As we’ve entered into the fall, our attendance at Trinity Christian Fellowship has been growing and we’re seeing new and old faces, together. It’s beautiful to see Jesus’ community gathered to experience the Spirit’s presence/empowerment. This past week, as I stood facing the congregation, several new people caught my eye and I found myself briefly thinking about whether or not they will feel both welcomed as well as welcomed in a way that encourages them toward becoming active participants in the community.
In our quest to make disciples of all nations, fulfilling the Great Commission, we rightly emphasize the place of Jesus as Lord in the hearts, minds, and actions of those new disciples. This means that we must have a vision for disciples who are making disciples as they obediently follow Jesus as Lord.
Unfortunately, many of our churches and worship gatherings are dominated by what I like to call the “secret handshake.” We speak fluent Christianese and expect people to somewhat “pay dues” before they are fully embraced into our community. There are often more walls than bridges in our communities and the “on ramp” to participating in the church is steep, if not non-existent.
On the other hand, there are some who believe that you can join Jesus without joining Jesus’ church. What? Huh? To be a follower of Jesus is to join other followers of Jesus! As Hans Boersma states:
“For Jesus to insist that he is the true vine is to say nothing less than that he is the true Israel. By abiding or participating in Christ, then, we are joining the true Israel. To join Christ and to join the church are one and the same thing. The two are quite simply inseparable.” (Eucharistic Participation: The Reconfiguration of Time and Space, emphasis mine)
In the Old Testament, as N. T. Wright has powerfully reminded us, believing means belonging. To join Jesus is to join his church. What is the Church? Wrighte states:
“The Church is the single multiethnic family promised by the creator God to Abraham. It was brought into being through Israel’s Messiah, Jesus; it was energized by God’s Spirit; and it was called to bring the transformative news of God’s rescuing justice to the whole creation.” (Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense)
For followers of Jesus, the church is your community, whether you like that or not! And churches need to work hard to welcome and encourage participation in the redeemed community of faith. Here are a couple principles to keep in mind if you are looking to help people transition from outside to belonging and participating…
(1) Provide an easy “on ramp.” Last night I was telling my friend, Dan, that one of my goals is for every single person to walk away from our worship gatherings having a clear understanding that they are welcome and that our circles are open. This means that we need to, as a community, work very hard at not having unhealthy social cliques. Our circles need to be open, not closed. And the “on ramp,” I think, are our small groups. If we’re not regularly communicating how visitors can jump in and get connected, we’re making it unnecessarily difficult for them to join into the life of the church.
(2) Take it slow and explain things. People new to Jesus and his church don’t understand Hebrew or Greek. They haven’t taken a Systematic Theology class. Nor have they memorized all of your favorite Bible verses. They likely aren’t aware of all the unwritten “rules and regulations” that dominate the culture of some of our churches. Take it slow. Explain things to them over coffee. Relax. They are in the hands of Jesus and sanctification is both a soteriological event and a soteriological process.
(3) Keep inviting and keep loving and keep casting a vision of Jesus’ church. Many of the people who transition from “outside” to “inside,” or go from “belonging” to “believing,” do so over time. The first two or three times that you invite them to a small group they might say, “No thanks.” Let’s be honest, there are some people in our churches who have been attending for years who have yet to take that step! Don’t get offended. Don’t take it personal. Just keep inviting them. Keep loving them. And by all means, keep casting a vision of Jesus’ church as a community of broken people who are joining God’s mission of seeing the kingdom come!
What would you add?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.