Chapter Two: Good Samaritans
John and Sue Church enjoyed life with their two children, Matthew and Crystal. One evening, John read an article in the local newspaper. It explained the need for families to open up their homes to orphaned children. The Church family decided to invite two siblings, David and Sheila, to live with them. These two had been passed from one family to another in the hope that someone would give them a home.
The first few days together were quite enjoyable, apart from minor tensions. The Church family was elated. Life was more interesting with four children.
At the table one evening, Matthew said: "Wow, it’s really neat to have David live with us. It’s great to have a brother."
Crystal added, "Yeah, Sheila and I play with dolls together, just like our next-door neighbors."
John and Sue nodded approvingly. Helping these two unwanted children by giving them a home and family had been the right thing to do.
There were times of misunderstanding, of course. One day, John sent David to get a water hose from the pantry. David came back with a pair of Sue’s panty hose! He had never heard of a pantry. John couldn’t laugh about it. There were too many things David didn’t know.
Well, it wasn’t long before the Church family tired of David and Sheila. They were irresponsible at times, and slow to catch on to the "Church way" of doing things. And they started coming home late from school. They dropped by the Barrs’, a family down the street, mixing with other children who came there every afternoon. Eventually the children didn’t come back to the Church house at all.
John didn’t worry about it. He assumed they were being taken care of elsewhere. David and Sheila seemed to fend well for themselves.
"After all," John and Sue reasoned with each other, "the new children weren’t used to being part of a family before. So they probably won’t miss it too much now."
John reassured Matthew and Crystal. "If David and Sheila want to be part of our family, they know the way back."
One day, the Church family received a visit from Stan Goddard, the children’s social worker. Stan was shocked to learn that the Church family hadn’t seen Sheila and David for more than two weeks. He was even more distressed to discover they didn’t really miss the new children. John tried to explain to Stan that it was a lot of hassle to have a larger family. And that the new children just weren’t making the necessary adjustments.
"Besides," he informed Stan, "the children are probably being taken care of. I imagine they’re enjoying themselves just fine in that place up the street."
Stan was incredulous. He kept asking himself, "Is this really the family I knew earlier, who eagerly anticipated having someone new in the family?" It hardly seemed possible they had so readily rejected David and Sheila. But the Church family insisted that David and Sheila had chosen to leave. They hadn’t been rejected.
After discussion, the Church family decided to release Sheila and David. They told Stan they would be content with their own family just the way it had been before David and Sheila came.
By now, you may have surmised that the story of John and Sue has parallels to the way some churches deal with newcomers. This story can serve as a reminder that the church needs to take responsibility for the reception and integration of new people into the fellowship.
The View from the Side of the Road
Jesus once told a story about a man mugged on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10:25-37). Beaten and stripped, the traveler lay on the side of the road, half dead. Two religious men came by and crossed the road to avoid the unfortunate man. A Samaritan, stepping outside of his people’s usual animosity toward Jews, cared for him.
As modern readers of the story, we can imagine the scene. The beaten man lay on the side of the road, languishing in his own blood. We can guess what was going through his mind as he lay there, watching respectable people go by without giving an offer of assistance.
We can understand how he decided which of the three travelers was his neighbor. It had nothing to do with their race, color, occupation, theology, or personal holiness. Nor did it have anything to do with the warmth of their fellowship back home. What counted was kindness in time of need. By identifying with the suffering man’s plight and meeting his needs, the Samaritan proved himself a neighbor.
Wishing to justify the way we welcome newcomers, we could ask, "Are these new people really my neighbors?" To answer that question, let’s assume the point of view of the "one on the side of the road," the new person who is looking for a loving fellowship of believers. Who will be a neighbor to this wounded traveler? Will you?
We Are Stewards
A minister once told me he was relieved no new Christians had come into his church as a result of an area-wide evangelistic crusade. In his mind, it was better for persons not to come to church at all than to come and be rejected. He reasoned that the lay leadership of the church would have considered it too bothersome to adjust to new churchgoers.
How have you responded to God’s entrusting of people to you? Should God entrust more new people to your church, based on the way you received the last six people God entrusted to you? If you’re not really a welcoming church, are you willing to make the changes that will help you become that kind of church?
For some people, welcoming new people is a fifty-fifty proposition, a "meet me halfway" approach. This view is reflected in such comments as "I realize we have a responsibility as a church to welcome new members. But they must do their part!" Or "People who visit our church can see what we stand for. It’s up to them whether or not they join us."
These sayings are akin to a young man proposing to a young woman: "I’d like to invite you to marry me—as long as you make all the changes to adapt to my lifestyle. I probably won’t change much."
Happily married couples will probably agree that marriage works best when both partners fully commit themselves to make the relationship work. If either partner majors in tallying responsibility, something is wrong. True love seeks the best for the other, regardless of personal cost. In the same way, a loving church family will go out of its way to receive new people.
Sometimes new people come into a church with the expectation of being rejected, perhaps because of previous church experience. It takes a special measure of God’s love and grace to welcome such people into fellowship. But after all, who is it that needs God’s love most? Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Mark 2:17).
On Foreign Soil?
Suppose you have just discovered your next-door neighbor is a devout Hindu. He is friendly, so you have gotten to know one another casually. Now he has invited you to worship with him at the Hindu temple. How will you respond? Will you go with him?
You might want to ask questions such as these:
"Will I be required to do or say anything, or can I just observe?"
"Will there be a foreign language used?"
"Will I be dressed differently from everyone else?"
"Will anyone else be there who is not a Hindu?"
"How long will the service last?"
Similar questions come to the minds of unchurched people when we invite them to a Christian church. Why not try to answer their questions ahead of time, allaying their fears and sparing them the embarrassment of having to ask?
When new persons first come to a church, they may feel they are invading foreign territory. The "strangers" feel at the mercy of the "natives." The "tourists" may present a passport and a visa, but the "customs official" has power to accept or reject their credentials. The natives may allow the tourists only a short stay or may deny entrance entirely.
The credentials required for belonging to a church may be related to family of origin, church background, color of skin, manner of dress, or similar factors. In all such matters, the new person is at the mercy of those already in the church. Members control most of the openness, friendliness, and welcome that new people receive. If these people reject the new person, for any reason, there is little or nothing a newcomer can do to fit in. That is why churches must not shift the responsibility for new-member incorporation to anyone other than themselves.
A woman brought up in the church found it hard to understand why new Christians had such difficulty fitting into the church. Her pastor suggested an experiment. He sent her to participate in a bingo game. Since she had never been to a bingo game, the lady felt very much the outsider. She had to ask others what to do at every step.
The experiment worked. She didn’t become a bingo player but did better understand the way new Christians often feel when first entering a congregation. She developed a desire to welcome such Christians.
To be quickly and fully received into the fellowship of a new church, new people generally need an advocate. An effective advocate knows both the new person and the receiving fellowship and works to link the two.
Several biblical examples illustrate the importance of advocacy. Saul came to Jerusalem, after leaving Damascus on threat of death. The church, "not believing that he really was a disciple" (Acts 9:26), didn’t welcome him. They were suspicious and afraid of this zealous young man who had formerly determined to stamp out the church of Jesus Christ.
But Barnabas, the encourager, commended Saul to the apostles. Then Saul moved freely about the church in Jerusalem, until opposition outside the church forced him to leave.
Later Barnabas introduced Saul to the young church at Antioch, where they formed part of a leadership team. It was here that the first-known missionary team was formed (Acts 11:25-26). What a loss for the church had there been no advocate to introduce Saul to Jerusalem and Antioch!
The importance of advocacy is seen also in the biblical example of Onesimus’s restoration to Philemon. Saul, now called Paul, served as an advocate for Onesimus, a slave estranged from his master. Apparently he had run away from Philemon, a house church leader who had been converted under Paul’s ministry. Through the grace of God, Onesimus came to know Christ and became Paul’s helper.
Later Paul sent Onesimus back to serve his former master, not as slave but as brother in Christ. The letter to Philemon is full of pathos. Paul employed every ounce of his diplomatic and persuasive power. He put his own reputation on the line. "So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done anything wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back…"(Philem. 17-19a).
We have no biblical record of Philemon’s response, but tradition indicates that he received Onesimus back. Onesimus became a resourceful Christian and, finally, the apostle John’s successor as bishop of "the seven churches of Asia/’ Imagine the loss if Paul had not been advocate for this slave with nothing to commend him, except the grace of God and God’s people!
Jesus stands in history as the greatest Advocate. It is he who serves as Mediator between humanity and God and advocates humanity’s cause (1 Tim. 2:5). Since Christ redeems people by his grace, how can we do less than serve as advocates, bringing new Christians into the full fellowship of the church?
Here are simple yet helpful ways ordinary people can serve as advocates for new people:
Sit next to a newcomer and explain the elements of the worship service.
Explain the significance of any announcements that are made in the service.
Introduce the newcomer to your friends.
Show the newcomer how to find his or her way around the church facility.
Let’s Just Assume…
The material in this chapter may have challenged your assumptions about your responsibility to welcome new people. There are a number of assumptions commonly held by church members:(note:1)
- When a new member becomes inactive, the fault is generally the member’s.
- About 60-70 percent of our new members can be expected to be active.
- An "active" member needs only to attend worship regularly.
- About 10 percent of the members should be expected to have a church role.
- The pastor is responsible for overseeing member assimilation.
- Numerical growth isn’t a primary criterion for evaluating a church’s success in ministry.
- The Sunday school doesn’t play a significant role in new-member assimilation strategies.
- Newcomers will naturally feel the warmth and fellowship the older members share.
- Present classes and small groups can effectively assimilate new church members.
If all of the above assumptions were helpful and/or true, this book would be unnecessary! I encourage you to abandon all nine assumptions—not because they would render this book unnecessary, but because they can render a church cold and unwelcoming. Let me offer as substitutes the assumptions underlying this book:
- Every church should be a receptive fellowship. No church can be exclusive and at the same time claim to be under the lordship of Christ. A church can’t pass off to other churches the responsibility for bringing new people to Christ and the church.
- Most churches can improve their ability to receive new people. Even churches which seem to be doing well say that they want to improve. I write believing that a deeper understanding of the need to receive new people will enable many churches to welcome new people more effectively.
- Receiving new people isn’t easy. It takes time, energy, and money. Churches that have reached a plateau or are declining in numbers will find it a special challenge to really welcome new people. This book will point out many barriers new people face which may not be immediately evident to longtime members.
- The responsibility for incorporating new people lies with the church, and largely with the leadership. For reasons explained in this chapter, it’s wrong to expect new people to be fully responsible for feeling welcome in the church.
- The process of receiving new people will affect almost every aspect of church life. An openness to new people should govern much of our church program, since evangelism is a crucial element in the church’s mission. The following chapters will give many examples of ways churches have adapted their programs to win people to Christ and the church.
The Price of Growth
Many of us would love to see our churches grow. More committed attenders would help to pay the mortgage, staff the Sunday school program or nursery, or perhaps supply the missing tenor parts for the choir. A moment’s reflection, of course, will reveal how selfish our motivation may be. This kind of motive won’t take us far down the road of acceptance and love leading to real growth.
There is a definite price tag attached to church growth. It’s a far higher price than most people realize, particularly if the church has a record of nongrowth. It’s the price of change.
A middle-aged person humorously commented, "I guess we’re all getting older, but what are the alternatives?" For people, there is only one alternative to old age—death. Churches, like people, can grow older and die, but there is an alternative. The church that continually welcomes new people won’t die. But change and renewal are sometimes the required means, if not the end, of welcoming new people. The price of growth is to change some of the ways we do things now. Considering the alternative, is that price too high?
For Review, Study, and Action
- Review the story of the Church faintly. Try to find as many parallels as possible between the story and the situation your church faces in incorporating new believers.
- Try to view your church from the viewpoint of one "on the side of the road." What might a "wounded traveler" be seeing in your church?
- Discuss the idea of "affirmative action" for new people. In what ways can the church go out of the way to help new people feel at home?
- Have you ever been on foreign soil? If so, draw any parallels between that experience and the way a new person may feel in your church.
- Discuss the idea of advocacy. Think of the persons who have served as advocates for you, either in the church or in some other area of life. Whom might you serve as advocate?
- Review the first list of assumptions above. Do you agree or disagree that living them out can make a church cold and unwelcoming? How many are held by your church?
- How do you react to the assumptions in the second list?
- What changes may your church need to make to welcome new people more effectively? What changes are you personally willing to make?
For Further Help
Dropping Your Guard, by Charles R. Swindoll (Waco: Key-Word Books, 1983). The book discusses the individual and corporate attitudes needed to draw people close to each other.
Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, by C. John Miller, Ministry Resources Library (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986). This book can help church members to focus outside their own needs, to develop a ministry to others.