How to connect to a church

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I am privileged to serve as the leader of a church that regularly has new people joining us, whether they be new to Worcester or deciding to move from another church.  Prior to that I have been in similar churches and so over the years I’ve observed time and again what needs to happen if people are to connect to a church and find a place to belong and thrive in.

Church is the plural of disciple.  It’s a community of Jesus-followers who choose to pursue the most beautiful, bold and big version of the Kingdom of God life that they possibly can.  Jesus said that we are not only disciples, but brothers and sisters.  That makes us family.  Church is therefore better understood as a family.  And it’s a family with an assignment: to join in with God in the renewing of all things.  We’re a family on mission.

This is important, because connecting to a church is not just about connecting to a Sunday gathering, or a programme, or finding ourselves on the database with a few jobs to make us feel needy. Connection into a church is a profoundly relational process that takes time and intentionality on the part of the new person and the receiving community.

I know it’s happened well for someone when they tell me, and there is evidence, that their life has become intertwined with that of others through both intentional community (we call them “small groups”) and service.

People join and stay in a church because of relationship.  And they leave if it doesn’t happen.  I will say more in a future post about what churches can do to be the kind of community/family that make it easy for people to connect and belong (it’s more than just a nice, friendly face greeting you at the entrance on a Sunday morning!

Here are seven things I’ve observed time and again that people who get really well connected all do:

(1) They commit to regularly gathering with the wider family on a Sunday – there is something about making gathering with the wider family a weekly commitment wherever possible that means people quickly find themselves feeling part of the “whole church” even though it can seem too big for intimate friendship (beyond 50-60 people it is).  They get a sense of who the wider church is, what makes it tick, who the leaders are, the scope of it’s vision and the nature of it’s values.  They also get to track the teaching offered and tune in to the journey that the community is on and where it’s at on that journey.

I spoke recently to a girl who is new to our church who knew this to be key and so she made sure she could make four Sundays in a row.  By the end of that run she had joined a small group, started serving and found friends to do life with.

(2) They commit to getting to know people beyond a Sunday – this is harder for some than others, but however it’s done, people who do this more quickly and more deeply get rooted in the church.  It might be that they turn up to smaller mid-week events and introduce themselves to others, or say ‘yes’ to the lunch invite, or pitch in to serve at something.

Recently, a couple new to our church invited six people round for lunch that they’d met and offered wonderful hospitality.  Those six didn’t know each other and themselves felt more connected as a result!

(3) They commit to tracking the teaching series the church is following – I’m a firm believer in the power of prayerfully discerned teaching series for Sunday gatherings around which the wider church can unite and through which it can journey.  I spend hours praying and preparing not only my talks, but the teaching series as a whole, asking God to show me how best to lead the church in this particular way.  By tracking a teaching series, people new to the church quickly imbibe vision, values, our theology and our practice and get caught up in what it is we are seeking to be and do.  And crucially, if they miss a week, those who really connect will have listened online during the week to stay up to speed.

One guy who joined us about a year ago travels extensively and so uses his phone to listen to the talks he misses whilst he’s on planes or trains, and he feels part of things even if he’s away.

(4) They commit to a small group within the church – this is key.  Finding a smaller group of people within the wider church and intentionally committing to doing life with them is the number one thing that will create deep connection.  It’s more than just turning up each week to the group’s gathering.  It’s about committing 24/7 to the group and blending your life into theirs.  These are not perfect groups, and nor are they only way to develop strong relationships within a church, but it’s crucial.

I can think of a young adult who turned up on a Sunday regularly for a year but who would say he only really felt part of it all when he committed to a small group.

(5) They commit to serving others in some way – it truly is better to give than receive.  The power of finding a way to serve as a new person is that it means you begin to invest in your new church early on and develop a vested interest.  But it also means you get to know others beyond who you might naturally connect with.  And it puts you in the place of giving not just taking.

We have one retired couple who when they first joined us asked me “what can we do to serve?”.  For their first year they did what we needed someone to do.  They became part of the furniture instantly!

(6) They commit to praying with, for and as the church – as well as serving, praying leads us to find ourselves with a vested interest.  The people I see who really connect in quickly and deeply get involved in the prayer life of the church – not just prayer gatherings.  It’s a posture… praying with the church whenever possibly, but for it and as it.  When we pray with and for people, we develop a love and commitment that roots us in community.

I spoke a few weeks ago to someone who had joined a while ago and asked how connected they were feeling.  She said the real sense of commitment to the church came when she decided to pray through our weekly news email each week – for the events, people involved and so on.

(7) They commit to supporting the church financially  – finally, I see the difference that committing financially makes to people who are looking to get really connected.  By taking this step, we literally choose to sow in to the community.  It’s an indicator saying “I’m in”.  The act of committing financially also seems to trigger a deeper awareness of the need to do the other six things I’ve listed.

So, done intentionally and consistently, these seven commitments will mean someone quickly and deeply connects into a church (assuming the church is geared up for this!).

Have I missed anything?

 

Remaining undefended

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I have been privileged to lead the great community of All Saints Worcester for just over five years now.  I’ve made a frightening amount of mistakes and found myself saying “sorry” more than I would have liked.  Such is the reality of church life.  God calls imperfect people to lead imperfect people.  One of our team asked me what leadership wisdom I’ve acquired during these five years (and in the years before too).  That question has prompted me to reboot this blog as one of the ways I might share the limited insight I’ve gained.

I want to begin with something that I think is crucial for us all as leaders, and something that, if I’m honest, I find really rather difficult at times. It seems to me that, if we are to be true to the call to lead as Jesus led, we must seek always to be undefended in our leadership. I’m sure I’m not the only leader that finds themselves having to face both valid and invalid criticism at times, and to cope with projected expectations and unprocessed pain from those we seek to lead.  This can be really very tough at times and if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves becoming defended.   Bit by bit, the criticism, the frustration, the cost and the loneliness of leadership can cause us to become defended. We defend our hearts, our reputations, our ideas, our performance. It’s understandable, but ultimately it robs us of any joy in ministry and creates a culture of mistrust and disconnect in our church families.

I spent some time recently with one of our ministry leaders who wanted to talk through some issues to do with where our church is at, and ultimately, my failures to lead perfectly.  When I read the email asking to meet, I immediately noticed myself feeling anxious, fearful and defensive. I knew from previous experience that there would be some fairly sizeable challenges, some feedback from others unwilling or feeling unable to talk to me directly and criticisms of my leadership style, ability and performance. It took some elaborate mental gymnastics and a time of prayer to remember four things that I think are essential if we are to lead in an undefended way:

1. My identity and worth are rooted in Jesus alone

We know this, but it’s all too easy to lose sight of this when we face criticism or make mistakes. But ultimately it is who I am in Jesus that defines me. Not my success or lack of, nor my popularity or lack of. I’ve experienced firsthand the pain and hurt that can come from leaders deriving their identity and worth from being good at what they do. The reality is that we make mistakes all the time, are far from perfect, and will never live up to our own expectations or those of others, however realistic or not. What matters is that I seek always to be someone of integrity, humility, honesty, teachability and grace. Perhaps this is what it looks like to be a “faithful servant”. In his brilliant (must-read for every leader!) trilogy of books on this, Simon Walker writes: ‘The idea of undefended leadership is that we are secured not by our skills and resources but by our attachment to another— one who is big enough not to be overwhelmed by our failures and weaknesses.” (from “The Undefended Leader” trilogy)

2. Church leadership is both a great privilege and a tough calling

Of course we all want to be leaders who remember that to lead in the church for the sake of the saints, for the sake of the world (Ephesians 4) is a huge privilege. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us that we have times of feeling low, tired, frustrated, cynical, resentful, envious, despondent and so on. For the calling is tough.  What matters is not that we find leadership demanding and hard at times, but how we respond when we do. It seems to me that the challenge is to always remain thick-skinned but soft-hearted. All too often we can get those the wrong way round and end up hard-hearted and thin-skinned. Add to that, the spiritual opposition that we face in particular ways, and no wonder we have our moments where we question our calling!

3. People are broken

Another “must-read” book for any leader in the church is “The Contemplative Pastor” by Eugene Peterson. He brilliantly reminds the reader that the people we serve and seek to lead are broken, just like us. When we forget that, he says, we start to see them as a problem to be fixed, not people to be loved.  So much of what we experience and have to deal with in leadership is the projection from others of their own pain and brokenness. It can be tough at times to do this, but we must differentiate between that which is valid criticism, that which is someone’s perception and that which is projection onto us from them.   This is where praying before any meeting with someone asking God to root us in his love and gives us discernment is so vital. Given this, I made the decision years ago that I would never hear someone else’s feedback via another. Not only is this profoundly dysfunctional, but it means I do not have the opportunity for a two-way dialogue with someone, nor to do the difficult but often crucial work of helping them see what is valid criticism and what might be their stuff.

4. I need the support of other leaders

I am fortunate enough to meet every week with a cohort of like-minded, like-hearted leaders where we pray for one another, our churches and our shared-mission. There is something precious about being with those who can truly empathise, support and offer wisdom or solidarity.   There are times where I turn up and simply say “pray for me!”.  It’s vital that each of us as leaders find some version of this for ourselves – we need one another.

And so my fellow leaders: may you be undefended in all you do, secure in the love and grace of the one it’s all for.