Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church

By Michael Rinehart

WIDE WELCOMEI read Jessica Krey Duckworth’s new book, “Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church” on the plane coming home from the installation of our new Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. It was a lovely gift from Augsburg CEO, Beth Lewis.

Jessica Krey Duckworth, who works for the Lily Foundation, points out two common dilemmas that are also two sides of the same coin. The first dilemma is the newcomer who never finds a place within the congregation and eventually leaves, after marginal membership for a short time. The second dilemma is the newcomer who is rejected for not adopting the patterns and ways of the tribe. She points a way through: newcomers must be welcomed by old-comers through a fluid interaction around faith practices.

The author points out the awkward truth, that all too often we are too busy telling newcomers who we are to ask them who they are. We want them to conform and fit themselves into our institutions, so that we can get back to the comfortable rhythm of membership business as usual. But their faith questions can be a source of renewal for the church.

I enjoyed her angle of vision so much, I think I’m going to abandon my more common use of “outsiders versus insiders,” for her “newcomers and old-comers.” She focuses us on how much newcomers need old-comers and vice versa. Newcomers are a gift to the church.

The church consists of communities of practice, specifically faith practices. We are gathered around the cross. Sadly many newcomers do not perceive the church to be this kind of community of faith practice. They experience it in terms of organizational membership. New member classes are orientations. Welcome to conditioning.

Newcomers come for a variety of reasons. They often don’t know what to expect. “But it does not matter what expectations or intuitions newcomers bring to a congregation, because what newcomers encounter is a comfortable, closed gathering in which their presence is not necessarily needed.” It happens all the time: unchurched people join churches, but their beliefs and practices remained unchanged for the most part.

Duckworth proposes that welcoming newcomers involves engaging in the actual practices of discipleship in the present, not the future. This is not talking about faith practices, but actually doing them: Praying. Serving. Giving. It is catechesis that shapes us and them. It also involves listening to the raw data of their lives. It is not information dump.

Established congregations are intentionally equipped to care for established members. An established congregation seeks to reduce the tension between established members and newcomers by rushing to make newcomers members. Duckworth makes the case that it is vitally important for congregations to attend to the interaction between newcomers and old-comers.

Established members may assume newcomers pray. The 3-week new member orientation rarely explores prayer practices.

Duckworth is an articulate writer, solidly grounded in the theology of the cross. She makes a strong case for the use of the catechumenate, and many of her case studies are taken from congregations that do so. As a concrete person, although I enjoyed the stories immensely, I would also love to see some hard data on the effectiveness of these congregations in reaching newcomers.

I appreciate the practicality of the book. She suggests strategies for facilitating newcomer integration and cultivating trust between newcomers and old-comers.

The best practices I would lift up as a result of reading this book would be:
• Give plenty of time for newcomers to meet in small groups as a part of the welcoming process.
• Make sure the sessions have as much listening to the newcomers as telling.
• Create an open safe space that encourages doubts and questions to be surfaced. Without them there is no genuine community.
• Make sure every newcomer has a caring sponsor who participates in the sessions, and that there are as many old-comers as newcomers present.
• Consider using the catechumenate, but even if you don’t, be sure to have several right along the way, that include the giving of a Bible, a catechism, a hymnal, a devotional book or other symbols.
• Make sure to participate in faith practices together, including the weekly study of scripture and prayer, and one or two opportunities to serve.

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