From Assimilation to Acculturation

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I believe that when we talk about the integration of new members into a congregation, we need to embrace the language of acculturation, not assimilation. In the 1980s, literature and workshops about assimilating new members became the rage in church circles. People were asking, “Why are attendance and membership numbers showing such rapid decline?” Leaders were convinced that better systems of inviting, welcoming, and incorporating new participants into the life of the congregation were a key strategy for reversing declining membership and attendance patterns. Assimilation was understood to be the means by which a congregation coordinated and blended new members into a meaningful and unified whole.

Assimilation suggests one-way adaptation, in which the newcomer assumes the cultural norms of the dominant group. Acculturation is a broader concept that more appropriately recognizes the need for both the organization and the individual to mutually adapt to one another.

In the 1990s, people began to rethink the language of assimilation. As the culture in the United States became more pluralistic and more ethnically, racially, and socially diverse, leading thinkers argued that the term assimilation had an inappropriate “melting pot” quality that didn’t appropriately honor the welcome differences that newcomers might bring. Assimilation suggests one-way adaptation, in which the newcomer assumes the cultural norms of the dominant group. The dominant culture of the congregation is not expected to accommodate any of the unique attributes that the newcomer brings.

Acculturation is a broader concept that more appropriately recognizes the need for both the organization and the individual to mutually adapt to one another. Acculturation is a two-way process of integration in which both culture groups (the congregation and the individual) change to some degree to accommodate the norms and values of one another. (Cox and Beale, Developing Competency to Manage Diversity, Jossey-Bass, 1997, 204-205)

I believe that when we talk about the integration of new members into a congregation, we need to embrace the language of acculturation, not assimilation. It is a more appropriate way of thinking for many of our congregations, that is, those struggling to diversify membership. If we truly want to welcome members who look and think differently from the people already sitting in the pews, then we need to think about new-member integration as a mutual process of acculturation. If we want to cultivate a culture that embraces diversity, then we need to view the integration of new members through the lens of acculturation, not assimilation.

This change in perspective ought to have significant ramifications for the way in which we approach the integration of newcomers. What might our welcoming, orienting, and membership processes look like if we are intentionally trying to adapt to each newcomer who arrives?


This article is adapted from Susan’s book Inside the Large Congregation, with permission from the Alban Institute. Copyright © 2011 by The Alban Institute, Inc. Herndon, VA. All rights reserved. For more information, visit: http://www.alban.org/insidethelargecongregation.aspx. This book is also available from Amazon and Cokesbury.


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About Author

Susan Beaumont is a consultant, author, coach, and spiritual director with Susan Beaumont and Associates (www.susanbeaumont.com.) She is author of Inside the Large Congregation (Alban, 2011).


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