In this, part 4 of my series “What Constitutes a Welcoming Faith Community” I am going to shift the discussion and look at how we welcome people who are new to faith. This topic is the result of a number of discussions I’ve had as well as a post I saw recently, “You’ve got to be kidding me”, that reflects on going to church from an outsider’s perspective. For the purposes of this discussion when I refer to people who are new to faith I am including those who may have been brought up in a faith tradition, but their experience of that tradition is in the distant past, or so irregular that for all practical purposes it is new to them. For Christians this would be someone who has attended at Christmas and Easter, possibly not every year. We also have many people who have been brought up with no faith tradition and thus have no clue what to expect when they enter a church, mosque, synagogue, temple or any other faith setting. They may or may not have done research prior to attending a service. So, how can we make them feel welcome?
The first step is also likely to be the most challenging and difficult one, looking at the experience of a service or community events from the standpoint of someone who knows little to nothing about the faith and the community. For those of us who have been attending services in our communities for years or even decades this can be very difficult. We have internalized the flow of the service. We usually know what’s coming next. When we attend service it can be like putting on that well-worn comfy piece of clothing. In order to understand the perspective of someone new to the faith it is important to do our utmost to shed this comfort and look with new eyes.
Once we have opened our eyes as much as we are able, what are we looking for? These are some of the things that I would think to look for, but this list is by no means exhaustive. Many of these also apply to people who are already familiar with the faith. Please feel free to add your own in the comments to this post.
- It the liturgy easy to follow given no or little prior experience? Is there someone to help if I’m stuck?
- Are the expectations of the community easy to determine and what happens if I transgress these expectations?
- I know very little about this faith, is there a brief introduction? Is there opportunity to learn more?
- Am I allowed to ask questions about the community? About the faith?
- I am of a visible minority, how am I going to be treated?
- I have a disability, how do people treat me? Will I be included as part of the community?
- I am gay or lesbian and I have a partner, how are we treated?
- I don’t speak the local language or I only have a minimal grasp of it, is there assistance?
- I don’t conform to gender binaries or I am trans, do I face negative reactions?
- I come from a different faith, do I face negative reactions?
- Is it clear what I’m allowed to participate in during the service and outside of the service?
- If I want to be involved in one or more aspects of the organization will I be allowed to participate?
- Do I feel like I am able to be part of committees or groups within the community, or does it feel like various cliques run everything and do not want new people to join and present new views?
The next step is to do something with these answers. To ask these questions and then not do anything is a waste of time and resources. My suggestion would be to look at the answers and identify areas that need to be improved. Once the areas to be improved are known they can be broken up into categories. One set of categories that I’ve seen and used in a variety of contexts are: What can be done immediately? What can be done in the short term? Medium term? Long term? Then we run into the question of who will do these things. Many faith communities have a limited set of volunteers and all too often the same people are doing a number of different things. It is also important to set deadlines and continually look at how the community is doing with the list. If new questions arise or people bring up new observations, look at them and incorporate them into the plans for moving forward. Once all of the items are accomplished guess what? It’s time to open the eyes again and start all over. This is an ongoing process and reflects the living and dynamic nature of the community. Communities are made of people, and people are not static, communities are not static.