Sunday, December 18, 2016

Seminary PL31: From Out Group to One Group

This is the seventeenth and last post on church management in my "Seminary in a Nutshell" series. In this series, I first did a section on the Person and Calling of a Minister. Now this is the thirty-first post in a section on the Pastor as a Leader (see at the bottom).

The previous post was about preventing group exit and splits. This post gives some general thoughts and principles of group integration
1. Human nature is tribal. We are born to herd, and we herd with people who are like us. In terms of church growth, Donald McGavran called this the "homogeneous unit principle," where a homogeneous unit is "a section of society in which all members have some characteristic in common." [1] McGavran observed that a group has synergy--and thus is more likely to grow--when the group is made up of people who are alike.

Understandably, the homogeneous principle has come under immense attack in recent days. It is abhorrent to think of some group saying, "We don't want anyone who isn't white" or "We don't want anyone who isn't African-American" or "We don't want anyone who isn't Hispanic" here! Thankfully, the principle hasn't usually been used in that way in the church. The current "segregation" of American congregations is hopefully more an unthinking phenomenon than an intentional one. [2]

But the natural tendency is for groups to congeal that hold some factor in common. Groups of "like" are more likely to grow than groups of "different." Human nature is such that "make us great" is usually a more powerful sentiment than "unite everyone together."

2. Unless, of course, the thing that holds a group together is the value of cross-group unity. Bob Whitesel has insightfully recognized that multi-cultural churches are actually a subtle form of homogeneity. [3] Those who worship at multi-ethnic churches are usually individuals who value the unity of the church across ethnic barriers!

We have a natural tendency to pull toward our "in-group," the group to which we belong. We have a tendency to exclude, alienate, persecute, fight, or at the very least "not see" the out-group or the other group. [3] There are many different ways to be out-group. You could argue that the 2016 election was in part the ignored blue collar worker pushing back, a group that has felt ignored or "not seen" by the "elite" of established national leadership.

I was part of a group once where I was amazed at the unity of the group, only to find out later that some others had always felt on the outside. This is the least offensive form of bias against an out-group, when we don't even realize we are alienating or excluding. But the out-group is keenly aware. The in-group is usually shocked--even indignant--if the out-group finally boils over and asserts itself. The in-group may not even realize the role it played in the creation of the crisis.

3. If some might not agree with this analysis, most Christians would agree with the goal to which I am pushing. If the church is being the church, then it needs to be a church for everyone, not a church for some in-group or subset. As Paul put it, "Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose" (1 Cor. 1:10). Cliques are not supposed to be part of the church.

This was the problem with the Corinthian church that Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians: "it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you" (1:11). Similarly in chapter 11: "I hear that there are divisions among you" (11:18). At Corinth, there was a group loyal to Paul and there was a group that was using Apollos as an excuse to push against Paul. Paul writes Corinth to try to get everyone on the same page.

If it grows unabated, factionalism can result in church splits. It clearly pulls against the mission of the church. The goal of the church is for it to be a place where there is "neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, not 'male and female'" (Gal. 3:28). The goal of the church is a place where people are present "from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (Rev. 7:9).

4. So how can a church go from "out-group" to "one group"? Let me suggest three stages of unification of a congregation in this respect:
  • Agree on the value of unity and full inclusion.
  • Take steps to look like your community and, even better, the kingdom of God.
  • Shift from "us-them" language and thinking to "us" language.
5. When I say, agree on the value of full inclusion, I am not simply talking about race or gender. I mean all the cliques and factions that can take place even in a generally homogeneous church. After all, this is the last post in the section on conflict management. Having groups with "favored status" in the church is begging for conflict.

So it goes without saying that everyone in the church should be treated as being of equal worth. The children of the board or of wealthy givers should not be shown favoritism over any other child. Some will always think they are being treated unfairly, but we can only do our best.

We need to notice everyone who is our churches. Out-group conflict can simmer, sometimes for years, under the surface because of inadvertent exclusion. Then some other trigger can bring it to the surface.

Occasionally, there are people in our churches who actually do not want outsiders coming or do not want certain types of people in "their" church. This is so obviously unChristian that it should not even need mentioned. But Jesus makes it clear from the Parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is precisely the person from the group we do not like. Today, this may include people of other races and nationalities, people of other religions, whatever the group is today that we want to hate.

What about the sinner? What about the law-breaker? True, the presence of those who disagree with our values or understandings can be a corrupting influence. But most of the time we will want in church the person whom we believe needs spiritual help.

6. So hopefully we believe that we are all equal in the eyes of the Lord: "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:12-13).

It is harder actually to draw a mixture of people to our churches. Humans herd. Our church may be located in a diverse community, but it is no easy task to lead a church to look like its location. And even if new people come, there is a fair chance there will be "in-group/out-group" conflict over the new individuals. It is human nature to resist change, especially as we get older.

The question of how to move toward a more diverse church is a subject for another time.

7. What we are concerned with today is how to see out-group or minority group individuals integrated once they are in your church. First, as we have said, the value of inclusion needs to be unbending. We need to be committed to everyone in the church being a full member and participant.

But there is an awkward stage of this process, the final stage, where we shift from "us-them" language to "us" language. Before we final get there, there is often a stage where the "in-group" thinks of itself as the host of the minority group, the new group. They are the ones doing the including, the ones being hospitable. They still assume a dominant role in relation to the "other." The value of inclusion is there, but it is "dominant group including subordinate group."

The final stage of inclusion is when we stop thinking in "us-them" terms at all and we are all simply the one group of the church. There is no host. There is no hospitality toward the other. There is simply "us."

8. There will always be different friend groups in a church. As long as these do not become exclusive or "us-them," they are natural. But it's worthwhile to mix it up every once and a while, get the members of one group talking to members of the other. Get people together who would not naturally do so.

But caution is also appropriate. Introverts don't enjoy forced mixing, while extroverts thrive off it. We should be careful not to make a certain personality a virtue. Go slow as necessary, or you will lose people. Almost any major change that happens, some people will leave anyway.

Next Week: Pastor as Leader 32: The Habits of Effective Administrators

[1] Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 95.

[2] Martin Luther King Jr. once called Sunday morning "the most segregated hour in America."

[3] See his recent book with Mark DeYmaz, re:Mix: Transitioning Your Church to Living Color (Nashville: Abingdon, 2016).

[4] The idea of "white privilege" has at its core this idea of not seeing. I don't see that I didn't get stopped for speeding when a person of color was. I don't see people watching me in a store, paranoid that I will steal something, while a person of color does. I do not experience a place as racist because I was considered "in," while someone else who is "out" feels it every day.

"White" itself is an artificial category. There is no real ethnicity that is "white" or "black." This is
a categorization created by the slave trade. My personal ethnicity is a mixture of English, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, and German. "White" is a category that evolved in American history as new waves of immigrants came to America. For example, Irish and Italians were not initially white because they were an out-group just arriving.

Leadership in General
Strategic Planning
Church Management
Conflict Management

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