Assimilation vs. Acculturation

In the 1980’s, literature and workshops about assimilating new members were the rage in church circles. People were paying serious attention to declining attendance in the mainline church. The assimilation genre of literature was a massive response to the question, “Why are attendance and membership numbers showing such rapid decline?” It was before we were talking about post-modernism, “re-traditioning”, and the emergent church. Leaders were convinced that better systems of inviting, welcoming and incorporating new participants into the life of the congregation were key factors in reversing declining membership and attendance patterns.  Today you’d be hard pressed to find a workshop on new member assimilation. The center of the conversation has shifted, as has the way that we talk about receiving and incorporating newcomers.

In 1988, Robert Blass defined assimilation as having three components: absorption, integration and incorporation . Assimilation was understood to be the means by which a congregation coordinated and blended new members into a meaningful and unified whole, with the rest of the congregation. Owen Facey defined assimilation as an ongoing process of intentionally bringing, including, and integrating people into the life of the local church, with the goal of equipping and releasing them to serve.

In the 1990’s the world became sensitized to the language of assimilation. As the culture in the United States became more ethnically, racially, religiously and socially diverse, people began to question whether or not it was appropriate to use the term assimilation in corporate and business settings. It was argued by some that the term assimilation had a “melting pot” connotation that didn’t set appropriate boundaries around change expectations as newcomers are incorporated. Assimilation refers to a one-way adaptation process in which the culture of one group (the dominant culture) becomes the standard of behavior for all newcomers merging into the system. In a process of assimilation everyone, regardless of social background, is expected to conform to the norms and values of the dominant group. Little, if any, of the unique culture of the newcomer is brought to the dominant group for their adaptation .

 Acculturation was introduced as a broader term that more appropriately described the need for both the organization and the individual to mutually adapt to one another. Acculturation refers to a two way process of integration in which both culture groups (the organization and the individual) change to some degree to accommodate the norms and values of one other . I would argue that when we talk about the integration of new members into the large congregation, we need to embrace the language of acculturation, not assimilation. First, it is more appropriate for many of our congregations who are struggling to diversify membership across racial, ethnic and social groups. If we truly want to welcome members who look and think differently than the people currently sitting in the pews, then we need to approach new member integration as a mutual process of adaptation.

Second, one of the strengths of the large congregation is its ability to hold great expressions of diversity. Choices in programming and variety in worship venues allow for the presence of diversity at all times. People can find their way toward others with whom they identify, without the entire congregation having to negotiate difference all of the time. Those who are uncomfortable with difference can avoid it by choosing to place distance between themselves and the one who is “other”. And those who embrace diversity can find meaningful expression of the difference they seek. When people join the large congregation they don’t really join the whole church, they join that portion of the church with which they tend to identify. This makes room for diverse viewpoints and interests to live comfortably side by side.

If we want to cultivate a culture that embraces diversity, then we need to think about the integration of new members through the lens of acculturation, not assimilation. This ought to have significant ramifications for the way in which we approach the integration process of newcomers. What might our welcoming, orienting and membership processes look like if we are intentionally trying to adapt our membership body with each newcomer that arrives?

Photo Credit: Mario Aguirre

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