Inclusivity strengthens member engagement

by Paulasir Abraham

 

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Brought up in a Christian home, Moses regularly attended Sabbath School and church with his parents. As he grew into a teenager, the influence of his unchurched friends began to increase. Feeling that church was being forced upon him, he began losing interest in volunteering for its ministries. Moreover, the church seemed to him hypocritical and disingenuous, not valuing people as he thought they should. Its members and leaders appeared judgmental and often scolded him about how he dressed. Overlooked by everyone, he drifted away from the church for four years.

But then his schoolmate, David, noticed his absence. One day he met Moses at a mall. As both spoke about the good times they had once had in church, David invited Moses to come back, but Moses told him how he now felt. A few weeks passed. David occasionally called Moses and encouraged him to return. Then one Saturday, Moses and his friends planned to go surfing but decided to stop by the church just briefly beforehand. The whole group walked into the church in their surfing gear, and—to their surprise—the pastor welcomed them. The members warmly greeted them. They began attending sporadically, and every time they did, they felt included as part of the congregation.

The pastor went a step further. Hearing that Moses and his friends were interested in basketball, he arranged games at the church gym every Tuesday after the small-group prayer meeting. They came to the prayer meeting, then played basketball afterward. They began to feel the church was their own. The sense of belonging helped them more fully engage with the membership. Today, Moses is married to a wonderful, godly woman, blessed with two sons, and the whole family is deeply involved with the church.

Sense of belonging: A basic human need

Human beings live within a framework of relationships in which we seek inclusion and a sense of belonging.1 The need to belong is among the strongest of human motivations.2 Desiring social connections, we will exert considerable energy to develop and sustain them, and anything that adversely affects such relationships can be harmful.3

Mark Leary states that those who have supportive and sustained relationships with others are more likely to thrive than those who live alone. Belonging to a group frequently leads to positive experiences and emotions but being excluded typically produces negative responses, such as sadness, loneliness, jealousy, anger, shame, and anxiety.4

Types of exclusions

Exclusion can be either individually or group related. Two prime forms of individual exclusion are ostracization and stigmatization. Ostracized individuals become sad and angry and report a lower sense of belonging, self-esteem, and control.5 On the other hand, stigmatization makes a person feel tainted and insignificant.6

Individual exclusion includes the reality of the proverbial glass ceiling that limits promotion, curtails influence, and restricts involvement. Professional attainments and educational achievements may be viewed as threatening rather than enriching, and competing rather than complementing. Individual exclusion is denying you a seat at the table while craving your gifts in designing it.

Group exclusion creates a sense of being marginalized. Rejection and social exclusion are almost the same as ostracism. In group exclusion, you may individually be made to feel welcome while you question the underrepresentation of persons like you in decision-making roles of the organization. It is the paradox of being welcomed but not accepted. When someone does not feel fully accepted, it threatens how they see their place in the group.7 It can cause them to withdraw.

Group memberships are vital because they meet the human need to belong and feel secure. While groups are supposed to provide shelter, support, and a collective sense of self for their members,8 they can exclude some participants because of what they consider differences from the rest.9

Exclusion in churches

Generally, we do not consider churches as places of ostracization, stigmatization, or marginalization. But some may feel excluded or unaccepted because of their race, marital status, economic situation, or other reasons. They may feel that clergy also tend to respect some members and ignore or reject others at times. Such excluded individuals do not feel as if they belong and, as a result, they pull back both psychologically and physically.

Some believe diversity contributes to exclusion. But that may not necessarily be true. Diversity is a common feature in most religious organizations today. According to the Pew Research Center, Seventh-day Adventists form the most diverse religious group in the United States.10 In itself, diversity is not negative. It can lead to creativity and enhance group performance.11 But it is not beneficial without inclusivity. If diversity is used to create more inclusiveness within an organization, it will make the organization more successful.12

When people are not welcomed or accepted, they may react in different ways. They may withdraw physically from church relationships. One member commented that, even though she was physically absent, she still supported the church through tithing. People may also withdraw by affiliating with others similarly excluded. Should they feel their exclusion is unjust and undeserved, they retreat psychologically and bond with others. Thus, it is imperative that acceptance and inclusivity be a fundamental part of the fabric of church life.

The need: Sense of oneness

An example of diversity within a group would be the Southern Asian Seventh-day Adventist Church, organized as a place for South Asian immigrants and people of other nations to worship and sustain their identity. Southern Asians themselves are diverse, for they comprise several languages and cultures. Such variety can create both inclusion and exclusion—inclusion in forming groups of different types and exclusion of those who seemingly do not “fit” into the groups. But even though the people are different, the church works hard to make sure that we are one, the body of Christ.

Paul gives a description of the church as one body in 1 Corinthians 12:12–27: “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. . . . For in fact the body is not one member but many. . . .

“But now, indeed, there are many members, yet one body. . . . But God composed the body . . . that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another” (NKJV).

Abraham van de Beek observes that “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not three Gods. They are one and only God, and the unity of this one God is visible in the world in the unity of the one church.”13 The church is one body of Christ with many members who all have their own characteristics. Therefore, members should not exclude one another but rather enjoy the diversity and consider all as part of one body.14

Having a sense of oneness in a church is critical. One of the primary causes of people joining is the influence of family and friends.15 One of the reasons people remain is to maintain their ties to family and friends.16 A recent survey found that many reported that they attended church or decided to worship in a particular congregation because of friends and family members.17 On the other hand, others pointed to family disputes as a cause for irregular attendance and eventual withdrawal. Thus, while family ties and church friends are both positive forces in church participation, family disputes and strained relationships with friends can lead people to drift away. We must bring the sense of oneness to a level at which all feel included irrespective of whether family and friends also attend.

People join churches in search of community.18 To endow a congregation with a sense of community in its fullest sense requires bringing its various groups together in an inclusive network or web that will strengthen member involvement.

I present three components of a biblical framework for the concept of inclusivity and oneness.

A biblical framework

1. “ ‘Friend of tax collectors and sinners’ ” (Matt. 11:19, NKJV). The Gospels present eight occasions of Jesus associating with sinners and tax collectors. While the religious leaders despised the sinners as guilty of transgressing the law and tax collectors for their unethical behavior, Jesus mingled with them. He went to parties with them (Mark 2:15) and to their homes (Luke 19:1–10). Jesus included in God’s kingdom those excluded by the society of His time.

2. “Neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28, NKJV). In Christ, people from all kindreds, nations, and tongues, and diverse hierarchical, sociological, and cultural groups comprise God’s kingdom. Paul’s theology maintained that while distinctiveness was to be preserved, in Christ, concepts of supremacy and walls of superiority regarding race, ethnicity, tribe, caste, class, gender, ability, age, or religion, would come tumbling down. May that be so in our congregations.

3. “All things in common” (Acts 2:44, NKJV). The early Christian church was a network of worship, fellowship, and socialization. A sense of belonging filled them. This web of spiritual socialization is an exemplary model of inclusion for the church today.

This should be the vision of every church entity. In employment, worship, fellowship, prayer, praising, and promotion, we ought to emulate the early church’s inclusivity. For too long, many have felt used and abused, employed but not embraced, needed but not wanted. With inclusivity, personnel engagement will be strengthened, people will be valued, and the Moseses may return.

 

 

  1. Dominic Abrams, Michael A. Hogg, and José M. Marques, eds., The Social Psychology of Inclusion and Exclusion (New York, NY: Psychology Press, 2005), 1.
  2. Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary, “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin 117, no. 3 (June 1995): 497–529.
  3. Abrams, Hogg, and Marques, Inclusion and Exclusion, 64.
  4. Mark R. Leary, “Responses to Social Exclusion: Social Anxiety, Jealousy, Loneliness, Depression, and Low Self-Esteem,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 9, no. 2 (June 1990): 221–229, https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.1990.9.2.221.
  5. Abrams, Hogg, and Marques, Inclusion and Exclusion, 58.
  6. Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 3.
  7. Abrams, Hogg, and Marques, Inclusion and Exclusion, 91.
  8. Abrams, Hogg, and Marques, 191.
  9. Abrams, Hogg, and Marques, 190–216.
  10. Michael Lipka, “The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups,” Pew Research Center, 2015.
  11. Elizabeth Mannix and Margaret A Neale, “What Differences Make a Difference? The Promise of Diverse Teams in Organization,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 6, no. 2 (October 1, 2005): 31.
  12. Martin N. Davidson, “The Value of Being Included: An Examination of Diversity Change Initiatives in Organization,” Performance Improvement Quarterly 12, no. 1 (1999): 174.
  13. Abraham van de Beek, “One God and One Church,” in The Unity of the Church: A Theological State of the Art and Beyond, ed. Eduardus Van der Borght (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 266.
  14. Van de Beek, 255.
  15. Edward A. Rauff, Why People Join the Church: An Exploratory Study (New York, NY: Pilgrim Press, 1979), 72.
  16. Rauff, 72.
  17. Study done by the author for his DMiss studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.
  18. Thom S. Rainer, Surprising Insights From the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 96, 97.