Churches are thought of as places of love and acceptance. But in recent field research conducted among members of various churches, interviewees were quick to mention that it is a place where people judge, gossip, and marginalize others. Such negative energy created by judging, gossiping, and marginalizing is prevalent in churches. Churches are not generally thought of as places of ostracization, stigmatization, or marginalization. But the disengaged often feel excluded or unaccepted because of their color, marital status, or economic status. The disengaged express that such exclusion comes not only from the members, but also from the clergy who sometimes tend to respect some while disrespecting others. Such excluded individuals do not feel a sense of belonging; as a result, they disengage psychologically and physically.
When people in the church do not feel welcomed or accepted, or when members do not feel included amidst diversity, two major reactions happen: First, they physically withdraw from their relationships in the church. Second, the excluded seek alternative bases of inclusion such as by affiliating with other people or groups who are similarly excluded. At church, both physical and psychological withdrawal occurs. When physical withdrawal is not possible, people withdraw psychologically by disengaging from their relationships. When they feel exclusion is unjust and undeserved, they disengage psychologically. Thus it is imperative that the sense of inclusion is built into the fabric of church life in order to foster strong member engagement.
NEED FOR INCLUSIVITY
Studies in social psychology suggest that a sense of belonging is a basic human need. Societal life is conducted within a framework of relationships where people seek inclusion and belongingness.1 After the primary needs such as food and shelter are satisfied, the need to belong is among the strongest of human motivations.2 People strongly desire social attachments, exert considerable energy to develop and sustain them, and are adversely affected by their dissolution or absence.3
Mark Leary’s research suggests human beings who lived in groups and sought and sustained supportive relationships with others may have been more likely to survive and reproduce than those who lived alone.4 He claims the experience of inclusion in a group is frequently accompanied by positive emotions, but the experience of being excluded typically leads to negative emotions, including sadness, loneliness, jealousy, anger, shame, and anxiety.5
GOD IS INCLUSIVE
God is an inclusive God. The Bible is an inclusive book. Several passages in the Bible confirm this. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, emphasis added) is the prime example. This salvific good news message goes to “every nation tribe, language and people” (Rev 14:6, emphasis added). God includes everyone in His plan of salvation. The Holy Spirit convinces people of every nation, tribe, tongue, and people to accept the free offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. This is evidenced by the multiplicity of people gathering around the throne of God at the end of times. Scripture states,
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:9–10).
The usage of the plurality of “nations,” “tribes,” “peoples,” and “languages” strongly indicates how God includes all.
In the Gospels there are memorable examples of Jesus associating with sinners and tax collectors. The grace of God is extended to “everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Rom 1:16). Since grace is extended to all, God is the God of Jews and Greeks alike. A frequent image of the believers in Acts is being “together” (1:14; 2:1, 44, 46; 4:24; see also 4:32, 34, 35). We long to have such a sense of inclusivity in our churches.
When members feel excluded, it is imperative that a sense of acceptance be built into the fabric of church life in order to foster strong member engagement. To help produce an atmosphere of acceptance, as discussed in earlier articles, create a sense of oneness, identity, and sharing, aimed at strengthening member engagement.
Men’s and women’s groups are one of the ways to encourage inclusion. The church can start either a men’s or women’s group that meets over a weekday breakfast or dinner. It can be tailored to the interests of a few or several fully disengaged individuals. The group can find a common venue where these disengaged individuals can be comfortable. The best person or persons to connect them to these groups are their own friends. The group can gather to study the Bible, pray, or engage in a useful community service. Community outreach endeavors can be a good beginning toward getting the disengaged interested and plugged into church activities.
COMMUNITY OUTREACH ENDEAVORS CAN BE A GOOD BEGINNING TOWARD GETTING THE DISENGAGED INTERESTED AND PLUGGED INTO CHURCH ACTIVITIES.
There are several things that go on in the church besides Sabbath service. The disengaged members can be invited to engage in various groups through which the church can bring them from neutral ground to being fully engaged. The following are some examples:
- Inspirational Friday evening vespers services.
- Community fair: Disengaged persons can be asked to assist in accordance with his or her interest. For example, a doctor can help with a health fair, an electrician can be requested to help connect lines for the fair, an athlete can be brought in to help with a 5K run/walk, and a journalist can be asked to help prepare a newscast.
- Church picnic
- Church camp
- Church mission trip
- Mission clubs (e.g., Adventurers and Pathfinders)
- Social nights
- Celebration programs and banquets (e.g., Thanksgiving and anniversaries)
- Weekly games in the gym
To turn the phrase upside down: if Muhammad does not go to the mountain, then the mountain should go to Muhammad—meaning that if a member’s priority is not to come to church, then the church should go to him! Church members might hold a “cottage meeting” in a disengaged person’s home. This may be a tough call to make, but if the spouse or parents of the disengaged person agree to the plan, it is possible. If the church succeeds in this endeavor, there is a chance for the disengaged person to become engaged again.
Besides these ideas, churches can have regular small group meetings. The group members will be motivated to invite disinterested, non-prioritizing individuals in the community to join during weekdays, whenever and wherever the group may be meeting. Nelson Searcy says small groups are definitely the best platform to bring in disinterested and non-committing members to the church.6
Ellen G. White writes, “Among the followers of Christ, there is to be blending of diverse elements, one adapted to another.”7 Let us include the excluded and receive the disengaged into our fellowship again!
1 Dominic Abrams, Michael A. Hogg, and José M. Marques, Social Psychology of Inclusion and Exclusion (London: Psychology Press, 2005), 1.
2 R. F. Baumeister and M. R. Leary, “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin 117 (1995): 497–529.
3 Abrams, Hogg, and Marques, Social Psychology, 64.
4 Mark R. Leary, “Responses to Social Exclusion: Social Anxiety, Jealousy, Loneliness, Depression, and Low Self-Esteem,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (2001a): 3–21.
5 Ibid., 221–9.
6 Nelson Searcy, Connect: How to Double Your Number of Volunteers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 134.
7 Ellen G. White, Our High Calling (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1961), 169.
Paulasir Abraham, PhD, is an associate pastor at the Southern Asia Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, MD, USA.
Create a Guest Services Program with Beyond Greeting
“A visitor is a temporary outsider, while a guest is an expected person to be delighted in and served. How do we want people to feel when they come to church—like a visitor or a guest?”
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