Ryan Nilsen led me to rethink. His presentation to the recent CLB Central Region convention challenged our notions about how we welcome new people into our churches.

In my church, we have engaged in self-evaluation. Among our strengths, we see a warm welcoming core group, great unity, closeness—a sense of family. Your church may well be like this too. It’s a wonderful thing. We want to share this, to draw people in. So we welcome visitors with enthusiasm, and we show them what the life of the Body of Christ is like as we share our prayer concerns in the worship time and enjoy fellowship over refreshments before and after the service. We always try to engage visitors and newer people in conversation. In fact, as the pastor, I often find myself waiting my turn to visit with someone new, because our people—one or two at a time—are taking turns getting acquainted. I love it!

However, Dr. Nilsen, who is the new Associate Director of North American Mission, turned my thinking upside down. In a two-session presentation titled “Keeping Your Church on Track,” he at one point addressed the problem of “Missing Community Layers.”

The layers of a church community are: 1. Citizen, 2. Neighbor, 3. Family. Ryan compared the Citizen layer to attendance at a professional sporting event, where you don’t know the people next to you, but you are cheering for the same team, so there is camaraderie, a comfort level in the anonymity. For newcomers, our worship service can provide this function. They can observe safely and participate to the degree they want. When they are ready, they may move to the Neighbor layer, such as a fellowship setting. And then they may be ready for the warmth and closeness of a home Bible study, the Family layer.

It dawned on me that we’ve been trying to draw new people directly into the Family layer through our worship service, without letting them be “citizens” first. Some newcomers love this, but for others—it’s just too much, too soon.

So we walk a tightrope of sorts: we want them to feel welcomed but not overwhelmed. If this means turning down the heat just a little on Sunday morning, we can still turn it up elsewhere. Our warmth can be a tremendous attraction in mission. Ryan also talked about the Church gathered and the Church scattered. His point was that we are still the Church when it’s not Sunday—when we’re “out there”—whether it be at home, work, shopping, playing. Can we pursue new relationships “out there” with the same warmth as we do “in here”?

Rev. Brent Juliot is Pastor of Oak Ridge Lutheran Brethren Church in Menomonie, Wisconsin, and serves as contributing editor to Faith & Fellowship magazine.

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