Newcomers at First Lutheran Church

Sometimes we refer to new people as “visitors,” “guests” or “prospective members.” But even after a visitor becomes a member, they struggle to find their place. We sometimes forget that they are still new. The word guest can mean someone honored, but also transient and not as privileged or important as established members. Also, not everyone who comes through our doors is a prospective member – they may never “join” and yet their presence to us is vital. Dr. Jessica Duckworth has provided an interesting discussion of these terms in her inspiring book “Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers can Save the Church.” I follow her in finding “newcomers” a helpful word for the wide variety of people who may be new to church.

We pastors have recently been hosting gatherings for newcomers and sponsors. Here are a few thoughts on welcoming newcomers (much of this applies to children, too – who are technically “new” just because they are young!):

The presence of newcomers brings spiritual vitality to the church. I think of the ways Jesus promises to be present with us AS the stranger and outcast (such as in Matthew 25). It’s not just that newcomers come to FLC to meet Christ. Their presence means we who already belong to FLC can meet Christ is surprising new ways! At the newcomer gatherings we share conversation over faith questions, such as “who is Jesus to you?” I think of how the deep faith, insights, questions and needs of newcomers shaped the basic programs of churches we (your pastors) served in the past.  Churches often ask “what existing church committee or ministry can we plug you into?”  but we also do well to ask “what new ministry does your presence here call for?”  As I think Duckworth points out somewhere, it’s not just the newcomers who need to integrate into the congregation; the congregation integrates to the newcomers.

Welcome isn’t just the job of a few, but of the whole congregation. We want as many people as possible to experience the spiritual vitality that new people bring. I am impressed at how many FLC people will approach newcomers during fellowship time or even invite passerby on the streets to church! One other way the congregation can welcome newcomers is to have one person who is a FLC member serve as a faith companion / sponsor for each person who begins to visit. When you are asked to do this, it can mean sending a personal note, showing up at newcomer gatherings, and standing with them as they are baptized / affirm their baptism.

These days, we may be welcoming more people who didn’t grow up in church. It’s one thing if a life-long Lutheran just wants to transfer their membership into a new congregation. Maybe the pastor can just introduce a few people and hand over a copy of the Constitution and Bylaws. But many people in California aren’t from Christian backgrounds, and even if they grew up in a Lutheran church, they aren’t certain how to live the faith in such complicated times. Not that any of us ARE certain! Sharing faith stories, asking hard questions, learning basic spiritual practices and teachings, reading the bible and praying for one another can all be helpful in the process of welcoming one another. One of my mentors used the word “catechumenate” for this process, borrowed from the first centuries before Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire. He would say, if the Holy Spirit is bringing people together into faith it’s worth taking some time to notice, listen and explore what God is doing.

There’s much to figure out on how to welcome new people at FLC. Hopefully what I’ve said gives some idea of our approach to this ministry.

Getting situated

When you ask, “are you getting situated?” I usually answer “yes, at least we’re starting to, but it takes awhile.”

At worship, “getting sit-uated” can mean just figuring out where to sit! There are seats to the side, behind and in front of the altar. Where should a pastor position his or herself? It’s a question that gets at our priorities in ministry : that we want, first, to be able to see as many of your faces as possible when we greet you with words of grace and peace. What a blessing, as we live so much with email, phone calls and onscreen images – that the people of God get an hour of seeing so many brothers and sisters face to face!

Besides being messengers, we are here as fellow listeners. One reason we’ve been drawn to the side seats is for that sense of being “under the Word.” We can look up to the lector’s face when she reads scripture and maybe better hear its promises and challenges as meant also for us pastors. Going along with this, where in many places with two pastors, both are vested and one preaches while the other presides, for now, we’re dividing things out differently. One presides, the other sits in the pew. That way, we get to experience worship from a different perspective and connect with you as we sing hymns and pray side by side.

These are important priority for us now: connecting with you, getting situated and learning about life in Palo Alto, listening to God in this new place and praying for the wisdom we’ll need to provide leadership as we move forward in response to God’s call.

You may wonder “what changes can we expect now that you’re here?” To begin with, we’ll be helping to manage big changes that are already underway! Besides getting used to us and our ways (why is the pastor sitting in the pew!?) you’ve had to say goodbye to Pr. Marv, Erin and Kathy! We are looking for a new youth minister and arranging for an interim choir director to take us into the coming church year (you should hear more soon about this …). An interim period  (as with Pr. Marv) gives us time to consider and appreciate the wonderful music and worship at FLC, and also have some (continued) conversation about future direction with these ministries. Thank you to so many who have helped us figure out worship for these summer months! A particular challenge has been figuring out worship that’s appropriate with participants from both 8:30 and 10:30 services, when we have so little experience with either!

We are indeed very appreciative of all the ways you welcome us: a beautiful place to live, a reminder of your name, chocolate pie, an inventory of sacristy drawers, and your general patience. We are very happy we’re here.

First greetings

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all! We write having just stumbled into town, with enough of our stuff unpacked to at least eat, sleep and dress (but as of today my worship-wear is still in one of many unmarked boxes …). You are providing us with a lovely rental home on Walter Hays Drive. We’ve had very pleasant walks around the shady sidewalks and flowers of our neighborhood – to the Arts Center, the Children’s Library and to multiple playgrounds. Coming from the San Fernando Valley, we’re not used to having so much so close together! We’ve also been to church. Thank you for the care package and gift certificates! Susan gave us a tour of the building and Allen has arranged for us to have email. We’re figuring out office space, more on that soon … Thank you to Kimberly and Matt for providing us with a wonderful meal, including insanely good chocolate pie.
There is much we’re learning and figuring out: Summer worship plans, our own schedules, office space, who’s who, and getting up to speed on the latest at First Lutheran. Thank you for your patience with us! – Pastor Bernt

It is so wonderful to finally be here! The past few months have been quite a journey for all of us. Both First Lutheran and the Hillesland/Marshall family have all been discerning, planning, and preparing in order to make this opportunity to be and work together happen. And here we are! As Bernt has stressed we have all felt so welcome during this transition. All of your kind and supportive gestures have made all the difference in helping us feel welcome and more at home in Palo Alto and the church. We thank you.

On our first day in the office Susan Scott gave us a thorough tour of the church, giving us a sense of not only where things are, but demonstrating the many gifts, talents, values, and the history of First Lutheran. It left me feeling even more excited at the opportunity to be a part of First Lutheran. I am looking forward to getting to know you all as individuals and as a community.

As we move further into summer we look forward to enjoying Picnics in the Park and fellowship with you all. Please feel free to share with us not only your welcomes, but also your questions and concerns. I know many of you are wondering how we are going to share a call, what our office hours will be, how we teach, preach and what we will change, etc.. I hope and pray that the coming weeks will bring us all the answers, reassurances, and comforts we seek.

May God continue to bless and keep us all!
Pastor Kate