Serving the church as a Discipleship Minister is challenging. My job is to follow the example set in scripture by organizing times for the study of God’s word, encouragement, fellowship and prayer. The early Christians met together in both large gatherings and in small.
Large gatherings of Christians for worship are well established, but what about gathering in small groups? More is going on in Acts 2:42-46 than mere Bible study and worship. My goal is to create environments which are open for newcomers and longtime members alike to establish the real and lasting relationships needed for sharing the Christian life.
The problem I often face is how to encourage existing Christians to take on the risky business of including new people. This problem, I find, is especially difficult and one I can’t solve on my own; I need help.
My wife and I grew up in a metropolitan area. We never gave it much thought, until we moved away, but we’re “city slickers.” Well, at least that’s what we were. Embracing a more rural lifestyle over the last ten years has unquestionably changed how we view ourselves.
No longer do we identify ourselves as urbanites— however, we can’t really say we are from the country either. I’m not sure what we are— “ministry itinerants” maybe? While living in the Maritimes of Canada, we were simply labeled as people “from away.” It wasn’t obvious to us at first, but we soon discovered that the term “from away” is not a term of endearment. It’s more akin to the phrase some southerners use: “Bless your heart.”
My family and I were immigrants to Canada, but it didn’t stop us from wanting to “fit in.” With God’s help and the support of a few other “from away” folks, we learned how to become “islanders by choice.” The process took some time, but the lesson we learned and the friendships we made were well worth our efforts.
It’s a lesson worth passing on to all established Christians, heeding the warning of the Apostle Peter, “Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy.” Dear friends, I warn you as ‘temporary residents and foreigners’…Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors” (1 Peter 2:10-12 NLT).
To explain further, I need to tell you a little bit about Prince Edward Island. PEI is a beautiful place, located off the eastern coast of Canada, nestled between the Canadian Provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. PEI produces a large crop of potatoes each year which earned them the nick-name “Spud Island.”
The maritime lifestyle is a great environment to raise children in. Parades, fairs and festivals are common in PEI. And from planting season to harvest time the fields display ten thousand shades of green as the crops sway in the wind like waves on the ocean. Various types of farm equipment can be seen dotting the landscape, vigilantly keeping watch, ready to bail straw or hay or to bring in the fall harvest. We lived on the eastern side of the island, in a town called Montague (pronounced the same way as in Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet”).
Montague is a town about the same size as Wilmington. The shop keepers in Montague sell just about everything anyone could ever need or want. And if something in particular can’t be found in town, only a half-hour or a 45-minute drive will get you to a larger city.
Crime in PEI is low, but on the rise as illegal drug use has become more common. As a matter of fact, most of the crime in Montague was associated in one way or another with the drug scene. Many of the island families of PEI go back many generations. Those families enjoy well established relationships and don’t sense the need to broaden their inner circle of family and friends. They know how to be friendly, but are slow to invite outsiders into their lives.
When my family and I moved from Montague, PEI to Wilmington, OH we noticed many similarities between the two towns, including how local people interact with folks “from away.”
Living as an immigrant in Canada allowed me to experience firsthand how people new to town feel — the confusion, the fear, the anxiety — and frustration at the indifference of some locals. I find it interesting how often smalltown folks want to believe they are friendly, welcoming and warm, yet invite few new people into their homes and fewer still into their circles of trust.
In all of the churches I have served, the most common complaint I have heard from new people is “We feel left out.” So, what can be done? What makes one town or one church better to live in or attend than another?
I am convinced the answer starts with an attitude of humility. James, brother of Christ wrote, “If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom (James 3:13 NLT). The Apostle Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 NIV). Jesus taught, go the extra mile, give to those who ask and do not turn away those who want to borrow (Matthew 5:41-42).
Therefore, according to scripture, the best towns to live in and the best churches to attend are filled with Christians who, in humility, put others first, go the extra mile and seek to make new people feel welcome by building real relationships with them.
At the end of Matthew 28, Jesus commanded his disciples to share the Gospel message throughout the world. This command of Christ has been passed down from generation to generation to Christians today. We are to go into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ from every nation, outsiders and locals alike, baptizing them, teaching them and sharing life with them until Christ’s return.
Christians are commanded not only to be friendly, warm and welcoming but to go the extra mile, sympathize with the outsider, invite small groups of believers into their homes, gather with large groups of Christians for worship and encourage each other to keep Christ in their hearts.
Christ is calling for his people to become more inclusive. It’s through inclusive relationships that His Church will gain strength; more effectively bear His witness and allow God to broaden their view of the world. The best churches and communities have the foresight and dedication to help folks “from away” become “members by choice.”
I am convinced the better Wilmington area Christians learn to do this, the stronger our churches and community will become.