Nearly every congregation wants to perceive itself as an open community that welcomes newcomers. Yet congregational leaders often say, “People visit a few times, but they don’t stay!” Why do congregations experience this so often? The possible answers are many, each likely true for some visitors:
- “Those folks are new to the area and are just shopping for a congregation. They’ll eventually find one and settle in.”
- “This was a family with teenage children, and our congregation doesn’t have many teenagers.”
- “I don’t know why they never came back, but I wonder if they really felt welcomed by us when they visited.”
While some of these explanations point to variables over which a congregation has little control, they also reflect the congregation’s unique culture. Culture is a property of a group; it evolves over time as members and leaders come and go. Culture operates as an internal glue (binding members together) and as an external boundary (clarifying who is in and who is out). Culture thus provides not only a sense of belonging but also a sense of identity—it clarifies who we are as part of a congregation. Two of the most important aspects of congregational culture are its hospitality toward visitors and its inclusion of new members.
Hospitality to visitors
A hospitable congregation welcomes visitors in formal and informal ways, showing visitors that existing members are glad that they’ve come. Handshakes are offered and introductions made, and (when the hospitality is genuine) the visitor leaves feeling that his or her presence was truly appreciated.
Most congregations do reasonably well at hospitality—at least with people whose identity fits the general profile of the congregation. I’ve visited more than 100 congregations over the last three decades in various roles, and have generally felt warmly welcomed when I entered the doors of the congregation. A surprising number of congregations have “greeters” (either formally designated or informally self-appointed) who are on the lookout for new arrivals.
The boundary-maintaining role of congregational culture may be most keenly felt by a visitor who does not match the dominant racial, socio-economic, or generational profile of the congregation. Although many stories of pastors who dressed up as homeless men to test their congregations appear to be urban legends, one verified story involving a Mormon bishop who did so illustrates this phenomenon. If we look like we’d fit in we’re likely to be warmly welcomed. If we don’t, we may have a different experience. Nothing may be said, but something may nevertheless be sensed.
Inclusion of new members
Hospitality is one thing; genuine inclusion is something else altogether. Having been welcomed into a congregation offers no assurance that a visitor will also be fully included. While hospitality is generally extended to visitors, inclusion is a much deeper form of acceptance. Warm hospitality may entice me to give the congregation a second visit. But only genuine inclusion will convince me to remain part of the community. I will stay if I feel I truly belong.
Most congregations struggle not with hospitality but with inclusion. We are quick to welcome but slow to include.
There are three telltale signs of inclusion: First, newcomers are integrated into smaller groups that invite their full participation. Second, newcomers are encouraged to share their gifts and story with others in the congregation. Third, the participation of the newcomers in the life of the congregation begins to impact the congregation’s culture and structure.
Inclusion and Adaptation
Hospitality requires no adaptation on the part of the congregation. (Friendliness and welcoming, yes, but no deep change.) Inclusion is quite different. When a congregation begins to integrate people from a racial group or socio-economic status different from its own dominant culture, it usually must adapt its way of being to be genuinely inclusive. Modes of worship may need to broaden. Methods of decision-making may need to change. And interaction patterns among members may need to evolve.
A striking example of such adaptation is found in the 6th chapter of the Book of Acts in the Christian Scriptures. As Greek-speakers are incorporated into what had been an almost entirely Aramaic-speaking community, tensions and “murmuring” result. The leaders of this new movement (known as apostles) meet and agree that a new role is needed to care for the most vulnerable members of the community (widows). A structural change is proposed and approved (a functional role of deacon), and the movement’s culture begins to change to reflect the fact that the community is no longer monolithic.
While hospitality is important and wonderful, genuine inclusion is foundational to congregational vitality. No congregation can grow without being both hospitable and inclusive.
The challenge is that genuine inclusion will inevitably require adaptive changes on the part of the congregation. New ideas will stretch the prevailing doctrines and new energies will stress the existing systems. But the alternative to genuine inclusion is inevitable decline. Congregations that refuse to include new people along with their new ways of being will inevitably discover that new people have no desire to affiliate.
Inclusion is not assimilation. Inclusion is an adaptive process whereby the newcomers adopt many of the ways of the established group, while at the same time the established culture stretches and evolves to reflect the gifts and needs of the newcomers.
Fortunately, there are multiple examples of congregations that have adapted to become truly inclusive of other ways of being. The book Greenhouses of Hope: Congregations Growing Young Leaders Who Will Change the World contains a plethora of examples of such adaptive change and growth.
Hospitality is important, but inclusion is essential to congregational growth. Any congregation can become truly inclusive—and it will need to prepare to be stretched in the process.