Hospitality and Assimilation


by Leroy Elms

To evangelize is to declare and demonstrate the good news of the kingdom of God. Its goal is this: that people should be converted, become members of the church, and themselves become evangelizers. To accomplish this, new members should be welcomed and assimilated into the fellowship and mission of the church. For many churches, however, this assimilation is the most difficult aspect of evangelism.

The Bible and Hospitality

The Bible teaches that hospitality is one of the marks of the people of God. A holy congregation, set apart for service to God, does not imply an elitist, exclusionary, or isolated congregation.

The Old Testament is clear on how God’s people should treat strangers and foreigners:

When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34).

The “cities of refuge” in ancient Israel (places where those involved in involuntary manslaughter could flee from revenge) were open to the aliens as well as to the Israelites (Numbers 35:15). David goes so far as to identify himself and his people with those who are aliens. In the assembly of God’s people he prays, “We are aliens and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers” (I Chronicles 29:15; see also Psalm 39:12 ). He expresses thereby an utter dependence on God and a place of privilege in the heart of God, for God shows no partiality and loves the alien (Deuteronomy 10:17-18). Foreigners are ranked with the widow and fatherless as those for whom God’s people must have special concern (Jeremiah 7:6).

In the New Testament the mystery of the church is unfolded: Gentiles and Jews are “members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6). In Christ, therefore, there are no longer any foreigners and aliens. In the church, national origin and ethnic identity are superseded by unity in Christ. All are members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19). At the same time, all are “strangers and aliens in the world” (I Peter 2:11). Nevertheless, in a social sense some remain strangers–people whom we don’t know, who are different from us, or who do not belong to the church. The church is called upon to minister to these people: “I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35).

Hospitality is a hallmark of the Christian church. “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling,” writes Peter (I Peter 4:9). Paul says simply, “Practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13). Biblical hospitality involves not only giving something, it often entails receiving unexpected blessings. The author to the Hebrews hints at this when he writes, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). When Abraham received three strangers, he found himself entertaining the Lord himself and he received the promise of a son (Genesis 18:1-15). The travelers to Emmaus had a personal encounter with the risen Christ when they invited a stranger in for supper (Luke 24:13-32). Hospitality, the art of creating friendly space for the stranger, brings with it unexpected rewards.

Assimilation and the Early Church

Soon after the early church began in Jerusalem it encountered assimilation problems. Grecian Jews complained that “their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). Immediately the apostles asked for the appointment of seven spiritually mature men to solve this problem. Today we call these men deacons–they might also be called the church’s first membership
assimilation or congregational life committee. Creating friendly space for people different from the majority requires an organized effort. Congregational hospitality must be planned and supervised.

Other problems in the early church were also assimilation problems: How can the faith and fellowship circle be open to receive new people who are different from the main body of believers? Peter was helped to overcome his prejudice against Gentiles by means of a vision (Acts 10). The first Jerusalem synod dealt specifically with the problem of Gentiles and Jews as members of the same household of God. On that occasion James says, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).

Assimilation Problems in the Church Today

Such problems continue to plague the church to this day. Everyone knows of a church where the back door is wide open–new members joining constantly, but almost as many leave because they never come to feel part of the body. New members seldom join unless they are already related to someone in the church–a stranger is rarely made to feel at home. In some churches visitors get a cold reception–or
worse, are stared at and never spoken to. Still other churches are, as it were, papered with signs that say, “You have to wear a three-piece suit to be at home here,” or “We don’t have much of a nursery–families with small children should look elsewhere,” or “We emphasize the family–single adults are not welcome.

Assimilation problems are complicated by what has come to be known as the Homogenous Unit Principle: People like to become Christians without crossing barriers of race, class, or language. This is not so much a theory or approach as it is merely observation of what has happened throughout most of the history of the church. It is true: churches do grow faster and encounter fewer problems when they reach those people who are most like themselves.

To call this a guiding principle, however, and therefore to hold it up as a norm by which a church should live, flies in the face of biblical teaching about hospitality and the unity of the body of Christ. While churches will most likely grow along natural friendship and kinship bridges, they must always show openness and hospitality to persons who are different, seeking to structure the church in such a way that these people will feel part of the fellowship. At the same time, Christians can rejoice in the variety of churches in which people of a particular language and culture seek to reach others like themselves.

The Homogenous Unit Principle is particularly valuable in that it tells us that it is more difficult to assimilate “different” believers. Such people often drop out of a church not for lack of faith, but for lack of friends. They do not feel at home.

The Church Must Want to Grow

Hospitality and assimilation begin when churches want to grow. The entire congregation, especially the leadership, must have a missionary heart that rejoices whenever new members are added to the fellowship. Members see growth as essential for the church’s well-being and a blessing for all. The desire to grow is the catalyst that enables a church to deliberately organize and structure for growth.

A church that wants to grow not only receives those people who ask to become members (and who meet the membership standards), but it deliberately invites new people to join the membership. And it ensures that such people are ministered to and included in meaningful ways so that they gladly speak of the church as “our church.”

Characteristics of Assimilated Members

One way for a church to examine its hospitality is to ask, “What are the characteristics of an assimilated member?” It is important for this purpose to concentrate first of all on new members. Long-time members may be assimilated simply because they have always belonged, or for other reasons that have long since disappeared. A new member, however, should be able to identify some specific reason why he or she has joined the church and intends to stay.

Following are at least some reasons why new members stay:

* They are enthusiastic about their faith commitment, their congregation, and their pastor. They will say things such as “This is a really friendly church,” “The pastor is a good preacher,” “My family feels at home here,” “The youth group meets a real need for my teenagers.”

* They have a task or function in the church. They have identified their spiritual gifts and have been assigned responsibilities commensurate with those gifts. Whereas justification is by grace, Lyle Schaller says that assimilation is frequently by works. The member who in some way participates in the church’s
ministry identifies with and “owns” that ministry.

* They have a warm and personal relationship with the pastor. They feel the pastor is interested in them, knows them, and is prepared to serve them. Consequently, they’re interested in listening to him when he preaches and willing to follow his leadership.

* They are involved in a small group that meets at least once, preferably twice, a month. The group’s purpose may be fellowship, study, or service; it may be a sports activity or be associated with a specific task. The larger the congregation, the more crucial this requirement is.

* They know at least six or seven people in the congregation whom they identify as friends. New members who do not form such attachments within six months of joining are usually on their way out the back door.

* They feel their relationship to God is strengthened and nourished in the church. This may be their initial reason for joining; but it will not be enough to keep them in the church if they do not develop friendships.

Ideally, all of the above characteristics should apply to all members, even long-term ones. They are especially important to those new members who have no relatives in the church, those who have never been a member of that denomination, and those who are new Christians.

The Hospitable Church

The hospitable church also has certain characteristics that identify it as a church organized for winning, receiving, and assimilating new members.

* Worship services are clearly a high point of the congregation’s life and are conducted with sensitivity to visitors and new believers. Members gladly take friends and neighbors to church. Visitors are welcomed and identified. Ushers and greeters are trained. Sermons are positive, include a clear call to commitment, and articulate the good news. There is opportunity for socializing and refreshments before or after the worship service. Visitors will hear from the church within a week by phone, letter, or personal visit.

* The congregation has a well-defined concept of ministry which includes an evangelistic strategy. The leadership and membership are committed to the concept of ministry, and the evangelistic strategy has a strong follow-up program. The goals attached to the concept of ministry are measurable, success is celebrated, and new goals are set annually. New members are introduced to the concept of ministry in the new member’s class. Some churches may ask everyone to sign a “membership covenant” which spells out the church’s expectations of its members and contains a summary of the concept of ministry.

* The church has a new member’s class (pastor’s class, inquirer’s class) which is attended by all who join the congregation, whether by transfer or profession of faith. The class is held at least twice a year.

* The spiritual gifts of most if not all members are identified, with the expectation that members will use their gifts in church and kingdom service. Members with the gift of hospitality are active in the assimilation process. New members are regularly given assignments that fit their spiritual gifts.

* New members are expected to join in some group or activity that places them in contact at least once a month with other members. The church cheerfully adds new groups several times a year in order to accommodate new members or, alternatively, divides the congregation into households or shepherding groups of some kind.

* New members are assigned a sponsor who will befriend them, help them feel at home in the church, and introduce them to other members.

* There is a public welcoming procedure for all who join the church. Usually this is done in a morning worship service. If this is done twice a year, the public welcome is associated with the reception after the morning service or with a potluck supper on Saturday evening.

* The church has a hospitality committee, a new members committee, or a congregational life committee which plans and monitors the assimilation of each new member for one year and alerts the pastor or elders when a new member shows signs of dropping out.

* The leadership circle of the congregation is open to new members. Several members of the church council have joined the church in the past two years.

Few churches will have all of the above characteristics, But the church that takes hospitality seriously and wants to grow will have at least six of the nine fully operative.

Check your Ratios

A church desiring to win and incorporate new people needs to have its ratios in order. Research by the Institute of American Church Growth Data Bank indicates that the following minimum ratios are essential for a church that is serious about evangelization and incorporation.

* Role/Task Ratio. There should be at least 60 roles and tasks available for every 100 members in your church. Any fewer that this creates an environment which produces inactive members. Make your new roles and tasks focused on meeting needs and changing lives.

* Group Ratio. There should be at least seven groups in your church for every 100 members. If there are too few groups in which members can build meaningful relationships, a large number of inactive will exit through the back door. An effective group life is fundamental to growth and incorporation.

* New Groups Ratio. Of the groups that now exist in your church, one of every five should have been started in the last two years. Groups tend to reach a saturation point somewhere between 9-18 months after their formation and will, in most cases, no longer effectively assimilate new people. The remedy is new groups which involve new converts and members.

* Friendship Ratio. Each new convert or member should be able to identify at least seven new friends in the church within the first six months. This is a crucial time factor since new members not integrated into the body within that time period will usually drop out.

* Visitor Ratio. Of the first time visitors who live in the church’s ministry area, three of every ten should be actively involved within a year. Studies indicate that churches with an effective strategy can expect to see four of every ten local visitors return. An incorporation strategy that focuses specifically on these second-time visitors will result in 70-75 percent joining within a year.

* Board Ratio. One of every five council members should have joined the church within the last two years. New members are open to new ideas and direction, and their presence on the council assures all new members that even the power structure of the church is open to them.

* Staff Ratio. The church should have one full-time staff member for every 150 persons in worship. If the ratio reaches 1 to 250, it is unusual to see any significant increase in active membership. While more persons may join the church, the back door will open wider and wider (From: Institute of American Church Growth Newsletter, 1984).

One definition of successful witnessing reads thus: “sharing the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God” (Dr. D. James Kennedy). The hospitable church will want to change this definition to “sharing the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit and expecting the results from God,” demonstrating that expectation by making room for new members in the fellowship, service, and leadership circles of the church.

(The above material is one of the Healthy Church Series published by the Church Development Resources in 1988.)

Christian Information Network