It was an unexpected email from a woman I knew only through a local community service group.
The email invited me out to a morning get-together with a few other women from the group, none of whom I knew well. I accepted the invitation assuming that they had some job or project in mind for me to work on. A member of the group for only a few months, I still felt very much like an outsider and a stranger to a lot of what went on within, especially since many of the people had known each other for years.
But the invitation wasn’t about a project. Instead, they explained to me when I arrived, the women in the group had cultivated a habit of meeting together – creating a small internal group where they could share ideas and support each other apart from the hustle and bustle of larger group meetings. Because I was new, they wanted to invite me into that circle and offer, with it, the implicit promise of support and mentorship.
I was warmed by their generosity. And I was reminded of another, similar experience I’d had – in a church! At the first church my husband and I attended after our marriage, an older couple in the pew behind us decided to take us under their wing: they asked us questions, they learned about our lives, and they took us out to lunch. They became anchors for us, an entry point into a large congregation.
I’ve found that people crave that kind of connection at most churches. They’re vital. In most large groups, people need an “entry point”: a person or a few people whom they know well, that they can sit next to or feel comfortable being around. Those people then usually introduce them to other people, who introduce them to other people…and boom! Integration.
The problem is that these sorts of relationships can be hard to come by. Although most visitors or new attendees try to find them through small groups and other group-activity gatherings, it can be hard to penetrate the small-talk atmosphere of these gatherings or even to get to know people on a more meaningful level outside the group setting. It’s also hard, sometimes, for the “newbie” to be the one to reach out or express a need or desire for relationships – or to feel comfortable entering new groups when they know no one at all.
Which is why I’ve been convicted lately to become an “entry point” myself. If I see a new visitor, I’m going to make a point to be their connection without them having to ask. It might be as simple as offering to show them around the church building if they seem unfamiliar, or inviting them to sit nearby. It might be as involved as saying, with a few friends or your family, “If it doesn’t weird you out, we’d love to take you to lunch and get to know you! Our treat.”
Outreach is something that really should be happening all the time in the church – certainly in small groups or Sunday Schools, certainly as a part of ministry activities, but also within the pews on every single normal Sunday. And it’s a responsibility that belongs to the body, not just to the staff and the pastors. A lot of people show up at a church wanting community, wanting friendship, wanting to be seen and heard and noticed. They’re more than willing to make themselves at home if only they can find a way inside what seems to them, sometimes, to be an inscrutable and friendly-but-distant group of strangers. If we are willing to become “entry points” and familiar faces, then we’ve made our church a little warmer, a little more welcoming, and a little kinder. We’ve offered visitors a hand up, and an invitation in.
The most fundamental outreach is as basic as can be. I think, sometimes, that’s why we neglect it. But it matters. It really does.