Breaking in to existing communities is hard. I’ve had the huge advantage over the years of being the Minister or the candidate or the staff person, putting me at the centre of the conversations the community engages about its mission and activities. If you are the one tasked with coming up with plans and people are turning to you for ideas on who should do what you connect with a wide range of people, most coming to you before you go to them. I’ve always felt extroverts have a decided advantage in these roles, we may not be as good a listener as the introvert but we connect more easily and draw energy while we do it. Still, even for extroverts breaking in is hard work.
There are two factors that play themselves out in this breaking in period, one is the way communities become very stagnant when there is a lack of new blood to organization. You hear echoes of this in phrases like “we’ve never done it like that before” and “Joe has always done that, Mary usually works at that job.” It is very, very hard to break in, much less be heard, in such a community. Two, newcomers today come to community with very high expectations from communities. Years ago all you needed to cope with was a newcomer’s expectation that this new community would be as warm and open as the last one but now there is the added pressure of as age that places the individual at the centre of her/his world, that communities exist in some way to reinforce how special and important we are. If new communities are not jumping over themselves to celebrate the arrival of the new person this can leave the impression that some other community might be a better fit.
And so that dance of the newcomer as s/he attempts to break in is crucial to the quality and quantity of the community. Communities die much, much quicker and with almost a cruel indifference when this dance is not recognized and addressed. I tried to imagine that feeling and I immediately went back to an experience of going to a provincial AGM of a political party I had a prior relationship with years ago. It was like I was invisible, no one talked to me, I wandered around this large hotel lobby seeing hundreds of people, all happy and engaged and I could not break in. I saw faces I recognized but I did not want to interrupt so I moved on. Eventually I just left. That experience, more than any other, is likely the reason I have never returned to a political gathering, and will likely not run for office again.
And yet that experience is similar to the kind many new people to church find when they walk into the building on a Sunday morning. Is it because the church is ill equipped to know how to welcome? Is it because we as newcomer expect the church to fall over themselves to meet us (After all the theme of our culture since the 60is has been that we are beautiful, amazing, brilliant and special, all of us. That’s what we heard in school isn’t it?) or is it because the church is so complacent in its own traditions that it has failed to understand how to absorb new life? A little from column A and a little from column B…
I’ve been criticized for not offering a program or workshop or strategy on how to transform a church so that it addresses this “breaking in” challenge. I plead guilty. Where I have had success at this work it has come less in a strategy I developed as a consultant and more as witness who modelled the kind of interest we need to take in each other to breed this kind of community that welcomes and celebrates the newcomer. My “strategy” has been to be visible in to preaching about, in writing about, that nexus point when we and the other connect over mutual discovery. I can think of no other way to build a community that grows and engages than to do what the Apostle Paul did when we encouraged early Christians to rejoice in their diversity and explained to them that “imitating” this strategy was the best way to be a Christian community.