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January 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 1 · pp. 11–17 

Bridging Social Walls

L. W. Lockett

That humans are separated from each other by walls is a theme that runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments. The wall between Jew and Gentile was a very old one. So solidly built was the wall that it was seen in the outer and inner courts of the temple which kept Gentile visitors away from Jewish worshipers. It stamped the pagans unmistakably as “those afar.” This same wall also meant enmity between man (both Jew and Gentile) and God.

In the Gospel the wall between men and other men, and men and God, was broken down and a bridge (Mediator) was put in its place. The sociological embodiment of this bridge from God is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. God will not tolerate an ethnocentric or self-centered church. The church must bridge into all the world, to every creature. It must lose itself in order to save itself (Luke 9:24).

How can the church overcome the powerful natural tendency to erect walls (social structure) between itself and the world? A beginning toward overcoming the wall-building behavior of the church is an awareness of the nature of organizational behavior.

Organizations behave very much like individuals but it is more difficult to see and understand an organization. When observing an individual’s behavior we can look at who they relate to, who they share with, and how they live. In order to understand an organization we must look at the groups of people they relate to, how they budget their funds, and who benefits from their programs.

It may seem incredible, but spiritual and unselfish individuals can be members of a spiritually weak and selfish congregation. An individual or a group of individuals can give up to half of their time, talent, and money to a congregation that spends almost all of its organizational time, talent, and money on itself.

Selfishness, by definition, is a “turning-away” from significant others. When a congregation deliberately ignores or resists meeting the needs of groups of people in their social environment, that {12} congregation is building a wall and blocking the potential growth of the Gospel.

In the study to follow it will be pointed out that there are three stages in any given congregation. There is the Involuted Stage, the Transition Stage, and the Involved Stage. It is believed this framework is biblically sound and could be used to stimulate change in some congregations toward a more biblical perspective in their organizational behavior. This framework is suggested for three major reasons. (1) It uses sociological insights without injury or hindrance to the attainment of biblical objectives. (2) It is specific enough to locate any congregation as belonging to a given category. (3) It will clarify possible problem areas within a given congregation and will show which congregations are in trouble.

This framework could guide the collection of data that would be helpful in the formulation of program suggestions for the local congregation and might also aid in evaluating present programs. It will especially help rural congregations face the changes which are demanded of them by the urban process which is sweeping our country.


FIGURE 1: INVOLUTED CHURCH (Egocentric-Ethnocentric and Withdrawn)

FIGURE 1: INVOLUTED CHURCH (Egocentric-Ethnocentric and Withdrawn)

This church is primarily and exclusively concerned with its own Inner Life. It is “Turned in on itself,” concerned only with the standing membership or its ability to perpetuate itself on its own terms and not in terms required for a task broader than the group itself.

A church is involuted if it has no program, official or unofficial, which seeks to reach out to other sorts of people, no commitment, formal or informal, to begin such a program, and not even a record of concrete suggestions to begin one. There may even be a consensus against such a policy.

Even the New Testament church faced the problem of involution. The whole issue in the tenth chapter of Acts is whether or not Christianity should stay within the skin of the Jewish nation. Was the church going to remain inner-directed or become other-directed; would she be ethnocentric and culture bound or theocentric and transcultural? Until then the church was culturally contained within Jewish {13} culture. There was no formal program for reaching the Gentiles. There was no conflict over whether or not such an idea should be carried out. In fact the idea had not been formulated.


Research evidence suggests that churches which do not remain involuted undergo a transition stage characterized by four general phases: a value phase, a planning phase, a crisis phase, and a commitment phase.

FIGURE 2: VALUE PHASE (direction changed; locus unchanged)

FIGURE 2: VALUE PHASE (direction changed; locus unchanged)

Value Phase. At this stage there is widespread interest in the social environment and growing consensus that the church “should” do something about relating to the community. Usually there is little conflict generated at this stage because the implications of the consensus have not been worked out in terms of money, manpower, and change in social activities.

FIGURE 3: PLANNING PHASE (direction emphasized; locus unchanged)

FIGURE 3: PLANNING PHASE (direction emphasized; locus unchanged)

Planning Phase. This stage begins with the appearance of formal suggestions, presented in some public manner, for specific and concrete programs. These suggestions relate directly to change in the use of money, personnel, or activities. These formal suggestions place the congregation face to face with concrete implications of what was formerly only a general expression of the desire for change.

FIGURE 4: CRISIS AND CONFLICT PHASE (direction and locus permeate beyond the self)

FIGURE 4: CRISIS AND CONFLICT PHASE (direction and locus permeate beyond the self)

Crisis and Conflict Phase. It is at this point that divisions develop within the congregation. It is one thing to be in favor of “including people” or “helping people” but quite another to allocate money or to invite them to come into the inner sanctum. The money could be spent on a “new lounge, game room, or to hire a trained youth worker” for “our” children. But to become involved with Puerto Ricans, Negroes, or even children and adults from another social class creates reactions.

FIGURE 5: COMMITMENT PHASE (direction and locus beyond the self)

FIGURE 5: COMMITMENT PHASE (direction and locus beyond the self)

Commitment Phase. If the crisis stage is resolved, official commitment to a concrete program occurs. Committees are set up, funds are allocated, and congregational support and assistance is mobilized. The decision for commitment may be quite informal and unannounced by the official board. Research processes should be sensitive enough to detect evidence of such informal commitment decisions.

These four transition phases may be viewed as a developmental model of a congregation’s efforts to be vitally related to its neighbors. First, there is an initial awareness of the people in the environment and a general desire to relate the congregation to it (value stage). Next comes the spelling out and examination of concrete implications of this general desire (planning stage). Then the congregation must re-adjust internally to these projected changes. Differences of perspective and opinion must be worked out and this often involves structural realignments of relationships and resources within the congregation (conflict stage). {15}

Conflict either ends in resolution and preparations for commitment to a policy or else the congregation becomes immobilized and fragmented. It is also possible that the conflict stage can be bypassed altogether if events bring agreement or if potential dissidents are too unorganized or apathetic to intrude their opinions.

Finally, there is a process of commitment to a particular policy and program plans are undertaken and implemented (commitment stage).

The New Testament record illustrates these transitional phases. In Mark 7:24-30 and John 4 Jesus demonstrated a readiness to accept the Gentiles. Acts 15:16-18 shows how the church recalled values proclaimed long before by prophets to justify the new activity. Acts 15 records the general plan for handling the full-blown crisis that emerged when the implications of Gentile inclusion had become obvious. But Acts 15 also records the church’s commitment to become a bridge. That we Gentiles are in the church today is testimony to that commitment.

FIGURE 6: INVOLVED CHURCH (Theocentric and In the World)

FIGURE 6: INVOLVED CHURCH (Theocentric and In the World)


It has been discovered that churches which reach out beyond themselves undertake the three following activities:

1. A serious outreach program consciously geared toward a defined social group in a specific place (both local as well as foreign missions)

2. A service and/or education activity, financed and staffed by the church, designed for the benefit of others.

3. Involvement of clerical and/or lay church leadership representing the church in the agencies of the larger community (civic councils, social agencies, economic boards, informal planning groups, etc.).

There is a fairly large variety of church involvement patterns. Some are socially positive but are not well supported by the Scripture. Here is a delineation of three varieties without further comment.

The Inclusive Non-Local (“Regional”) Church. This church has chosen to define its environment in inclusive terms (it attempts to attract most if not all strata and cultural groupings within the geographic limits of its outreach). Secondly, it defines the environment {16} in non-local terms. This church’s outreach is directed beyond its immediate neighborhood toward a larger region, the borough or even the city. Such a church often attempts to maintain a high level of prestige through mechanisms such as a “name” pastor, high level “cultural” activities, a wealthy and influential stratum in its congregation, etc. But, at the same time, it will make an attempt at greater inclusiveness through the use of a foreign language-speaking assistant pastor or parish worker, and it will direct activities toward the needs of special minority groups (usually minority group children). It is this element of inclusiveness of outreach which differentiates the “Regional” church from a non-local exclusive “class” church (to be discussed later).

The Inclusive Local (“Neighborhood’) Church. This is a church which defines its environment in inclusive terms but which restricts the geographical limits to the local neighborhood. Evidence indicates the existence of three general sub-types of this category.

1. Supplementary Service Church: This is a neighborhood church, often located in a non-residential area, which seeks to make itself relevant to people associated with the area (workers and business people, for instance) through activities which supplement those of the churches with which these people are affiliated in their areas of residence. Thus it attempts to be a “second church” to them. Special activities of these churches may include weekly worship services, Bible lessons during noon hours, pastoral counseling, education programs, discussion groups, etc.

2. Neighborhood Center Church: This is a church related to its immediate environment by virtue of a program which ranges from worship activities to specialized social service work. Such a church, through the planned use of its facilities and finances, makes itself the focal point of services to the local residents.

3. The Coordinating Church: This is a church which attempts to coordinate already existing neighborhood facilities and power groups through its own initiative and leadership for the sake of more effective community organization. Such a church occasionally is found to act as a political force if it represents the political and social interests of a minority group which happens to be the dominant group in the particular neighborhood in which the church is located (e.g., a Negro church in a Negro neighborhood which has a politically active pastor and staff). {17}


The Exclusive Church (Local and Non-Local): The exclusive church is one which makes a distinction among the people it attempts to reach. Whether local or non-local, it attempts to serve those it feels are neglected and to represent their interests. Some examples are the Language Church, the Racial Church, the Theologically Exclusive Church, the Class Church, and the Church with Specialized Ministries.


Involvedness and involutedness are the two ends of a continuum that can be measured. Geographic inclusiveness and exclusiveness are specific positions taken by congregations in relationship to their neighbors. A congregation that is involuted and geographically exclusive is going to be narrow, self-centered, and ethnocentric. Its center will not be God and His purposes.

Our churches must become aware of their position on this continuum if they are to be responsible to the claim that the Gospel makes upon us. Each congregation must take responsibility for its “self-awareness.” This awareness can be aided by a research process that calls on sociological insights. The process of renewal will require spiritual commitment in order to act effectively and responsibly. Congregational repentance is an alternative to self-protection and avoidance of the needs of “other” brothers and sisters.

L. W. Lockett was Assistant Professor of Social Work at Tabor College, 1973-1977.

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