Welcoming the Newcomer

Every pastor I know worries about the newcomer to his church. Will he/she receive a warm welcome or be frozen out as an intruder.

What started me thinking about this was something Elizabeth Gilbert said in her book, “Eat Pray Love.” As a farm boy, I was intrigued by this.

When I was growing up, my family kept chickens. We always had about a dozen or so of them at any given time and whenever one died off–taken away by a hawk or fox or by some obscure chicken illness–my father would replace the lost hen. He’d drive to a nearby poultry farm and return with a new chicken in a sack. The thing is, you must be very careful when introducing a new chicken to the general flock.

You can’t just toss it in there with the old chickens, or they will see it as an invader. What you must do instead is to slip the new bird into the chicken coop in the middle of the night while the others are asleep. Place her on a roost beside the flock and tiptoe away. In the morning, when the chickens wake up, they don’t notice the newcomer, thinking only, “She must have been here all the time since I didn’t see her arrive.” The clincher of it is, awaking within this flock, the newcomer herself doesn’t even remember that she’s a newcomer, thinking only, “I must have been here the whole time.”

And that, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, is how she came to India, which is the point of her barnyard story.

What a pity we pastors can’t slip new church members into the flock that way. Bring them in at midnight, add their names to the rolls, make them members of the finance committee or choir, then slip out and hope no one notices they are new and different.

There is, however, a great way that is probably just as effective in incorporating newcomers into the Lord’s congregation.

The best plan I know and have seen is when a veteran member takes the newcomer under his/her wing and becomes their sponsor.

Bible students will recall how this happened with the newborn apostle-to-be named Saul. Here is how Luke tells it.

When Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that he had spoken to him…. So he was with them at Jerusalem…(Acts 9:26-28)

My friend Dianne was telling me recently of the time when she was a senior in high school and the family relocated from Michigan to the Deep South. Anyone who has done this knows the trauma and sense of disorientation that accompanies such a transition. Dianne says,

Why was this happening to me at such a critical age? How could I leave and build a new life with just one more year of high school to go? Why was God allowing this to happen? Didn’t He care about people and was I not told that He was loving and kind? This was cruel and unnecessary in my opinion. Had I not picked up a Bible and started reading it regularly (although without the infilling of the Holy Spirit I did not get anything out of it) and wasn’t I living a pure life as a teenager?

On the drive south, Dianne was miserable. The tears would not stop and I wanted to run away never to be found again each time we would make a rest stop.

In Jackson, Mississippi, Dianne enrolled in Central High School for the last month of her junior year. This was not good–only one month of classes, in a school where everyone knew everyone else.

On the first week that I was there, in chemistry class, a girl by the name of Mary Jo walked into the room. Pretty, popular, and well-dressed and bubbling over with a warm and outgoing personality. She immediately pursued me, the new girl, for friendship.

It was apparent that she was the most popular girl in school, so why was she so interested in making yet another friend? She later confessed that God overwhelmed her to come to me.

Mary Jo had become a Christian just months earlier and felt that she was to share her faith as well as her friendship with the new girl from the north country. The new girl who said, “Hi, you guys!” instead of “Hey, y’all!”

By the time this school year ended, I found a new best friend and a Christian sister who remained my best friend all through high school and college. She was in my wedding…. It was her newfound faith and obedience to God’s call that led me to my own faith and relationship with Jesus Christ.

That’s how it works.

An older mature brother or sister steps up and welcomes the newcomer. It works in school and it works in church.

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