17 February 2013

Friends, here’s an imaginary incident I am sure many of us can relate to.

It was a rather awkward moment. “Is this your first time here?” asked the church member. “Um… no. We’ve been coming for about a year, “ I muttered.  “Well at least he smiled,” I thought as the conversation lapsed, “Even though he doesn’t know who I am.”

Of course, I guess that in any group much larger than standard classroom, it’s going to be hard to get to know everyone personally, let alone to be friends with them all.

But our church vision statement commits us to working at ‘real community’. And anyone who knows anything about the Bible, knows that the way we love one another, and especially the way we welcome newcomers, will be real marks of our Christ-likeness.

And I’ve already reported recently that your feedback has led pastoral staff to focus in 2013 on welcoming and integrating newcomers. But a few pastoral staff aren’t going to do it all!

The attitude of hospitality is the key thing here. But allow me to make a few suggestions about welcoming others. I hope these will help us to turn attitudes into actions!

1. Don’t jump to conclusions. So don’t say, “Are you new here?” You simply might not have noticed them before. They may be returning after an absence or from another congregation. Perhaps you could just say, “Hello, I don’t think we’ve met before. My name’s X…”

2. Trying sitting in a different spot from time to time. This has a few advantages. You often get to know regulars from the congregation whom you wouldn’t normally talk to. And you can be more available to spot and go sit next to someone who seems new to you.

3. As I’ve written before, fill up from the front. It’s important to leave seats near the exits available for guests and latecomers. They often feel a bit shy and prefer to be inconspicuous.

4. Learning names is a small but significant step in making people feel welcome. That’s why we encourage you to consider wearing nametags. The newcomer is trying to learn dozens of names. But even regulars can sometimes have trouble recalling a name to a face they know. Another tip is to repeat a name you’ve just learnt immediately in the conversation with them.

5. Most of us struggle in conversations with people we don’t yet know at times, so don’t feel you’ve got to do it all alone. Why not introduce them to another friend at church? And if another church member introduces someone to you, please go beyond a polite handshake!

6. Lastly, could you at least commit to expanding your friendship circle at church in 2013 by one or two individuals or families? In Acts 20:35, Paul remembers the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ In giving hospitality and sharing real community, you will almost certainly receive more blessing than you realise at the time!

The reason we must work at this ministry is not because we are terribly unfriendly. But newcomers don’t always come with Velcro applied! That’s why it’s up to us all to help them stick. It’s not just a job for the ushers or pastors, or the highly gregarious. But too often the job that belongs to everybody tends to be left to everybody else. Don’t let that be you.

Warmly in Christ

Sandy Grant