Beyond Hospitality to Inclusion


David Brubaker says that most congregations are quick to welcome newcomers but slow to extend a much deeper form of acceptance — genuine inclusion in the life of the community. Inclusion is an adaptive challenge, but one that is essential to congregational growth.

Nearly every congregation wants to perceive itself as an open community that welcomes newcomers. Yet congregational leaders often say, “People visit a few times, but they don’t stay!” Why do congregations experience this so often?

A hospitable congregation welcomes visitors in formal and informal ways, showing visitors that existing members are glad that they’ve come. Handshakes are offered and introductions made, and (when the hospitality is genuine) the visitor leaves feeling that his or her presence was truly appreciated.

While hospitality is important and wonderful, genuine inclusion is foundational to congregational vitality. No congregation can grow without being both hospitable and inclusive.

Most congregations do reasonably well at hospitality — at least with people whose identity fits the general profile of the congregation. I’ve visited more than 100 congregations over the last three decades in various roles, and have generally felt warmly welcomed when I entered the doors of the congregation. A surprising number of congregations have “greeters” (either formally designated or informally self-appointed) who are on the lookout for new arrivals.

Inclusion of new members

Hospitality is one thing; genuine inclusion is something else altogether. Having been welcomed into a congregation offers no assurance that a visitor will also be fully included. While hospitality is generally extended to visitors, inclusion is a much deeper form of acceptance. Warm hospitality may entice me to give the congregation a second visit. But only genuine inclusion will convince me to remain part of the community. I will stay if I feel I truly belong. Most congregations struggle not with hospitality but with inclusion. We are quick to welcome but slow to include.

There are three telltale signs of inclusion: First, newcomers are integrated into smaller groups that invite their full participation. Second, newcomers are encouraged to share their gifts and story with others in the congregation. Third, the participation of the newcomers in the life of the congregation begins to impact the congregation’s culture and structure.

Inclusion and adaptation

Hospitality requires no adaptation on the part of the congregation. (Friendliness and welcoming, yes, but no deep change.) Inclusion is quite different. When a congregation begins to integrate people from a racial group or socio-economic status different from its own dominant culture, it usually must adapt its way of being to be genuinely inclusive. Modes of worship may need to broaden. Methods of decision-making may need to change. And interaction patterns among members may need to evolve.

A striking example of such adaptation is found in the 6th chapter of the Book of Acts in the Christian Scriptures. As Greek-speakers are incorporated into what had been an almost entirely Aramaic-speaking community, tensions and “murmuring” result. The leaders of this new movement (known as apostles) meet and agree that a new role is needed to care for the most vulnerable members of the community (widows). A structural change is proposed and approved (a functional role of deacon), and the movement’s culture begins to change to reflect the fact that the community is no longer monolithic.

While hospitality is important and wonderful, genuine inclusion is foundational to congregational vitality. No congregation can grow without being both hospitable and inclusive.

The challenge is that genuine inclusion will inevitably require adaptive changes on the part of the congregation. New ideas will stretch the prevailing doctrines and new energies will stress the existing systems. But the alternative to genuine inclusion is inevitable decline. Congregations that refuse to include new people along with their new ways of being will inevitably discover that new people have no desire to affiliate.

Inclusion is not assimilation. Inclusion is an adaptive process whereby the newcomers adopt many of the ways of the established group, while at the same time the established culture stretches and evolves to reflect the gifts and needs of the newcomers.

Hospitality is important, but inclusion is essential to congregational growth. Any congregation can become truly inclusive — and it will need to prepare to be stretched in the process.

This article is adapted from one that was published in the Congregational Consulting Group’s e-newsletter Perspectives on May 30, 2017.

Related Resources


About Author

David Brubaker

David Brubaker is Director of the MBA and OLS Programs and Associate Professor of Organizational Studies at Eastern Mennonite University. He has trained or consulted with over 100 organizations around the world, and wrote Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations.

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