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How we accidentally communicate: “No More Joiners”

Think school playground, or the park in the summer. Kids are hanging around. You and a friend decide to start a game of some kind. You spot someone who would be a good teammate and beckon them over. Your friend catches the eye of another person and nods their head in that inviting way that indicates “something is up, get over here.” Soon people are converging on you. Then, when you feel you have enough people — which usually happens around the same time people who are less popular or seen as less valuable participants arrive — you call out “No more joiners!”

Now, if you were usually ‘in’ already when that was called, it might have felt good. But if you were ‘out’ when “No more joiners!” was called, the rejection could be crushing. And there is something in all of us that wants to be ‘in’ even if we are the last one. There is a natural thing we do that likes to gather with people who are like us and close the circle to keep out those who are different.

Kids can be pretty brash about it. As adults we get more sophisticated. But also, if we have not learned, in the church, how dangerous that tendency is to the purpose of the body of Christ, we won’t even notice ourselves doing it. But all kinds of things we do naturally and without a thought can make people who are trying to come ‘in’ from being ‘out’ feel excluded.

Let me backtrack just a bit to talk about the church, and particularly the Christian Reformed Church. In most rural areas we are a church that has been a place to build families and gather them together, an organization where people of similar heritage collected. Our focus — even if not consciously or intentionally so — has been the preservation and valuing of that heritage. You can still hear Dutch spoken in many of our church lobbies, though that is diminishing. Some of the preservation has been about a set of beliefs, called Reformed, but really most of us have trouble telling where belief ends and culture begins. I could say much about that, but what I want to get to is that this approach is no longer growing our churches. Again, there are acres of reasons for that, but the fact is our rural churches are just holding their own or shrinking in membership. So, more and more of us are seeing that it is important to our survival to relax that “colony” mentality and to embrace fully Canadianizing and begin to shift who we are culturally as church so that people who are not like us can feel easily at home, and even fully included.

Trouble is, some believe the answer is to double down on the family emphasis, and work harder to ‘keep’ the youth. My experience is the youth are leaving partly because they recognize we are culturally trapped in a heritage and a pattern of worship culture they value less than we do. To me the answer is to focus on the ‘lost’ in our neighbourhood, to bring them in. There are plenty of them!

However, even in churches that profess they want to be more evangelistic, it is hard for long time members to see how small things they do will say “no more joiners” to newcomers.

Here are just some of the things that communicate this:

Anytime a newcomer can’t find something in the building, like a washroom or a nursery – they will feel “no more joiners” are wanted.

Anytime a visitor doesn’t know what they are supposed to do next in the service – they will feel “no more joiners” are wanted.

When an outsider doesn’t know what a word means that is used, they are in danger of feeling on the ‘outs’ instead of ‘in’.

When a nickname is used for a building, such as when you talk about the “Blue Whale” or when anything is referred to as if it should be common knowledge, but the newcomer does not know it, they will feel awkward and excluded unless someone realizes…

When a guest hears a foreign to them language spoken in the lobby, especially if it is by someone in a circle of conversation they are part of, they will feel ‘out.’

If a guest is self-conscious and finds themselves way overdressed or way under-dressed when they dare come to visit, they will feel it.

If someone greets them, but one of the first three questions they are asked is “Are you related to anyone here?” what is communicated to them is that to be ‘in’ you should really be related to someone who already is.
And that brings me to one small thing that I think is another one of these signals. Say a family whose last name was Smith or McDonald visits a few Sundays and then asks for a directory so they can get to know people. Not only will they see almost all last names as identifiably Dutch, but they will see that the maiden names are listed, and many of those are the same last names as other families!  That is another version of the “you’ve got to be related to be ‘in'” subtle exclusion.

We don’t mean it that way, but it communicates that.

So, if a church is to really grow through outreach, it needs to learn to change it’s attitude away from “family only please, Dutch-descent only please, etc” in order to enfold those who are more culturally Canadian or of other cultures. And after the attitudes change, some behaviours will as well. And, much to the surprise of some, the kids might just start coming back, because as a church you’ve become more culturally suitable to who they are as well.

Over and over again in scripture the message is to “go” out to the world and bring new disciples out of that world into the body of Christ. The message is “There’s always room for more joiners” and in fact, Jesus had a clear preference for “loser” joiners over “winners.”

May we do the same.

And, by the way, we can do it without having to be ashamed of our cultural heritage. We just remove it as a barrier.

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