No person is an island, yet I often feel like one when I’m new to a church. I am an island of one sitting all by myself, surrounded by a sea of families. I am an island during coffee time when groups of friends swirl around me as they gather to catch up.
It’s an uncomfortable experience, especially for those who aren’t naturally outgoing. It takes a bold person to join a church where you have no previous connections. Yet many of us do it. For a variety of reasons, we brave a crowd of strangers. We brave being an island for a time.
But how do you go from being an island to being a fully embraced member of a congregation? How do you find your way into a community where people have strong ties to one another?
For me, the best transition from being an outsider to being an embraced and included church member came through joining a small group.
From Stranger to Friend
When I moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., I knew only one family there. The first few times I went to church I felt disoriented and lonely. Everyone was friendly, but they were not (yet) my friends. While some people came up to talk to me, I didn’t get to know them very well. Drinking coffee after church in a noisy fellowship hall is not the best way to build meaningful relationships.
Thankfully, the church I had started to attend was kicking off its small group ministry, so I was able to sign up for a new group. In that small group I went from being a stranger, to being an acquaintance, to being a friend. I went from being an island to becoming an active member of the community.
This was not an overnight transition, however. The journey took a year or so to complete. It took risk, patience, and a willingness to be open. It involved commitment on my part and on the other group members’ part. We had to keep our commitment to meeting together regularly. We had to risk letting our real selves be known. We had to be patient when we disagreed or misunderstood one another.
Being part of this group also required flexibility. For example, the group I joined had decided to study a book, and I was more interested in a Bible study. But I wanted to be a part of this group, and I was interested in the book. Over the four years we met together we studied the Bible and other books, and through both grew to know and care for each other.
As a small group we shared the highs and lows of our lives together. My small group was there for me the first time I preached a sermon in town. I was nervous, but the presence of my group members encouraged me. They were also there to celebrate with me the day I graduated from seminary. As a small group, we walked closely with a family who had received a painful medical diagnosis and a couple who would soon be separated when the husband left to serve in Iraq.
Through my experiences with this small group I found a sense of belonging. When I went to church on Sunday mornings, there were people in the sanctuary who I knew really well. I knew their names, but I also knew about their children and families, and, as we drew closer, I also got to know their fears and dreams. Through this small group I was drawn into the life of the community. I ceased to be an island unto myself.
It takes a measure of bravery to join a small group, especially if you are shy. But the flip side is that for a shy person, small groups are one of the best ways to make acquaintances, find friends, and discover a way to belong. I encourage you, especially if you are shy, to pluck up your courage and join a small group.
If you do, remember that it takes time to build relationships. Not all groups have a smooth start or hit it off right away. But be willing to give it time. Be willing to pray and to trust that the Lord will bless you through this group. No one is meant to be an island, so may the Lord bless you with a place to belong!
Tips on Befriending New People
If you are a long-time member of your church and have your own circle of friends, it can be difficult to remember to include new people or to go and seek them out. We often get pulled into what Bill Hybels refers to as “circles of comfort.” Here are some helpful hints for widening your circle:
Look around you during coffee time at your church. If you see someone new or unfamiliar or someone who’s on his or her own, take a deep breath and go introduce yourself. If you’re nervous, remember that the other person is likely even more so.
Invite new church members over for Sunday lunch. Don’t worry if your house doesn’t look “put together.” Some of the best lunches I’ve attended occurred in messy homes inhabited by warm and inviting hearts.
If you’re in a small group, consider asking new members to join you. Or consider dividing into two new groups to make room for others. New members can bring added richness to your group. Consider starting a new small group and inviting new members to join you. Your pastor, elders, or community life staff member can help you identify people who might need a place to belong. Start an informal group based on a common interest, such as cycling, knitting, fishing, book discussion, and so on. This is an easy way to reach out to new people.Pray. Pray for new members of your church, even if you don’t yet know their names. Pray for open eyes to see those who are off on their own. Pray for courage to take initiative in getting to know them. Even a shy person can pray and reach out to someone new.