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.