When I was asked to join a neighborhood Bible study, I agreed without a moment’s hesitation. The group would include non-Christians as well as Christians. I looked forward to meeting with my neighbors.
Little did I realize how much that Wednesday morning group would change my life. I had grown up in church and long been a practicing Christian. But I had never experienced the excitement of seeing new Christians take their first steps of faith. Nor had I walked beside new church members as they tentatively explored and then embraced a community of faith.
Week after week the freshness of reading the Bible with new Christians invigorated me. I watched the new members accept responsibility and begin to help shape our congregation’s life. This stretched my own faith and expanded my commitment.
I discovered that welcoming new Christians benefits those already in the church as much as newcomers. This changed my way of looking at the church. The church is meant to grow. It is not meant to be a comfortable haven that remains the same year after year. New believers keep the church alive. So, if for no other reason than the congregation’s own health, the ministry of welcoming new Christians deserves high priority in any church.
Ervin Stutzman has provided a sound, clearly written guide for churches of all sizes and stripes who want to welcome others. Using examples from a wide variety of locations, Stutzman helps us see what the church needs to do and be to make disciples.
He wisely pays attention to both inner and outer realities. For example, he does not neglect such nitty-gritty considerations as easy access to the building, attractive church signs, well-kept structures, adequate parking, and clean child-care areas.
But Stutzman also highlights the importance of vital spirituality, dynamic worship, and healthy relationships. No amount of fresh paint or well-lit signs will keep people coming to a church where Christ’s presence is not known or the Spirit’s power not experienced.
The book includes other helpful features: checklists (one list, for example, helps a congregation determine the warmth of its welcome), questions for discussion at the end of each chapter, and brief annotated bibliographies on each topic for anyone seeking additional help.
In a time when people often take church membership lightly and even dismiss its significance, Stutzman pulls no punches. He declares, "Belonging to a church is essential to discipleship and a vital spiritual life."
Baptism marks both a choice to follow Christ and a commitment to a fellowship of believers. This makes it imperative for churches to carefully prepare people for their life in the body of Christ.
In its early years, the Christian church understood the necessity of providing a nurturing environment for new believers. According to Hippolytus (A.D. 215), new Christians entered into a three-year apprenticeship. During that time, the Christian community hospitably received them, taught them the essentials of the Christian faith, and assigned a sponsor who walked with them on their journey and guided them into witness and service in the world.
If at the end of three years they were found worthy of membership, they entered a period of intense preparation for baptism. They then became members of the Christian community during an all-night ritual of celebration on Easter Eve.
The example of those first Christians calls us to give our best and most creative energies to the formation of new believers. Welcome! A Biblical and Practical Guide to Receiving New Members helps show the way. I hope many pastors, church leaders, and congregational participants will catch this book’s vision for welcoming new people and expanding the church. The salvation of the church may depend on it.
—Marlene Kropf, associate secretary for congregational education, worship, and spirituality at Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries
This book grows out of my deep interest in, and concern for, new people who are coming to the church. I want them to feel Christ’s welcome.
As a mission board administrator working with church planting, I saw how quickly new Christians could be welcomed into new churches. As an overseer for older Congregations, I found it was hard for such churches to welcome new people. But older churches have much to offer new believers.
Many of the barriers older churches erect against newcomers are unconscious. We want to help new people feel welcome but don’t know how. This book attempts to help both old and new congregations welcome new people into the communities which are Christ’s body.
All anecdotes in the book are true stories. However, to maintain confidentiality, some names have been changed. Unless the context suggests otherwise, names used in anecdotes will generally not be actual ones. I’ve used examples from many different churches in widely differing circumstances to help illustrate the universality of the challenge to successfully integrate new people. Some anecdotes even travel overseas, particularly to the United Kingdom. They reflect time I spent in South Wales while writing this book.
I’ve heard many people who didn’t find acceptance in the church tell stories of rejection. These stories have prodded me while writing. Rather than tell many such stories, however, I’ve shared numerous positive examples of individuals and churches who are welcoming new people. These stories can serve as models.
This book is more than a plea for different attitudes or programs in the church. Even such changes may not attract new people to our congregations. At the deepest level, church renewal is what the book is about. Renewal stirs us to share the good news regardless of cost. We’ll open our door to people unlike us, giving them a place in the church and ourselves the task of helping them grow in Christ. My hope is thus not just to offer information, but to stir transformation.
I owe special thanks to Eastern Mennonite Board of Mission (Salunga, PA) for encouraging me to write this book, and giving me time to do so.
I also thank the many people who told me their stories or who have been resource speakers at various events. Worthy of special note are Al and Roberat Wollen, Bill and Chloris Lewis, Russell Chiswell, Philip Rees, Ian Burley, David Macfarlane, John Maxwell, Dale Shaw, Peter Wilkes, Ray Stedman, Patrick Baker, and Steve Morgan. Some stories are included; other influenced the book’s direction.
Special thanks go to those who read and critiqued the manuscript. They include Keith Yoder, John Stoner, Samuel Thomas, Jonathan Booth, and Michael King, editor at Herald Press. Any shortcomings which persist are, of course, my responsibility.
Thanks, finally, to my wife, Bonnie, who bore the brunt of my time commitment to this task.
I hope God will grant special grace to all who read this book and enable them to find in Jesus Christ the answer to all life’s challenges. May God help us all welcome many others into God’s kingdom.
—Ervin R. Stutzman, January 20, 1990
Thank you for picking up this book. It has grown out of a yearning to see new people warmly received into the church. Perhaps you want to minister more successfully to new people and need practical help. Perhaps you want to see the problem from a biblical point of view. Welcome! is an attempt to meet such desires.
The book may be used in small groups, as well as by pastors, congregational leaders, chairs of hospitality committees, and any other individuals interested in throwing congregational doors open to new people. Those studying in groups can hear one another’s concerns, and together help make the congregation a more welcoming place. The questions at the end of the chapters can stimulate reflection.
Every church needs both "go-structures" and "come-structures." We’re called to evangelize people on their turf. Chapter three deals with this. We’re also called to welcome people onto our turf. That is the focus of the rest of the book. Many fine books have been written on evangelism, so this book deals primarily with the reception of people who have recently become Christians. It’s equally applicable, however, to welcoming transfer members, since some "circulating of the saints" seems inevitable.
A friend of mine promotes Friend Day-—a special day set aside to welcome new people to church. That experience gives members the opportunity to sit beside unchurched people during worship—perhaps for the first time. This can open their eyes to the perspective of others. They can begin to see how the church appears to the outsider. Similarly, this book is designed to open the eyes of church members who may never have been unchurched.
At times, as I try to open such eyes, I may seem to put older members in a bad light, particularly those who don’t eagerly welcome new people. That isn’t my intent. My goal is to help us all welcome new people with such love that they will stay—and become older members!
I’m trying to walk a fine line. I want to recognize that as we settle into our congregations it becomes harder for us to reach out to new people from within our own comfort. We then need to be challenged to reach out, to expand, to keep growing spiritually and numerically. We need to be reminded that churches that refuse growth are often choosing death.
I also know that, in a time of constant and often frightening change, people need some comfort and stability in their congregational experience. Pushing a congregation toward ceaseless growth and change may overload its coping capacities. And I recognize that some congregations, despite endless effort, never manage to attract the new people for whom they yearn. I don’t want this book to produce yet more guilt and discouragement in congregations already guilty and discouraged.
However, while recognizing that some congregations need grace and mercy more than challenge, I’ve chosen (given my goals) to risk overemphasizing the need for challenge.
Congregations, like individuals, have unique personalities. We each have a certain approach to ministry. Newcomers used to different emphases may not feel at home in our church. Regardless of the kind of church we are, we will tend to exclude certain people.
Consequently, if our church isn’t growing, we may find ourself excusing the lack of growth by appealing to theology. We may say we aren’t growing because we’re taking unpopular but correct doctrinal stands.
But a church needn’t compromise its theology to welcome new people. It may simply be a matter of misplaced priorities. We may discover that the emphasis we have placed on certain doctrinal distinctives has blurred our vision for evangelism and has hindered our welcome of new people.
We may have a wonderful theology, but if it doesn’t continually offer spiritual life to new people as well as to current members, this is a danger signal. It tells us to look for more creative ways of remaining faithful to our theology and ensuring it hasn’t become a stumbling block that needlessly excludes.
A revealing glimpse of New Testament church life is found in Acts 5:1-14. The death of Ananias and Sapphira brought a pall of fear on the church, as well as the outsiders who heard of this terrifying judgment. The story closes with these seemingly contradictory words: "And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number."
People were afraid to join because of the fear of the Lord, yet they kept joining. This fellowship had managed simultaneously to stand for something and be irresistibly attractive to newcomers. Amazing! I pray God will grant each of us grace to join reverent awe with warm welcome to those yearning for an awe-inspiring God to worship.