We didn’t find ourselves church shopping as much as usual this time around – “we,” being my husband and our two young sons. “This time around,” being another unexpected move, this time from Northern California to the Pacific Northwest.
Instead, we did our homework ahead of time. We connected with church leaders over e-mail and Twitter; we pored over their websites in order to find the best fit for our little family.
But it hasn’t been that easy every other time we’ve moved and had to switch churches.
I’m guessing we’re not alone in visiting a new church for the first time. Whether you attend the congregation you grew up in, or just celebrated your three-month anniversary in a faith community, I guarantee there are people among you, visiting your church for the first time. And, no matter how long or how involved you find yourself with the body of Christ, it’s easy not to see the visitors among you.
It’s also easy for those visitors, just like my family and me, to then be turned away from the church.
Curious as to what turns a new person away? I’ve got seven ideas for you.
It’s easy to spot visitors: we don’t know where we’re going, because we don’t know what we’re doing in this new environment. Whether you’re a greeter or the person sitting two seats to my right, I need you to see me – because isn’t seeing half the battle?
Now here’s the deal: we’re Jesus people. We’re supposed to be filled with his light, his joy, his love – because this is how the Spirit of God has changed us. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited a new church and not received a single smile. So, be brave, meet my hopeful gaze, and give me a genuine grin, will you?
It’s easy, when we know the routines and the rhythms and the know-hows of a place, to forget that not everyone knows what we know. Chances are, if it looks like I might not know what I’m doing, I really don’t know what I’m doing. So, offer to help me. I’ll be so grateful to you.
Sometimes we think the business of getting to know newcomers belongs to the staff of a church – but that can’t be further from the truth. As the body of Christ, we’re the fleshy arms and legs of Jesus, and just as Christ calls us to be the Church, the staff of your church needs you to notice new people like me.
5. Forget that I’m a person who wants to be known, just like you.
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It always amazes me how much I can learn about a person in less than a minute’s time. That being said, because we humans were and are made for genuine relationship, there’s something about another person wanting to really know me that makes me feel known and understand. So, ask me where I’m from. Connect the dots. Practice active listen so you can ask me another question. I guarantee it’ll make someone like me feel loved!
In one breath, I write about getting to know me, but in the next breath, I also ask you to respect my boundaries. If I’m an introverted or private person, I may not want to answer your questions – so be okay with and respect my boundaries if I choose not to flow with you in conversation. Don’t take it personally!
Here’s the deal: we, as parishioners, oftentimes sit in the same area in a church service. Visitors, who might still be visiting four weeks in, oftentimes sit in the same area in a church service as well. Whether I see you afterwards the church foyer, or the next week while sitting behind you again, I’ll probably remember you, because, to me, you’re one of the few representatives of this place. So, remember me. Write down my name on the inside of your Bible or in your cell phone. Build up this name-remembering muscle.
The list could continue on forever. If you’re an usher, don’t seat me in the front row. If I choose to keep my newborn or my children with me, because one of us isn’t comfortable in the children’s program, don’t glare at me if they act like children – Jesusloves the little children, just as much as you and me.
But here’s the bottom line: we really can be good neighbors to those who are visiting our churches for the first time. We can emulate the actions and compassion of Jesus who welcomed every sinner and saint into his midst. We can take note of the Good Samaritan who noticed the stranger, the one every other passerby ignored and walked right on past.
And maybe in doing this, we’ll prevent some new visitors from church shopping – because we’ll have appropriately welcomed them into Christ’s space.
Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her first book,The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice will release in February (Zondervan). You can connect with her through her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.