When you and I are "We", "You" are not threatening

I recently wrote about how we can use language to create an inclusive group identity that welcomes those who might be otherwise be perceived as the Other. Now, I’d like to add that adopting an inclusive group identity has many, many benefits. Indeed, when we adopt an inclusive identity, we are more likely to see how other groups can help us and are more willing to receive constructive criticism from them.  Matthew Hornsey and colleagues (2004) found that Anglo-Australian (the ingroup) participants were more likely to receive constructive criticism from Asian-Australians (the outgroup) when Asian-Australians were perceived as fellow members of a shared, inclusive identity (e.g., Australians). Specifically, Anglo-Americans were more open to receiving critical information on the injustices that Asian-Australians experienced in Australian society when they perceived Asian-Australians are part of their group.  The Anglo-Australians found that when the outgroup is a friend rather than a foe, defensiveness is no longer necessary. The story of Bethlehem Lutheran Church is a prime example of how adopting an inclusive identity can help group members to receive valuable help from members of different groups. By the mid-1990s, the once-strong Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Minneapolis, MN was experiencing the effects of the urban decline that was sweeping across America. Enticed by suburban life, over 1000 Bethlehem attendees had moved out of the inner city and begun attending suburban churches. The church leaders were in dire straits; not willing to go down without a fight, they began looking for help. They found it in an unexpected place: among Southern Baptists.  Admittedly, the church leaders were skeptical when they heard of the Purpose-driven Church conference at Saddleback Church in Southern California. They grumbled to themselves, “What? Lutherans learn from Southern Baptists? Not likely…” There was real hesitancy on the part of the staff and elder board, but they ultimately felt the Spirit prompting them to attend the conference.  According to Pastor Christopher Nelson their foray into the Southern Baptist world did not begin well. During the first session of the conference, Pastor Nelson and the other leaders found themselves distracted by their sharp disagreement with Pastor Rick Warren’s theology. However, during the first coffee break the Bethlehem team got together and made a conscious collective decision to relinquish their allegiance to their cultural group (Lutheran) and adopt a humble stance. “We had to lay down our Lutheran biases. We knew that if we insisted on fighting with him [Pastor Warren] over what’s theologically correct, we were going to miss everything that we came out there for,” Pastor Nelson says.

The leadership team returned to Minnesota armed with a new approach for doing urban church and a teaching-style that was not only biblically and theologically sound and relevant to the congregation (as it was prior to attending the conference), but also application-oriented and directed toward life change. Since then, the church attendance has rebounded, giving has more than tripled and the church is now making a strong impact, with people serving in the local community and across the world.

As the trail-blazing pastor of the first mainline church to adopt the Purpose-driven Church model, Chris Nelson has learned the importance of adopting an inclusive identity in order to learn from and teach each other. “Rick Warren calls me his liberal Christian friend and I call him my conservative Christian friend. We’ve had some interesting political conversations, but we don’t have to agree on everything…he says some things that make my skin crawl, but so did Martin Luther.” Even though his church retains its distinct Lutheran identity (Pastor Nelson says the church remains “as Lutheran and liturgical as the day is long”), it has also adopted an inclusive identity that includes Southern Baptists. In fact, Pastor Nelson now teaches the Purpose-driven Church model to Lutheran churches as far as India, saying “Evangelicals really know how to communicate and know how to do church, so someone tell me what is wrong with that? Why can’t we learn from that?”