I recently shared our family’s journey from our old church to our new church. As of this July, that “new” church has now been a place we’ve called home for 20 years. In those 20 years we've seen people come and go. We've seen babies born and we’ve been to many funerals. We've seen those who were children when we started grow into young adults, the teens move into marriage and start families of their own, the young couples become the middle-aged and the middle-aged become seniors.
We've had a few pastors over the course of 20 years. As a church family we’ve weathered a few bumps. We've lived life with the people here as they have watched our family make this same progression. (For the record, I’ll claim middle age but I have a few years before senior status!)
And when I look around the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, or see faces in the hallway or in “First Cup,” our coffee time between services, I see family. Some feel like close family, some more distant relatives—with even a quirky uncle or two. But family.
As I reflect back, I think about what it took in that transition many years ago to progress from wide-eyed newbies to a family that felt like a part of the church—part of the body that Christ talks about in the Bible.
I believe my church (as in the people of the church) did several things to make our transition a good one that led to a long-lasting relationship with this congregation.
There are things that we did, too. Assimilation is not a passive process and the more we own our transitions, the smoother they are likely to be.
So what about you? If you are in a season of transition, you may benefit from the lists below. One is a list of things a church can do in the welcoming process that will help people become connected. The other list is things that you can do to move you from transition to a sense of belonging.
How church members can help newcomers get connected
Notice new people.
This may seem obvious but it’s harder than you think. The bigger the church, the harder it may be to discern who’s new and who’s not. It’s possible people don’t want to greet because they’re afraid they’ll find out someone’s been coming for years. I say, if you don’t know someone, you greet them! Whether they just walked in the door for the first time that Sunday or have been coming for 15 years, greeting them is a chance to expand your knowledge of your family.
Be willing to part from your friends to connect with and serve newcomers.
A healthy faith and a healthy church will lead to great relationships. Worship days and special events are something we look forward to, in part, because we get to see our friends—our church family. It’s like a mini family reunion. But if we get too engrossed in our conversation circles, we miss golden opportunities to welcome others and invite them in.
Invite people to classes and activities
Many times, newcomers desperately want to plug in to a Sunday school class, small group or church activity, but it can be scary to walk in to a roomful of strangers. Your invitation to your group or to another group you think they may connect with can make all the difference.
Invite newcomers into your home
There is nothing that assimilates people faster than creating a personal connection outside of church. People in my church do this marvelously over the years.
Some of my sweetest memories of our early experiences at First Free include an invitation to an after-church lunch at the home of longtime members. They also invited another family that day, also new to the church, with similar aged children. They helped build a natural connection between us as new families and demonstrated Christ-like hospitality.
Another family invited us to their home on Christmas Eve. It was shocking to me that people would open their home to people they didn’t even know that well on a day that holds strong family traditions. But they eagerly included us—and another newer church family—in their celebration and it was a wonderful experience.
How you can help yourself get connected
I am a huge advocate of personal responsibility. Taking ownership of your own assimilation experience is vital to establishing strong connections. Here are some things I’ve done and observed over the years that have made a difference.
1. Find something to join
It can be as simple as attending a church potluck or choosing a Sunday School class, Bible study or small group. Going where people are and engaging in fellowship and study together is a fast-track way to connect with people in a meaningful way.
2. Accept invitations
If someone asks you to a class or an event—say yes! I’ve heard people say, “I’m not sure if I want to join that.” I say, go, anyway! It’s not a marriage proposal, just an invitation to come and be part of body life in the church. Going once doesn’t obligate you to do more than that event and you’ll certainly make some new acquaintances.
3. Involve your children
Sometimes new families hesitate to plug their kids into Sunday morning classes or other children’s activities. It may be because the kids are hesitant, but if you think you want them involved eventually, why not just start sooner rather than later? My son, who was four at the time we made our transition, was very reluctant to walk into a class that first day, but the teachers were so understanding and welcoming. One came into the hall and just sat with him a while until he was ready to go in. Engaging him in kids’ activities allowed us to have grown-up conversations and get to know people more quickly than if we had kept him with us.
4. Offer your service
Volunteering to teach, sing, serve meals, or meet any variety of needs a church has on a regular basis is a fantastic way to put your faith into action and meet others in the process.
5. Reach out to others
I am wary whenever I hear someone has left a church because the people weren’t friendly. “We attended a church for six months and nobody talked to us,” they may say. It makes me want to ask, “Well, who did you talk to?”
We make the mistake of thinking that because we’re new, we are the only new ones or the only ones who feel awkward or haven’t found their place yet. Truth is, there may be someone at church who’s been struggling to get connected and is just ready for a new friend. Your outreach could be the act that builds a bridge to a lifelong friendship.
Taking personal initiative, in my opinion, is the biggest catalyst to rapid assimilation into a new church. You act and others will respond.
Our journey began with finding a church that could help us mature in our walk with the Lord. Being part of a strong church family has been absolutely vital to help us nourish a healthy faith. And doing the work early on to connect with people helped us feel like part of the family. It’s definitely worth the effort.
If you’re feeling disconnected at your church, you may want to look first into the mirror and ask yourself if you’ve done all you can to reach out, get involved and serve. If you believe you’ve tried everything and still feel alone in a sea of people, it may be time to pray and see if God wants to lead you somewhere else.
If you want to know more about life at First Evangelical Free Church, don’t hesitate to contact us and connect with a pastor. Better still, come visit us some Sunday! We’ll do our best to say “Hi,” but if we miss the opportunity, you go first and we’re sure to say “Hi” back.
About the author
Nancy Zugschwert is a writer and speaker who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has been married to Jim for 30 years and they have four sons, one daughter-in-law, and a dog. She works full-time as director of communications at North Central University in Minneapolis. Nancy and her family have been attending First Free Church since 1995. Visit her personal blog at theUpSide.com.