A pastor friend of mine posted the following question today.
“With regard to new people coming to church: Do we want to assimilate or integrate? Assimilation means that ‘you’ will come and become like ‘us’ (or the other way around). Integration means that we will both be transformed and the Spirit will create something new among us.”
The post went on to have an extensive and positive conversation. I think posing this question is imperative. It hits at the true challenge of community and identity. When we invite and welcome others into our midst do we do so with expectations that they will join us in what we do and in the way we do it? Do we anticipate that we might be changed somewhat in the process of the invitation and new relationship(s) within the community?
Systems theory suggests that by introducing someone new into the situation, there will be change, it is inevitable. The question is, will this change be welcomed and what might this change (or changes) be and lead to?
Let me offer an example. With assimilation in a congregation this might be like an older Norwegian Lutheran congregation expecting new visitors and potential community members to come to accept and acknowledge the importance of Ole and Lena jokes for the community. (As a Norwegian American who happens to be a Lutheran, I do know the importance these jokes play in community and as the occasional sermon illustration.) This acceptance is basically an acknowledgement that “this is the way it is, like it or leave it.”
With integration, perhaps the Ole and Lena jokes would continue, but they would be augmented and occasionally supplemented by other jokes which might have better understanding and resonance with particular emergent communities. Or, in an effort to avoid challenges of ethnicity perhaps jokes that are removed from particular ethnic limitations and contexts would be used (such as illustrations about “Jane and John”).
I offered this brief and far too simplified example because such a scenario hints at a potential barrier for new members or participants in the community. If someone cannot understand the purpose or rationale behind why things are the way they are, how are we to expect them to engage in the community? How are they expected to be participants in the life of the work of the community and church in the world?
The goal for a congregation should be not to just have people present, but to have people engaged in the life and work of the church. This only happens when they themselves feel connected to the mission and work that the church does and is part of, and are invested in it. So, if Ole and Lena do not make sense, it might behoove the congregation to try something that crosses over ethnic barriers. I am not advocating for abandoning the Norwegian roots, but perhaps look for more meaningful ways to support and acknowledge that history (such as exposure to some tasty treats like Krumkake and Lefse and hopefully avoiding the Lutefisk.).
If you are trying to really get to the question of whether something is a barrier toward someone joining, participating or being integrated and engaged in the community, ask yourself the question, “why do we do what we do?” Ask this question about any and everything you notice and can think of. If you yourself can’t answer the question, ask others. If you still struggle to answer the question, perhaps that particular thing whose meaning is hard to explain, might be okay to let go because its importance is apparently not that great. Importance comes with meaning. To allow others in to participate in the community, a risk is taken to share the meaning with them. That meaning must be able to be translated, taught, understood and lived. The risk also comes through recognizing that by sharing, the one who is sharing may also be changed by the conversation and its response.
What do you think? How does assimilation and integration work in your communities? In your congregational community? How might it work? How would you like it to work?
By the way, a helpful read on this topic (no doubt among many great works written on this theme and question) which I commend to you is: Churches, Cultures & Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities, by Mark Lau Branson & Juan F. Martinez. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).