This list of “top ten things we have learned about welcoming newcomers to our congregation” struck the Rev. Phil Hirsch of the synod staff as helpful, especially as we advance our synod’s theme in 2011: To See Ourselves As Others Do. The article* by the Rev. Keith Anderson is reproduced with permission below.
Congregations often define their success in welcoming newcomers by the number of people who become members.
At my congregation, we have intentionally shifted our focus to improving the quality of our welcome, and it feels like maybe we’re on to something. We’ve found our way mostly through trial and error—and by listening carefully to the feedback of our visitors and newest members.
These are the top ten things we have learned about welcoming newcomers to our congregation over the last five years.
- Everyone is different and nothing is very straightforward. This is our mantra. There is no one pattern for the way people enter, engage and join our congregation. Every person and every situation is different. We try to honor that and not insist on uniformity. This requires flexibility and improvisation on our part, but it enriches our understanding of welcoming and of the beauty and diversity of the body of Christ.
- Expect new members. We used to wait until we had a critical mass of newcomers to schedule a day to welcome new members. Now, at the start of the year, we schedule two dates a year to welcome newcomers, in the fall and spring. This has helped us move from a mindset of “if people come” to “when people come.” That approach has extended into Sunday mornings as well. We confidently expect that there will be someone new and plan accordingly.
- Maintain an expansive idea of community. You don’t have to be a member of our congregation to be part of our community. Thanks to the Internet and social media, people are part of our community long before they arrive at the church—if they ever come. They have a sense of who we are, what we do, and how we live the gospel through our website, Facebook page and sermon blog.
- No classes. We don’t have classes for newcomers. Our only welcoming event is a brunch for newcomers that we have twice a year, a few weeks before welcoming new members. The brunch is always a graceful event. Newcomers can meet each other and meet current members of the congregation. We find that the inculcation that congregations try to instill at classes for newcomers happens more naturally and more fruitfully through conversation, visitation, involvement and developing relationships. People don’t want to hear about it, they want to experience it.
- Enable people to participate right away. Our congregation used to have an unspoken waiting period for participation. People would regularly be members for months or years before being asked to take a leadership role. Now we encourage people to get involved before they are members. We believe that you don’t need to be a “member” before you can start living out God’s calling in your life.
- Not joining does not equal failure. The end result of welcoming is not necessarily membership. If someone only comes for one Sunday, then we have ministered to them in some way. If people are with us for a while and decide not to join, we feel we’ve contributed to their discernment process. If you make welcoming only about membership, it’s a set-up for disappointment. Not everyone will join, and there will never be enough new members. Make it about ministry instead, and decide how you will measure success.
- Understand people’s passions. Listen for the way God is calling people to live out their faith—at work, at home, in the congregation or any combination of the three. Set people free to follow God’s call.
- The individual transforms the institution, not the other way around. We have a dream that one day, when we tell the stories of our congregation, we won’t tell time by when pastors came and left, but by when people came to our congregation—not “And then Pastor Anderson was called,” but rather, “Then Karen and Katie joined the congregation.” We expect newcomers to transform us, rather than expect the congregation to make everyone the same.
- Everyone is a greeter. One of the best things we did to be more welcoming was to do away with official greeters—those people congregations place near the front door to welcome people. By designating certain people, it let everyone off the hook. Now it’s a shared responsibility. Every Sunday as I greet people leaving the sanctuary after the service, there are several members engaging visitors in conversation. It is a beautiful scene.
- Decide to be assertive. There’s always a fear that you will drive people away if you are too assertive. That’s a risk we are willing to take. Except for one or two instances in five years, this has never been a problem. Indifference and indecisiveness are far worse than assertiveness.
* “Welcoming newcomers to our congregation” by the Rev. Keith Anderson, pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Woburn, Mass., was originally published in Seeds for the Parish, Spring 2011 edition. Seeds for the Parish is a resource paper for leaders of ELCA congregations. Pr. Anderson also shares his experiences in his blog at http://pastorkeithanderson.net.