Will You Be Joining Us?

(On the need to separate assimilation and membership)

Once upon a time, people understood that the way to assimilate into the life of a congregation was to join that congregation. The typical indoctrination process began when newcomers attended the Sunday morning worship service and registered their presence on a pew pad. The act of registration triggered a series of welcome communications from the congregation, and perhaps a visit from a church or staff member. Within several months of the first visit, the newcomer was invited to attend a “newcomer” class, which connected them with staff and church programs. The class almost always resulted in an invitation (actually, an expectation) to join the church. Upon joining, the newcomer was paraded in front of the congregation. It was a well-orchestrated process that helped the newcomer become known to the congregation. Being known was instrumental to being connected, and being connected was instrumental to being accepted and ultimately assimilated.Join Us Button purple

We know at a cognitive level that once upon a time is long gone. We understand that many of the newcomers who explore our congregations are suspicious of membership, but they do want to belong in community. More specifically they want to feel that WE belong to them. They are not interested in being assimilated and becoming just like us; but they are interested in acculturating. (They want to belong to a community that will change itself to receive them, as much as they will adapt themselves for that community.) People want to be known and accepted, but they don’t see what any of that has to do with membership.

We say that we understand these things, but our behavior suggests otherwise. Our behavior towards newcomers is very much about assimilation, not acculturation. Our behavior towards newcomers is still deeply rooted in unstated assumptions about membership, and still deeply tied to our membership processes. How does a person who is not interested in membership get acculturated into the life of your congregation?

Let me offer myself as a case study. In the last year I began attending a new congregation. I believe that my experience of assimilation into the life of this congregation is pretty typical of what many people experience in our traditions.

I attended my new congregation for a period of three months before deciding that I really wanted to invest myself in the life of these people and this community of faith. For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, becoming a member was not appropriate for me. But, I very much wanted to belong.

So I kept up my semi-regular attendance and I met with the pastor, declaring my intention to be a part of the community. He assured me that I could participate fully in the things I wanted to do without becoming a member, and that membership wouldn’t really matter to people. I signed up to have an official nametag made so that I looked like I fit in. Over time I attended all of the available worship services; volunteered to help with housing the homeless; made several tentative visits to a Sunday school class that didn’t fit me well; stood awkwardly in the fellowship area after church hoping that someone (anyone) would talk to me; and generally hung around the edges of the congregation. Two rounds of newcomer classes came and went, but they were clearly linked into the membership process, so I didn’t sign up.

Each week attendance pads were passed around in worship, inviting me to register my presence. The form prompted me to check off whether I was a visitor or a member (no other option). After the first three months it seemed silly to keep checking off visitor, so I just left that section plank. The act of completing the form each week, and leaving that section blank, is a constant reminder that I’m not one of them.

During worship we greet one another during the passing of the peace. During this ritual people often approached me with, “Where have you come from?” After trying to answer that question in a variety of ways, none of which seemed to satisfy the asker, I came to understand that they wanted me to tell them what church I had previously been a member of. People sometimes asked me if I planned to join the church, and their eyes quickly glazed over when I tried to explain why I wouldn’t be joining (TMI… we didn’t really want to know, we were just making small talk and wanted you to know that we have a usual process for how this all works). I never saw or received a church directory, nor did I receive the electronic newsletter, or information about the church budget, or an invitation to participate in the financial stewardship of the congregation. Several congregational meetings were held for “membership” business. I didn’t feel welcomed and didn’t attend.

At the end of my first year I hadn’t formed a single meaningful relationship with anyone in the congregation. It was frustrating, and it was becoming painful to attend worship. I thought hard about moving on, but decided that the church really was a good fit for me and that I needed to try harder.

So, I finally bit the bullet. I signed up for the newcomer class, announcing my intent to stop just short of the act of joining. I realized that my assimilation was going to depend upon getting to know more of the staff and church leaders who could help me connect, and I knew that meeting other newcomers would introduce me to people who had not yet formed solid relationships in the church and might be open to friendship. And I was right! After three sessions of the newcomer class I met enough people that I actually began to feel a little more known, and a little more at home. I was starting to feel connected. But my progress didn’t come without additional awkward moments, of needing to explain why I wasn’t joining the congregation.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to berate my new congregation. I love this place. My assimilation would have been warm and wonderful if only I could have/would have embraced membership. And I suspect many of your congregations would have offered me the same experience. Our cultures of assimilation are deeply embedded with assumptions of membership.

So, what does that mean for all of the people sitting in our pews that cannot or will not invest in membership? It means that they are regularly sidelined and reminded that they are not really one of us. It means that many of them leave us before we ever get to know them, because it is just too hard to find their way in. I know that this is not what we intend. It’s time to wake up and be more intentional about our behaviors and processes.

We have a lot of adaptive work to do in this area!

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