Chapter Five: Sharing Space
A neighbor dropped by to visit Rosa, who was in the middle of a kitchen project. She invited the woman in, and they chatted in an adjacent room. After a few minutes, the phone rang, so Rosa excused herself. Then she forgot her visitor and went back to her project in the kitchen. Almost an hour later, the visitor casually strolled through the kitchen, saying, "Well, I guess I’ll go home now." Needless to say, Rosa was embarrassed. Without intending to, she had crowded out her guest.
Jesus experienced something similar in the home of two of his friends, Mary and Martha.
Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:39-42)
This story illustrates a simple lesson in hospitality. Mary acted as a true friend to Jesus, just by being with him. Martha was concerned about her guest too, as evidenced by her preoccupation with preparations for the meal. But her concern for the preparations nearly crowded Jesus from her attention.
The same thing can happen in the church. How many guests have visited your church, only to be left "sitting" by themselves while others are preoccupied with church duties? Newcomers who have been ignored may not announce that they are leaving. They simply slip out the back door and are never really missed.
Welcoming the Stranger
The first step in welcoming new people is to really "see" them, in the midst of all that surrounds us. As we focus on our own concerns, we miss seeing others.
Have you ever noticed the way your focus or perspective changes because of a certain experience? For example, after you have purchased a car, have you been more likely to notice other cars of the same make or model on the road? After my wife purchased a knitting machine, I noticed for the first time advertisements and magazines having to do with knitting.
A similar shift must take place in the lives of many church members for the church to grow. Their focus must shift to include people who are strangers or "outsiders" to the church. Let’s suppose you were offered a $100.00 reward for every first-time visitor to your church you could identify. Would your focus change? Probably you would develop an entirely new awareness of visitors!
Throughout Scripture, God urges God’s people to be kind to the stranger and the alien. Outsiders need special attention. Moses told the Israelites God cares for the stranger.
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. Fear the Lord your God and serve him (Deut. 10:18-20).
To remind the Jewish people that God did not exclude people on the basis of national origin, the prophet wrote
…foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him,
to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him…
these will I bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
Later, in Jesus’ time, there was a special area of the temple grounds dedicated as the place of worship for foreigners. Inside the temple walls, it was called the Court of the Gentiles. But it was in this place that the merchants and money changers set up shop, leaving no place for worship. No wonder Jesus made a whip and drove out the animals and the merchants. The area designated for prayer and worship for outsiders had become an open market for profiteering!
What is it that may be preventing you and your church from welcoming the strangers among you? How are they being crowded out of the place of worship and prayer? How might you be able to better include the stranger?
Have you ever looked for motel accommodations, only to discover there was no vacant room available? Some motels flash a "No Vacancy" sign to spare motorists the trouble of inquiry. But have you ever seen a "No Vacancy" sign in front of a church building, or on the door of a Sunday school class? Probably not!
Nevertheless, there are many ways in which a church may communicate "No Vacancy" to potential members, perhaps without saying a word. Even churches with some empty pews give signals to potential members, telling them there really is no space for them.
This chapter will explore ways your church may be putting up unconscious "No Vacancy" signs to newcomers.
Many church people are busy. Their professional lives, together with church and civic activities, keep their calendars full of appointments and activities. People who enjoy telling others how busy they are and how much they are trying to accomplish may send the message that they have no time to build new friendships. This is a clear "No Vacancy" message to a person who is looking for a meaningful relationship.
When the people in your church are too busy with church activities, they will have little time to develop new friendships. Furthermore, since unchurched friends are the best prospects as newcomers to your church, the list of potential prospects may be quite small.
In a friend relationship, love is often spelled "T-I-M-E." The same probably applies to congregational newcomers. In their first few months of attendance, visitors may ask, "Can I develop friendships here? Where will I fit in? Am I needed here?" If they find satisfactory answers, they may stay.
As time goes by, they may ask a different set of questions. "Are my new friends as good as my old ones?" Does the group meet my needs? Is my contribution valued?" Again, if new people find satisfactory answers, they will probably stay. If not, they will leave or gradually become inactive. Seventy percent of those who become inactive do so in the first 12 months.
A researcher named Flavil Yeakley studied the church attendance patterns of new Christians among the Churches of Christ.1 He found that the method of evangelism had much to do with the "keeping power" of the church. If the new believers perceived the one who shared the gospel as a friend, there was a much greater chance of them staying in the church.
Yeakley also discovered that new believers who stayed in the church after making a decision for Christ normally had at least seven friends in the church before making that decision. He found that, in general, people who made a decision for Christ but didn’t stay in the church had few or no friends in the church before coming to Christ.
Our family has discovered that we must designate certain times on the calendar for developing relationships with new people. This helps us give time to something which is important to us but easy to overlook in the pressures of daily life. Putting it on the calendar emphasizes its importance in our lives.
Two Sides of Fellowship
When asked if his home group would be ready to receive new persons, Terry replied, "It has taken us six years to really get to know and trust one another. I wouldn’t be ready to have a new person come." He felt that the group would almost have to start over if a new person joined. Long-term members of the group wouldn’t be able to relate to each other with the same depth they were used to.
People who share their lives with one another over time may come to love one another deeply. They may enjoy sharing inside jokes and stories. It feels good to be inside a close-knit group.
But what about those who want to join the group, only to discover that group members would rather not welcome anyone new? These new persons will feel left out. Inclusion is one side of fellowship. Exclusion is the other. "Cliques" are so named by people who feel excluded from them.
When newcomers visit a close-knit group, they’re likely to see the group’s intimacy as a "No Vacancy" sign. Turning your back to a stranger or newcomer in order to talk to an old friend may also be a quiet form of rejection. We may wordlessly tell new people we have little interest in them.
If you want to know how friendly and accepting your church is, don’t just ask a longtime member, who will view the fellowship from the mside. Ask a newcomer, who has seen the fellowship from the perspective of an outsider. Since outsiders are the ones we hope to draw into the church, it’s important to understand fellowship from their perspective.
For eight years, Don and Judy McDonald taught a Sunday school class for adults.2 The class steadily lost members until they decided to pray that God would send them new people. After a false start and some experimenting, they learned some helpful ideas, which helped the class grow about 10 percent per month. The class size tripled by the end of the first year. The following ideas, drawn from their experience, may be helpful to you as you make space for new people.
- Avoid inside jokes or humor. If someone tells a story meaningful only to certain participants, immediately explain it to the others so everyone can feel included.
- Always keep extra chairs or seats available for guests and latecomers.
- Avoid using natural selection when dividing into smaller groups. Instead, have group members number off, or use some other method, such as birthdays, parts of town, or alphabetical order of surnames. This will keep cliques from forming.
- If the group has been studying a series together, review briefly what has been done previously.
- Don’t discuss plans or events which apply to only part of the group.
- Don’t go around the circle, asking people to pray or read the Scripture aloud. Instead, allow people to volunteer if they desire, but make it clear persons have the choice to not read aloud.
- Discuss ways to meet the needs of newcomers.
Paul Y. Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church in Seoul, Korea, doesn’t allow the small groups in his church to be called "house fellowships." He believes that groups can too quickly center on themselves, with fellowship as the primary goal. In this fast-growing church, the primary goal is to reach new people and win them for Christ and the church. For this reason, small groups at Cho’s church are called "home groups."
The home groups in Cho’s church grow constantly by including new people and forming new groups. At the time of this writing, there are more than 10,000 home groups. In a combined effort, people in these groups win an average of 1,100 new people to Christ each month. That’s a lot of people!
The Rule of 40
An urban pastor was disturbed because his church wasn’t growing in numbers. He told me he believed people didn’t really want the church to grow. They were happy with the congregation’s present size. They enjoyed the sense of intimacy and fellowship with one another. If the church grew much larger, it would lose the sense of family togetherness.
In a small church, or in groups such as a Sunday school class, choir, or women’s auxiliary, we feel most comfortable when we know everyone by name. Whenever a newcomer joins the group, unfamiliarity may make us uncomfortable. It takes effort to make room for the new person. Consequently, even though we may make friendly gestures toward the new person, we may spend most of our time with the people we know well.
New people intuitively feel this lack of welcome. They then drift away. This tends to keep groups fairly small, with 40 as a common limit. Some groups grow much larger, but 40 is an average size.
Using an analogy from biology, one might designate small groups as single cells. In relation to the church, a single cell may have these characteristics:
- Everybody knows everybody and the things happening in one another’s lives.
- News travels fast to all members of the group.
- There is a sense of belonging.
- Everybody has a chance to contribute when the group is together.
- Newcomers are immediately noticed.
Heading for the Church Picnic
David Thomas, a retired minister, reared ten children. Some years ago, his whole family was on the way to a distant church, where he was to be guest speaker. As was their custom, the family traveled in two cars. They stopped for gas. Carefully assessing the situation, the attendant asked David, "Is this your family, or is this a picnic?" With a sparkle in his eye, he replied, "Yes, it’s my family. No, it’s no picnic!"
Had David been limited to one car, he could have taken only part of the family. But with two cars, he could take them all. In a way, the size and number of my friend’s vehicles are like the size and number of cells or groups within a church. When the church has a picnic or tries to go anywhere together (spiritually or physically), people fall into groups. Single-celled churches want to get there in one group, with everyone in one large vehicle. If you miss the bus or if the seats are full, you’ll be left out. New people can only get on board if there is plenty of room in the vehicle.
In contrast, multicelled churches encourage people to get to the "picnic" in many smaller vehicles. Everyone may be going in the same direction, but they get there in several groups. Any number of people are welcome, since they can hop into another vehicle and get to the picnic. The church picnic can keep growing and growing, because new groups are being added.
When they see all the groups, someone outside the church may ask, "Pardon me, is this a church family or is this a picnic?" You can reply, " Yes, this is a church family, and yes, sometimes it’s like a picnic!"
Finding a Niche
It’s a pleasure to walk along the seashore and explore the wildlife on the beaches. Birds and other creatures find their homes there. They live in cracks and crevices in the cliffs, hollow out a place in the sandy beach, or make a nest in the grassy edge at the beach. Each creature has its niche, a place to live and work.
Have you ever been chosen to fill a position for a team sport? In rugby or football, for example, there are a designated number of positions to be filled on the team. Each is a niche someone can occupy. Unless one is vacated, there is no room for anyone else to play.
Although the number of positions is not as rigid as in a team sport, one could say there are a limited number of niches available in any given group. The example of vehicles on the way to the picnic suggests that more niches could be created by forming new small groups. A niche is like a seat in a vehicle on the way to a picnic.
So new groups form new niches. Some congregations have difficulty starting new groups. People comfortable with their involvement in a small group or class won’t readily abandon their niches. After all, they may have worked hard to find them. This is why it’s extraordinarily difficult to form new groups in the church if one simply asks for volunteers from existing groups.
It’s best to ‘form new groups with new people coming into the church. There is plenty of space available in a new group, and no one has to give up a niche to join the group. Another advantage is that everyone has an equal chance of being on the inside of a fellowship which is just beginning.
People regularly leave the church, either because they are moving, are transferring to another church, or are becoming inactive. And, of course, some people die. Just to maintain the membership of a church at the same level requires a constant stream of new people. But unless these new people find niches within your church, they’ll find their way out the back door.
In my boyhood hometown, the visitors’ bureau has recently adopted a new slogan—Come Share Our Space! These words are painted on the water tower and posted on the Convention Center. Brochures and advertisements use the same inviting words. Cities and towns, like churches, cannot survive without new people. If you want your church to grow, you must communicate loudly and clearly to newcomers—Come Share Our Space!
For Review, Study, and Action
- How busy are the people in your church? Check your calendar to see how much time you have invested in recent newcomers to your church. How much space is there in your life for new people?
- Have you ever looked at a clique and wished you were an insider? Describe your feelings as you watched the close fellowship of some intimate group. How might a newcomer to your church feel about the fellowship opportunities in your church?
- Discuss the idea of the two sides of fellowship. Try to make a list of ways in which insiders and outsiders in a group may see things differently.
- Review the story of David and his family. Which way does your church go to the church picnic?
- How many niches are there in your church? How might you increase the number of niches?
- Ask two or three recent visitors to your church how they perceived the fellowship in your church. How did they perceive the possibility of finding niches?
- Make a list of the people whom you might invite to your church. Invite two people at church to join you in prayer for the people on your list.
- Discuss the kind of special events your church might be able to host that would attract new people.
For Further Help
Friend Day, published by Church Growth Institute, Lynchburg, Va. The packet contains four cassette tapes and instructions, along with samples and reproducible sheets to guide a congregation in planning a special day to invite friends.
People Spots, by James W. Moss, Sr. (Eastern Pa. Conference Churches of God, 1988). Chapter three explains the dynamics of small groups within the church.
Three Times Three Equals Twelve, by Brian Mills (Eastbourne, England: Kingsway Publications, 1986). The originator of the concept of prayer triplets explains their use. The book is an inspirational and practical guide to prayer for individuals and communities of faith.
Tyranny of the Urgent, by Charles Hummel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1967). This little booklet is about priorities and the use of time. The author uses the example of Jesus Christ to urge his readers to plan for the important things in life/ not just the urgent ones.