I have recently had some conversations about finding real community in the church. A few people have said to me that they feel lonely or unwanted in church communities even though they have tried to belong. I have to say that I have noticed in some churches a disconnect between the talk of “if you’re a newcomer, you are so welcome here” and any actual effort to incorporate newcomers. For many people, when you ask them, “Are you feeling left out at church?” they don’t even hesitate. “Yes!” They answer swiftly.
In fact, I have had my own experiences with this!
As a pastor who used to lead congregations, either as a solo pastor or with a team, I am no longer in that role. I have helped recovering addicts for more than a decade now. But, I need a “church home” too.
Sadly, I have found it hard to connect in the several churches we have tried. To give you an example, I have sent three emails to the connections ministry and the office of the latest church we have been attending, wanting to join the prayer team. I haven’t heard back from anyone. Yet, from the platform, the message is constantly, “We’d love to help you connect.”
I went back to check the emails to understand if there was a reason for no response. Then I saw it. At least two of my emails were in response to the connections pastor. But he had sent his emails through a church program called “Planning Center.” Though he asked, “What can we do for you? Let us know if we can pray for you,” his emails were marked “Do not reply.” My responses had apparently gone nowhere.
The original model of church community
So many churches have said something like this in contemporary times: “We want to be a Book of Acts church!” In part they are speaking of the great power of the Spirit unleashed on the Church from the Day of Pentecost onward. It is described in the incredible book of Acts.
But, they’re also often referring to having the type of fellowship (friendship) that is described in the Book of Acts in the growing community of disciples after Jesus’ ascension. It was wonderful and close.
Here’s what the Bible says:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily. (Acts 2:42-47)
“We want to be like that!” many in the church will say. And yet, far too many people, as I said, answer that question, “Feeling left out in the church?” with an unequivocal yes.
What is going wrong?
Fault of the lonely church member?
Some might read this and say, “Well, people have to try to get involved. They can’t just come on Sunday and sit for one service and expect to feel bonded to the community. Especially if they show up right before the service and leave right after it’s over. These newcomers need to volunteer, attend events, join a small group, etc.”
At times, these are the kind of words that leaders may respond with – defensively. But what if the person has joined a small group or volunteered to be a children’s ministry helper or a greeter, and so on, yet they still feel lonely, unknown? Would you tell them, “It’s all your fault. You’re not doing enough or you would feel better. Get more involved.”
I know a couple that used to do everything “under the sun” for a church to which they belonged. After many years of feeling disconnect from the church and its leadership, they reported that no one seemed to notice or reach out to them when they left. And they had left openly, letting people know.
Reimagining how we include people
I have a theory that the loving community we read about in the Book of Acts is still very far from and elusive for many American churches. Whether churches around the world do better at building loving community, I don’t know.
In America, people tend to be independent, concerned with their well-being and that of their family. They may have a circle of close friends but the independence, though valuable, gets in our way of being really close and vulnerable with others. And Christianity calls us to vulnerable community. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15 ESV) We are invited to truly feel continual, powerful empathy for each other.
Think of the well-known, beautiful 1 Corinthians 13 passage which says: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, does not boast…and so on. This passage speaks of not keeping a record of wrongs (that is, holding grudges or resentment). This text ends with saying “love always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres.”
Is that a picture of each of us who follow Christ or do we have a lot of room for improvement?
Does church leadership insulate itself from people?
This is a challenging question that I would hope church leaders would do some soul-searching about. “Do we really love our people? Are we truly try to reach out to and incorporate newcomers?” Is there purposeful follow up with people?
In my example above of the connections pastor who wrote me using the Planning Center app so that I could not reply to him, of course, that could have been accidental. Perhaps, he didn’t realize he had sent me an email to which I could not respond. But shouldn’t he have been attentive to such details? Did he choose to write me through the app so as to seem like “he had done something,” but could avoid being bothered?
Leaders need to reach out to newcomers
Sometimes church leaders fail to really follow through with people, to really care about them.
We began our interactions with the connections pastor by going to a newcomers luncheon where he was assigned to hand out membership notebooks and give an overview talk about the church. His emails to me followed this meeting. And, as I’ve said, I couldn’t answer them.
I’ve searched the website for the emails of staff and cannot find them listed. The next step, of course, will be to phone the office. But what if, this connections pastor had followed up with a phone call to us and to each of those attending the newcomers gathering? What if he had visited our homes if we were open to that? There were only a few families at this gathering. It would not have taken long to personally follow up with people.
Leaders need to avoid insider language
And, if leaders are being mindful of the visitors and newcomers they may have on any morning, they will make sure they don’t fall into insider language and thinking.
For example, if they refer to an event, or even speak to someone from the platform, “There’s Harry…wasn’t that great two Sundays ago?” a lot of newcomers will have no idea what’s being talked about and it’s uncomfortable.
Carey Nieuwhof has written a wonderful article called 5 Tell-Tale Signs Your Church Isn’t Outsider-Friendly that gives more insights about what is and isn’t welcoming in church practices.
Greeting everyone is a good idea
Pastors who wander through the congregation and shake hands with the people who are well-known to them and easy to get along with, hurt others who would love a greeting too. I know of a pastor who when you go to his church, he stands at the door to welcome people and shake hands. Unfortunately, he vigorously shakes the hands and chats with those he knows well. With others, he does the pastor gesture of grabbing the hand and “moving you along” without saying anything.
People clearly know the ones for whom he has special fondness. All this kind of favoritism has to go for the church to be a truly loving and welcoming place.
Giving instructions from the platform
It is also important to explain things to the community, “Here is how we take communion at this church,” for example. People need to know what to do and how to do it. There’s nothing that screams, “We are an insiders’ club,” than not explaining things for the sake of newcomers and “outsiders.”
People will come to our churches, hopefully, who have no familiarity with Christianity. If we’re doing our job right, our welcome will especially draw the non-Christian in – many of them who want to explore who Jesus is! So, if you decide to say the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, wouldn’t having the words on the screen to help new people and especially non-Christian “explorers” feel comfortable be a wise move?
Leaders can do so much to model warmth and inclusion just by the way they make sure to greet everyone, not just their favorites. I know we live in an age of such harshness, cruel words on social media, 1 star ratings and ranting reviews. I don’t blame pastors and church staff from wanting to hide and insulate themselves from criticism at times. Sometimes church attenders and members do act like judgmental consumers waiting to pounce on anything not done just right according to their tastes.
Church should emanate Christ’s love
But, church ought to be a place that feels different. We all have a hand, if we participate in a church, in making it more loving and more biblical.
A dear friend of mine (who doesn’t know a stranger) used to go through a congregation she was a part of and just ask people, “May I put you in my phone contacts?” Up and down the rows she would go making friends. And unlike the connections pastor I have mentioned above, she faithfully followed up with all of them. She would open her home and bring many of these people into her life and her family’s life with dinners and gatherings.
Ignoring the newcomer
In contrast, I remember one time running an Alpha program in a church I led as a pastor. The point of Alpha is to invite non-Christians into the church and allow them to explore Christianity. I gave training to the hosts for the dinners that would precede the Alpha talks. “Make people feel at home,” I would say again and again and explain how. Yet, to my dismay, at one dinner, a long time member talked diagonally across the corner of the table to another long time member with a guest between them who sat silently, ignored.
We have to think about what we are doing! Or, the church looks just like the cold world outside. Yes, you may be shy, busy, have been deeply hurt, etc. etc. Our excuses for avoiding others can be many. But, when people say, “I feel lonely at church,” often, it isn’t long before they slip out the back door and are gone.
A final thought about community in church
Well, just a final word to anyone reading who feels left out and unacknowledged at church. You are not crazy. And, you’re not alone. Too many others are feeling the same thing. I’ve always said to people, “Walk around flawed people and get to Jesus. He will not disappoint and His love will make up for human failure.” But be sure to forgive as we all need forgiveness.
I hope you won’t give up on the church. Pray for your church if it lacks community. Perhaps you do need to try and find another church. But prayer is powerful in changing things. Talking with reasonable people in the congregation who may agree with you is also a possibility. Perhaps together you can bring change.
I hope your situation will greatly improve and your church will become a real home for you or you will find another one that is. God bless you so much.
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