I heard it a variety of ways:

“Your church is not very friendly.”

“No one greeted me on Sunday morning.”

“I don’t feel welcomed here.”

“Everyone seems to already have their friends, and they don’t have room for more.”

This familiar critique came through email, on the backs of visitor cards, and sometimes face to face.

Initially, I fretted about what we could do to be more welcoming. I filled our family’s calendar with weekly dinners, hosting a new and an old family together to facilitate connections. I urged my husband (the pastor) to send out an email to the members encouraging them to talk to visitors on Sundays or invite them for a meal. I strategized the best ways to incorporate people into the body through visitor lunches, personal emails from a pastor, community group outreach, etc. After several years of hearing this complaint, however, my empathy waned, and I became a little defensive. There were, after all, several pathways of connection set up for new people. It was their choice whether to take advantage of them or not. And how dare they call my church family unfriendly? These were some of the kindest people I knew.

I find myself, now, in the position of a newcomer in a church community 2,000 miles away from my old one. My husband and I recently moved our family from West to East coast, and are no longer in pastoral ministry. The tables are turned, and I can empathize in a whole new way with the people who had a hard time breaking in to the community life of our church.

Should We Expect the Church to Give us Friends?

Before I share what I’ve learned from both sides of the table, I think it’s important to discuss the role of the church in friendship formation. I learned, in our fifteen years of ministry, that many people church-shop because they are lonely and want more friends. For years, I believed this was my role – to provide friends for every lonely soul who showed up. I filled up my calendar with dinners and coffees, planned playdates and baby showers, made meals for new moms, and constantly fretted about who might be feeling left out. But is the point of church to be a marketplace for friends? Is this why Jesus established the church, so that no one would be friendless?

I combed through several creeds and confessions, and was unsurprised to find that “facilitating friendships” was not listed among the purposes or functions of the church. Worship, biblical teaching, mission, sanctification, administration of the sacraments, and church discipline all made the list, but not providing meaningful connections. Similarly, the writers of the New Testament, in describing the church, used phrases like “a pillar a buttress of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15), “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:20), and “a holy priesthood” (I Pet. 2:5). Not once is the church described as “a place to find good friends.” New Testament believers were compelled to regularly gather together, but fellowship is not intended to be the same as playing match-maker for friendships.

On the other hand, almost every confession and creed use the phrase “the communion of saints” when defining the essence of the church. My favorite is the Confession of Belhar, drafted in the wake of apartheid in South Africa, which necessarily weights unity as a primary concern of the church.

“…This unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another…” You can read the rest of the creed here.

Metaphors such as “the household of God” (Eph. 2:20, I Tim. 3:15), “the family of believers” (I Pet. 2:17), and “the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12, Rom. 12:5, I Cor. 12:27) abound in the letters to the churches. Paul’s favorite term of endearment for his fellow Christians is, “brothers and sisters” (2 Thess. 1:1, 3:1, 4:10, 5:1, Phil. 3:1, 4:1, Gal. 6:1). And how many hundreds of “one another’s” have you come across which address our individual responsibility to love and care for each other (Eph 4:32, Col. 3:13, John 13:34, Rom. 12:10)?

Fellowshipping with believers, loving and serving each other, spurring one other to good works, and making deep connections within the family are all wonderful and inevitable products of healthy churches. Here is where we get it wrong, though.

The purpose of the church is the same as the purpose of the first humans created in God’s image – to collectively imitate, represent, and glorify God on this earth. With this in mind, we worship, we serve, we commune, we teach, we learn – not for how it benefits us, but for how it makes much of the God who calls us into fellowship with himself through Christ. The love we show our fellow Christians is not the point of the church, but it is a powerful medium to express God’s love to a watching world (John 13:35).

Many of today’s Christians approach church as a marketplace for friends and not as a literal and metaphorical collection of redeemed voices blended together to sing the praises of our Redeemer. In doing so, they communicate to a watching world that church is just another place among many to meet people – one which most unbelievers would reject in favor of a less time-consuming, judgmental, or self-sacrificial option.

Not only will this cart-before-the-horse view of church friendships spoil our witness, but it also has the potential to damage the very relationships we are craving. The best friendships are ones which we stumble upon in pursuit of other things. As C.S. Lewis points out in The Four Loves, true friendships cannot be formed face-to-face, but side-to-side.

“That is why those pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any. The very condition of having friends is that we should want something else besides friends. Where the truthful answer to the questions Do you see the same Truth? Would be ‘I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a friend,’ no friendship can arise…There would be nothing for the friendship to be about; and friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.”

Of course, church-goers have more in common than enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice, but the truth remains – friendships are usually forged, not by seeking them out for our own fulfillment, but by both parties looking ahead, walking arm in arm in the same direction.

If every Christian saw the church as a place to join forces with fellow believers in their quest to imitate, represent, and glorify Christ, solid friendships in Christ would inevitably result.

Posture of the Church

Bearing in mind that the church exists to be a witness of Christ to the world, not to facilitate friendships for its members, the church does bear the responsibility to welcome and enfold the newcomer into its ranks. (By “the church” I mean, of course, every member of the established community, not just the leadership of the church.) I was not wrong in making newcomers feel welcomed into our church. My error was in trying to be friends with all of them, which not only fed into their consumeristic view of the church but also proved to be unsustainable for me as the church grew. If we remember that friendship is not the ultimate goal, but following Christ’s example of radical hospitality, the church can and should assume a welcoming, arms-open-wide posture.

As the existing members of a church community, here are some practices to help you welcome the newcomer.

  1. Intentional Hospitality – Don’t assume that the newcomer’s lunch after church will suffice to help new people feel welcomed. There’s no substitute for opening up your home and letting them into your life. Make it part of your weekly or monthly rhythm, and especially seek out the newcomers on the margins, not just those who you think you’ll hit it off with.
  2. Making Sundays all about the newcomer – Sunday mornings are the newcomer’s first exposure to your community. Now that I am one, I understand more fully how uncomfortable it is to walk into a space where everyone knows each other, but no one knows me. Be purposeful about greeting and actually conversing with newcomers. Catch up with your friends another time.
  3. Welcoming Communication – Refrain from using language that alienates or confuses newcomers. When there is one newcomer among a group of old friends, for example, make sure you explain references to past shared experiences or inside jokes. Also, don’t assume everyone in the room knows everyone else. Don’t say, for example, “To RSVP for this event, see Sherry,” without first introducing Sherry.
  4. Personal Invitations – We all know everyone is invited to church events, but a personal invitation with a “hope to see you there” gives the newcomer a sense that they are wanted and welcomed, as well as a person to talk to when they show up.
  5. Remembering Names – I’ll never forget the family who told me they decided to join our church because I remembered their names on their second week. The thing is, I’m horrible at names. I just try really hard because I know how much it means to people.
  6. Assuming there are visitors at every gathering – I can’t tell you how many churches we visited where there is little to no explanation of the service elements, directions to the bathroom, what to do with the kids, etc. Simple explanations, like you would give at your home when hosting a party, not only make the newcomer feel more at ease, they train your existing members to be ever-aware of their responsibility to be hospitable.

If you’re naturally a hospitable, outgoing person, this list may seem intuitive and basic. But we found ourselves regularly needing to remind our church people to be sensitive to newcomers, especially the more familiar we became with each other. And now that I’m on the other side, I am learning that our church wasn’t the only one that needed these reminders.

Posture of the Newcomer

Bearing in mind the ultimate goal in joining a church is not making friends but linking arms with other believers to make much of Christ, what are some postures you can adopt which can make it easier as a newcomer to break into the community of a church you believe God is calling you to join?

  1. Hospitality. Yes, I said hospitality. Don’t wait for people to invite you to their house. Do the inviting.
  2. Courage. I had to practice this recently by attending a small (40 women total) weekend retreat after attending only a few months. Almost every woman I met commented on my bravery. And I agree. It took guts to go, not knowing a soul. But I was glad I took the plunge.
  3. Humility. Every church has issues. As an outsider, you probably have eyes to see the imperfections that those who have been around awhile don’t. Pointing them out right away will not win you any affection. Wait awhile. Settle in, and serve your new family. Earn the right to critique, and be willing to put some skin in the game.
  4. Confidence. Not the obnoxious kind, but the humble, self-assured kind. You are uniquely crafted in the image of God, and gifted to contribute to this family. Be gracious, be kind, but please, be yourself. Don’t try to morph into the church culture just to fit in. The church needs what you have to offer.
  5. Vulnerability. Appearing to have it all together may earn you admirers but few true Ask for help when you need it. Show your warts. (OK, maybe not all of them right away. Reveal them at appropriate times.)
  6. Service. Jump in and start helping people. There are needs everywhere. Don’t worry that you’ll get roped into a life-long commitment. If you need a break down the road, take one. The people who assimilated fastest into our church were the ones who started serving right away.

My advice to the newcomer probably hasn’t changed much now that I’m on the other side of the table. My empathy, however, has increased in spades. I now understand that some of these postures are extremely difficult to take. I fretted for a week after breaking down crying in front of some of the women at the retreat because I didn’t want them to think I was emotional and weepy. Being completely unknown in a new tribe is disorienting and uncomfortable. It also takes time to feel integrated into the community, a truth I am constantly telling myself, as possibly the world’s least patient person.

If the Shoe Fits

It is human nature to read an article such as this and apply it to someone else. “See? If only the church I’m attending would be more hospitable, I’d feel more connected.” Or, “I wish people would stop complaining about how hard it is to make friends here, and just jump in and serve.” A friend of mine used to always remind me, “You are the only one you can control.” Community life in the church will never be perfect, but if you focus only on what other people are or are not doing, you will never be content. Adjust whatever needs adjusting in your heart, and let the Holy Spirit work on everyone else.