Words of Faith

Words of Faith: Churches should welcome new members like family

July 9, 2014 

On a typical weekday morning, by 8 a.m., I have not yet been civil to anyone.

I will have walked the dogs, perhaps alone or perhaps in the company of an equally silent spouse or friend. I will have had two cups of tea (white, with sweetener) and will have read all of the Charlotte Observer – and the Fort Mill Times, if it’s a Wednesday – except the sports section. I like my morning routine. I’ve never been a “morning person,” although I do like the mornings after they begin about 9 a.m. So I like having the space to do what I need to do to become conscious and caring every day.

This morning, by 8 a.m., I’ve spent a lot of time interacting with people, having French toast with raspberries and blueberries at a table full of folks, and having read much of the paper.

Our daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons – ages 3 and 6 – are visiting us for three weeks from their home in Kilkenny, Ireland. Later this afternoon, five members of the family from Pennsylvania will arrive. And in a few days, two more daughters and one more grandson will join us. If my count is correct, there will be 14 of us living in our house. That’s a big change from our usual two.

We forget how easy our routine is. My spouse and I can go from pajamas to out the door in about 15 minutes. We forget that with small children, it takes a lot more time. “Time to go” for us means walking out the door. “Time to go” for them means getting water bottles, changes of clothes, finding shoes, etc.

We really love having people around. We love cooking for crowds, watching the young cousins play together, and moving in and out of conversations over days. We love all the water play in this hot weather. We’re grateful to many folks who welcome us into their pools and onto their boats. It all makes us extraordinarily happy.

But it also takes some work – for everyone. Some of us are in our usual place, but without our usual patterns of work and interaction. Some are out of place, away from both home and usual patterns of interaction. It takes some work and negotiation from everyone for all of us to have a good time.

Being part of a congregation is much like being a family. When new folks come into a congregation, it changes everything – or it should – at least just a little bit. If the people who are already in the congregation don’t acknowledge that there are new folks, welcome them into the patterns of the church and develop new ministries, new members will never feel welcomed or truly included. It would be like our ignoring the rest of the family in our home by continuing our patterns unchanged, oblivious to the discomfort and lack of welcome we communicate.

New members are around because they like us or they feel called by God to be in our membership. But there’s always a sense of being a little bit off-balance as they find their places of belonging and service.

A lot of congregations around haven’t welcomed many new members in a long time, nor will they. They’re not willing to make any changes. They wish for new members to come, to fund current programs and to provide new energy for doing the same old things. That’s not a very successful strategy. Today, people find church because they are seeking a community of welcome, worship and service. Duty and tradition and guilt no longer rule the day.

I wonder what it would look like if congregations thought of themselves as family welcoming out-of-town members. What would it look like if the families who were “at home,” really looked to find ways of making their cousins feel welcome? I guess in some families, cousins feel welcome by sitting down with them and offering them a cup of coffee.

In our house, people are made to feel welcome and part of the family when everybody pitches in to help – as sous chef, as meal cleanup crew, as bed maker, as dog walkers. We’re all in this together. Everybody is needed, and we all need to adapt and work in order for us to have a fun, thriving life together.

I believe that in order for congregations to have a vital and thriving life together, we need to understand the same thing: That we’re all in this together; everybody is needed; and we all need to adapt and work. Sometimes that means doing the same things in the same old way. Sometimes it means doing some of the same things in a new way. And sometimes, it means doing brand-new things.

Thanks be to God.

The Rev. Dr. Joanne Sizoo is pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Mill, near the intersection of Highway 160 and Gold Hill Road. Contact her at jsizoo@gracewired.org.

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