday or email them and say, “I loved meeting you. I saw you signed up for First Step Experience, you’re going to love it?” Or, “I saw you didn’t sign up but I hope you can in the future, they’ll be another one.” It just really, our signups for First Step Experience and for that whole discipleship training and following Jesus thing went through the roof. In fact now, one time we had a table host who had to leave, 2 table hosts and that never happens, but we saw that nobody at their tables signed up for First Step Experience and all the other ones, almost all had 100%.

Rich – Wow.

Greg – That’s the difference that table host piece makes.

Rich – Big deal, big deal for sure.



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