When a congregation is fairly stable and the members become comfortable working together it isn’t unusual for them to forget what it is like for the visitor or newcomer in their midst. This can be especially true of the church leadership, who are the ultimate “insiders” in the fellowship.
Everyone on the leadership team speaks the same language, one formed through shared history, experience and goals. By the time one assumes a leadership position in a church or ministry, even a women’s ministry, one has usually moved beyond any feelings of insecurity or alienation they may have felt when first joining the membership.
For many years, as the pastor’s family, my sons and I were “instant insiders” in a sense. We didn’t have to struggle to find our place in the church family and had quite a lot of influence on decisions made within the fellowship. On the other hand, we were not just “trying on” the church to see if we liked it. We were committed for the long haul and were motivated to find ways we might adapt and thrive in each new environment. For us, deciding to attend a different church in the community was not an option.
We now find ourselves in the unfamiliar position of trying to find a new church home where my grown sons can feel comfortable and thrive as they worship and serve God. We are no longer the family in the parsonage, but “church-shoppers” seeking a congenial church home.
What a difference a change of perspective can make.
The fellowship we visited this morning was open, friendly, Bible-based and appeared to be sincerely servant-hearted. There were traditions and songs that were new to us, as one would expect, but I enjoyed it, overall, and left the sanctuary thinking that we may have found our new family.
In the car on the way home I discovered that my sons and I had very different impressions of the morning. While there were the usual discussions of just how long a sermon is too long, and why there couldn’t be even one familiar song, I was surprised to hear how very uncomfortable one us had been with what I call the assumption of intimacy. In many ways this church family behaved like one big happy family. They had instantly adopted us, in effect.
At one point the pastor asked the congregation to break up into prayer circles to pray for the concerns that had been expressed. This was obviously a familiar practice for this church and, although we didn’t know many of the people there, one I was comfortable following. I was unprepared for how threatening this was to one of my sons. When I discovered his feelings I excused us from accepting the invitation to join a circle, explaining that we were new and it would be a bit uncomfortable for us. We sat quietly praying as a family and I put it out of my mind. This one episode set the tone of the morning for my son, though, and he is adamant about this particular church not being for him. So our search continues.
As a church leader you might think that no adult should decide church membership on something so seemingly insignificant. “How petty!” we might say, and if we were talking about a member of the fellowship leaving the church or causing a big to-do over worship styles, pews vs. chairs or carpet colors, you would be absolutely correct. These are petty issues.
For the seeker they can be deal-breakers. And for a family trying to please multiple members they can be especially difficult to overcome.
This whole experience has made me review the sort of welcome extended in my past congregations and women’s groups. How often did assumptions by me and other leaders about what should or should not make a newcomer uncomfortable turn someone away?
While I have been a vocal critic of those congregations that have turned everything upside down in order to be seeker-friendly and in so doing have alienated their membership base, their motivation is right on target: to be sensitive to the different needs of the seeker.
Walking through the door of an unfamiliar church is an act of hope and courage. The visitor is an outsider in a group of insiders…just by definition.
The quicker we can comfort and reassure a guest, the better. We want our sanctuary to live up to its name as a place of safety.
That means different things to different people. No group can cover every contingency of preference. We can’t know the history of everyone who may come to our gathering for the first time.
Some guests come from church backgrounds and will be looking for familiar hymns and rituals. Some will have had no contact with any organized religion and will prefer music and surroundings similar to their daily experiences.
Ministries can pick one particular seeker-style to whom to appeal and let the others find someplace they like better. Many have made this choice.
I shy away from that attitude because I wonder if the person who comes seeking God and who is made to feel uncomfortable will be willing to keep looking. What if they think every Christian gathering is just like our group and reject us all? What a burden.
If we can treat every visitor as a vulnerable individual with unique needs and sensitivities we can find the key to the dilemma.
If, at this morning’s worship the leader had said something like, “We are now going to pray for the concerns presented and those others that are on our hearts. Feel free to form smalls groups or sit quietly in your seat as we seek God’s will,” I think my very shy son would not have felt singled out for his discomfort around strangers. His perspective on the entire service might have been less biased.
As organizations we can’t be all things to all people. However, we don’t need to write off the people who are different from us, or discount the value of our current members as we try to appeal to the “unchurched”. We only need to respectfully acknowledge the needs of a newcomer in a way that gives guidance through the unfamiliar and reassurance that it is not adhering to the form of our service that matters.
What matters, or rather, Who matters, is the one we serve and who loves every unique, quirky one of us.