Don’t Assimilate Me
The church is primarily a people, not simply a place to meet. It is a movement and not an institution. The church lives as a committed community in this world, which desperately needs redemption. -Eddie Gibb and Ryan Bolger
A few weeks ago I was talking with a good friend about the way the new so-called Emergent Church goes about assimilating newcomers. He told me he had received an email from a person in his twenties and the email began, “Please! Don’t assimilate me.”
The plea of this young church attendee and his understanding of assimilation have been conditioned by the movie Star Trek: First Contact. In this movie the Borg-a half-organic, half-machine collective-has a sole purpose: to conquer and assimilate all races. Assimilation in the movie means absorbing people into a single form so that no one acts or thinks independently. With this understanding, one can see why this person says, “Please! Don’t assimilate me.”
Beyond the First Visit has an assimilation view in mind, but welcoming and connecting guests to our church are not, of course, forms of absorbing newcomers to the point of their losing a sense of personhood or individuality. Rather, assimilation means recognizing each person’s unique gifts, talents, and personality, and helping him or her make friends and find a place to belong and serve.
Those who attend the new emerging churches in the United States and other countries will most likely need to adapt some of the ideas discussed in Beyond the First Visit. Like all younger churches, they look at the world through different lenses than older churches and desire to do ministry differently than those who have gone before them.
Emerging churches, of course, have been seen before. Throughout history God has raised up new church movements to reach new generations of people. John Wesley and the Methodist Church, Chuck Smith and the Calvary Chapels, Bill Hybels and Willow Creek-styled churches, and Rick Warren and Purpose-Driven churches are clear examples of God’s renewing work in the church.
Today a new movement, called the Emergent Church, is becoming highly visible. These newer churches are related in two ways:
• They are attempting to deconstruct the Protestant Church, as it relates to modernity, and reconstruct it in a new relationship to postmodernity. These emerging churches are moving beyond simplistic adaptations of old models. In fact, they seek to do away with the old models and employ brand-new approaches to ministry.
• They are, in some measure, a reaction against the Boomer church (megachurch), seeing it as lacking in authenticity and spirituality. Specifically, they reject the rehearsed slickly presented worship service of the Boomer church. Thus these newer churches seek to employ fresh ideas for spiritual formation that are more organic than those used by Boomer churches.
From a practical perspective, some of the new emerging churches are known for making creative use of art, quietness, poetry, candlelit rooms, unrehearsed service, and various forms of community Involvement. Their desire for a realistic and honest sense of community leads many of the emerging churches to reject any adaptation of Boomer church practices.
However, not all emerging churches are formed as radical attempts to correct perceived shortcomings in the Boomer church. There is a difference between Gen XIY churches and true emerging ones. Gen XIY churches are just attempts to adapt Boomer models for a younger generation. As such, they are not “radical” in their approaches to ministry. These churches often try to adapt the Purpose-Driven or Seeker-Centered model of church to the tastes of a younger audience.
Emerging churches vary in their expressions. The cultural context, traditions, and theological background serve to make each one slightly different in its expression. Thus there is no unified movement that promotes a specific model of Emergent Church. There are, however, certain characteristics that can be seen in many of these churches.
There are ten characteristic views of the Emergent Church. While not all emerging churches will espouse exactly all of the following views, there is enough similarity among them that these provide a good overview of most Emergent Church values.
1. They see Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount as central to faith. Thus social and ethical concerns are just as important to them as spiritual concerns.
2. They see God’s fingerprints everywhere. Thus there is no secular realm as such, but many, perhaps most, things in the secular realm are considered spiritual.
3. They see community as more important than church. Thus community happens first, leading to church; rather than church happening first, leading to community.
4. They see dialogue as more important than debate. Thus they focus on building relationships first by stressing similarities, and work on differences after the relationship has been forged.
5. They see hospitality as central to discipleship. Thus welcoming others takes place in the secular realm as well as in the church.
6. They see worship as an authentic encounter with the living God. Thus prefab worship services are replaced with individual creative expressions.
7. They see shared leadership as the ideal model. Thus gifted people are free to lead without constraint in a highly collaborative atmosphere.
8. They see culture as organic-fluid, shifting, and dynamic. Thus spirituality, community, and faith must be elastic, creating an uncharted journey with unexpected detours but always progressing.
9. They see spiritual life as holistic. Thus spiritual growth and expression happen not just in traditional acts of devotion but in all realms and activities of life.
10. They see church as missional. Thus they see themselves on a mission from God to transform their world.
Many of the characteristics of the younger emerging churches stress the importance of welcoming newcomers in gracious ways. For example, the stress on community, dialogue, hospitality, and mission as noted in the ten characteristics above, leads these new churches to focus quite naturally on caring for those who visit them. They are also drawn to new ways of ministry and connecting new people to the church.
Emerging churches are passionately linked to Jesus. They see the mission of Jesus as being carried on in their communities, and they believe the way Jesus interacted with his disciples is the model for how community ought to be formed when they gather together as the church.
There is no secular/sacred divide in the minds of emergents. Holistic living leads them to see unity, rather than divisions, between such concepts as natural and supernatural, individual and community, mind and body, and public and private. In their desire to model Jesus, they embrace historical practices of the church as ways to connect ancient and contemporary spirituality. The true measure of spirituality is life transformation, rather than the number of people gathered in a large auditorium.
These and other concepts point to the fact that the emerging generation, and the churches they start, is indeed operating from a different paradigm than that common to the Baby Boom generation.
When it comes to connecting new people to the church, these younger churches dislike mechanistic approaches to welcoming people. Any approach that treats people like items to be processed on an assembly line is rejected. Hence, welcoming people must be organic or natural. The flow of guests into the church takes on a more varied and complex form than in traditional churches. Assimilation, or rather the connecting of guests, takes place through the following means.
Sharing Compelling Stories
Emerging churches reject the use of formulas and simple solutions. The use of simplistic approaches to ministry, such as “The Four Spiritual Laws,” “The Roman Road,” or the newcomers’ class, are not welcomed. Deep sharing of one’s personal story through intimate conversations is the preferred model to salvation, as well as assimilation. The key is finding a person with a story to tell, allowing him or her to tell the story to another person who has a story to tell, and then sharing the story of Jesus. Connection happens naturally as newcomers are drawn into personal stories, the story of Jesus, and the story of the church.
Embracing People into the Community
Approaches that look or feel like they serve the institutional church are deplored. Since the church is a community of faith, the relational is highlighted over the institutional. Normally, traditional churches expect newcomers to commit their lives to Christ and be baptized before they are embraced into the community of faith. Emerging churches often turn this around and accept people into the community before they are believers. Thus guests are allowed to serve and participate in church ministry and activities in the hope that they will embrace Christ in the process.
Doing Life Together
Emerging churches sense that advice given without request is rarely accepted, so answers to life’s troubling questions are not immediately dispensed as though from a “Bible answer man.
Doing life together, or hanging out 2417, allows life’s questions to arise naturally, and guests can see the truth of God’s Word internalized in the lives of real people, as well as exegeted from the pulpit. As guests see God’s Word lived out authentically in people, they are drawn to become part of the church.
Engaging the Senses
God’s propositional truth is valued, but emergents desire to learn truth through all the senses. They find that art, music, poetry, media, Internet, drama, and lots of stories are powerful ways to engage guests and draw them into God’s story and the church’s story. Newcomers are allowed to use their gifts to share in the story in appropriate ways. Often these natural connections capture their long-term involvement.
Communities of faith are learning environments where fellow learners gather to discover the truth of God’s Word. In such a context pastors and other teachers must approach guests as parent-like mentors who have traveled further, rather than as know-it-all Bible teachers. Newcomers are drawn to connect with churches that treat them as fellow travelers.
Talking Their Talk
All new movements create their own particular language of ministry and faith as a way of developing a unique identity. This is happening in the emerging churches. For example, rather than use words like assimilate, tithe, and shepherd, emerging churches prefer words such as connect, contribute, and care. To these newer churches, building the kingdom of God is more important than growing a church. They speak of a missional community rather than a local congregation.
Although most of the concepts behind the words are the same, the language distinguishes the new from the old, and guests are drawn to newer language because it tends to communicate emphases and values with which they can relate.
Hitting the Streets
Understanding the basic facts, figures, and outlines of Scripture is not enough in emerging churches. Experiential knowledge that is acquired by seeing God at work in the lives of real people and honest situations is more meaningful. As guests see God’s truth evident in people’s lives, they are enticed to become part of the church. Thus helping newcomers get involved in the lives of needy people in the larger church community is a powerful way to connect them to the church.
Stressing the Kingdom
No longer do people care only about their particular church or denomination. Today there is a wide concern for the entire church, most often described as the kingdom. Guests join churches that help them catch a vision of, and become involved in, God’s total work in the world.
Connecting with History
Simplistic answers to today’s tough life questions are out. Depth of theological teaching is back in among emerging churches. Younger guests are connecting with churches that assist them in understanding doctrine and the historical roots of their faith.
Challenging the Culture
Emergents resist a blind acceptance of the predominate culture. They are drawn to churches that provide a biblical critique of the culture. Thus churches that seek to redeem the world as well as individuals will find guests connecting with them.
On one of my recent trips visiting churches, I was fortunate to attend a large, growing congregation on the West Coast of the United States. After parking in the church’s expansive new lot, I approached the front door and was greeted by a highly efficient and dedicated group of greeters. In fact, I have never shaken so many hands before in any church I have attended.
It was clear that the church had worked hard at recruiting and training greeters. Each greeter wore a wide armband on which the word “Greeter” appeared brightly. While I applaud their efforts, it occurred to me that many younger generation guests would be put off by the clearly mechanistic nature of the greeting system. It was not natural to shake that many hands. It felt like walking through a gauntlet, which seemed more like a machine than a community of faith.
Most guests in traditional churches appreciate greeters, but being greeted with handshakes at the door of the church may have the opposite effect on many younger guests, actually driving them away. This is just one example of how assimilation of younger guests into the life of the church must take on a different look in the coming years. The basic principles of welcoming people will remain the same, but the procedures must look and feel more natural.
The language of assimilation must shift from an institutional focus to a relational one. Words like assimilation and incorporation are out, while involvement and connecting are in. Greeters must still be recruited and trained, but anything that makes them appear obvious or predictable, like wearing armbands, must disappear. Opportunities for involvement must continue to be presented but never forced. Commitment to the local church needs to be stressed, but only as a part of what God is doing in the larger context of his kingdom.
In short, your church’s approach to connecting guests must follow the basic concepts already presented, but when focusing on the younger generations, there must be a measure of adaptation to their values and worldview. More and more, the people who are our guests in the next few years will be from the younger generations.
Questions to Ask and Answer
1. What impact do the characteristics of the emerging generation have on your approach to connecting guests to your church?
2. How do these concepts fit with your current church’s values and practices?
3. What challenges do these ideas present to your church and ministry?
4. Which of these concepts do you find troubling? Why?
5. How might you address some of these ideas in your own ministry in the coming years?
The above article, “Don’t Assimilate Me” was written by Gary L. McIntosh. The article was excerpted from chapter 13 in McIntosh’s book, Beyond the First Visit.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”