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Building Your Community: The Process of Assimilation

One important aspect of your congregation is recognizing the boundaries of who is included versus those who aren’t. A key way to understand the way the community is built is by examining the processes of assimilation — how are people brought into the community? Imagine the following example:

Mr. and Mrs. Black enter the congregation for the first time and are welcomed by greeters, and ushered up to the childcare area to drop off their 3-year-old for the worship time. Mr. and Mrs. Black poke around the church, and are welcomed by a few other members, and are brought into the service. After the service they pick up their child and continue on to coffee hour, recognizing a neighbor and someone who works in an office near to Mr. Black.

A few days later they receive a phone call from the pastor welcoming them to the congregation, and a card later in the week from one of the women’s groups. After attending worship regularly for a few months, they are encouraged to join the congregation, taking a new member course with the pastor about the history, theology, and culture of the congregation.

Once they become members, the church asks Mrs. Black, a trained accountant, to work on the Finance Committee. Mr. Black is an experienced home-builder, and is asked to serve on the Trustees. Mr. Black, however, isn’t interested in serving on the committee, and feels like the church is asking too much of them.

This example included a number of examples of formal and informal processes of assimilation. Mr. and Mrs. Black were formally greeted and encouraged to use the childcare space during the worship service. They participated in the formal act of worship, the new member course, and serving on committees. The Process Frame allows us to look more specifically at how Mr. and Mrs. Black were assimilated. How were they invited? How important was it that they recognized people at coffee hour? How well did the pastor communicate the congregation’s history, theology, and culture so that they were able to assimilate more easily? How did the communication break down between recognizing Mr. Black’s interest in joining the church, but not in volunteering for a committee? Through looking at the process by which the Black family was assimilated into the congregation, one can better understand how the community is built and maintained.

You can start your own study of the entrance process into your congregation by reviewing the process with the newest members. Sit down and interview each person individually, or conduct a focus group, and ask individuals to tell the stories of how they came to the congregation, what their first (few) services were like, why they stayed, and so on. Try to have the respondents paint a picture of how they became socialized into the community. Through this discussion, leaders may pick up on misplaced assumptions or areas where the process breaks down. Moreover, it can be helpful in recognizing the boundaries between who is “in the know” within the community and who is still on the outside.

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org