September 25, 2014

When Someone Reaches Out, Reach Back {Advice for When You're New}

My absolute favorite way to serve in our church is to greet visitors and help new people get connected into relationships and into ministry areas where they can use their spiritual gifts. Every week, without fail, I'm standing at the church entrance ready to pounce on unsuspecting newbies and overwhelm them with love and information.
Doing this for six years has given me a unique perspective on the church and on people. Far above anything else, I've learned what an opportunity we have to connect with people simply by thinking like a visitor, noticing them, helping them, and welcoming them into the church. That's why I recently shared my friend's story of being new and exhorted the Church to consider our visitors.

But I also now have a unique perspective on how people approach visiting churches and trying to connect in them (or at least connecting in ours). I've seen all variety of ways that people approach being new, but I can usually tell on their second or third visit who will be the most "successful" at connecting within the church and who will most likely struggle.

The gist of it is this: the people who tend to struggle to connect are those who take a long while to reach out for the hands that are extended to them. I used to get so discouraged about those who remained on the fringe or who gave up coming no matter what we did to include them and reach out to them, but now I recognize that, at some point, they have to reach back and there is nothing we can do to make them reach back. I do think it is the church's primarily responsibility to reach first; a visitor should not feel the primary weight of figuring out how to connect. But if the new one rebuffs the hand that comes toward them, many times people will give them "space" until they're ready to jump in. The new one may then be left to feel that they have to make the first advances.

Perhaps you're the "new one" right now--you're brand new to a church or you're looking for one because you've moved. As a person who often interacts with newbies, here are some encouragements I would offer you:

Ask Questions
I love it when first time visitors ask me, "What are the main things I should know about your church?" or "How can I get involved here?" Every church is unique and it may help tremendously to ask questions, especially in regard to connecting: "What is the primary way I can get to know others?" Most churches have a process or a path of involvement that will, first, introduce their basic beliefs and values and, second, offer you ways to commit to membership, connect with others, and serve. Make an informed choice before committing to a church; once you're fully "in" you'll be more likely to make the effort of reaching back.

Don't try to short-circuit the process.
When you've decided on a church, go with the process or path that you've discovered by asking good questions. I see people struggle when they try to short-circuit the process or sometimes even try to alter the process to match the church they came from. If you're committing to a church, it will be far easier and smoother to engage the process for connecting that's already in place. And by the way, thinking a church will be perfect and meet all your needs without any effort on your part is going to severely short-circuit the process.

Do things that make you feel uncomfortable.
There are easy ways you can reach back but almost all of them are uncomfortable when you're new: approach people you don't know and strike up conversation, greet someone who is alone (and maybe new themselves), respond warmly to others when they approach you, ask questions rather than letting everyone ask you all the questions, and actually go to an event listed on the church bulletin so you can meet people. As I always say, push through the awkward, because it's worth it in the end.

Make yourself available.
Don't show up late and bolt the second church or Bible study is over. No one can talk to you if you do that. And, whether it's intended or not, it gives off a signal that you're not interested in being talked to.

Resist the urge to quit.
Being new takes so much mental and emotional energy. And connecting takes time. So don't give up. Keep putting yourself out there. Keep praying for friends and opportunities to use your spiritual gifts. Make the sacrifices needed to be at small group with your young kids. Don't allow yourself to quit going to Bible study even though you feel uncomfortable. Don't close off from others.

And if no one is reaching toward you, take it upon yourself to reach out first. Be what you want others to be toward you. I guarantee that everyone is looking for the same thing you are: to be loved.

I'm sure there is so much that could be added to this post. How have you been successful at being the "newbie"? What has God shown you about reaching back?