Guidelines for newcomers

Last month I was present at a very lively and enthusiastic Sunday morning service in Beirut. The church was packed with young families, many of whom were refugees from Syria. Most of these refugees were Muslim – as was indicated by the dress of many of the women. Attracted by the love and care shown by the church, they had come to see what the Christian faith was all about.

This was the context in which the pastor was expounding the Scripture. He had chosen as his text 1 Cor 14.26-30, where Paul is giving instructions for ‘orderly worship’. In particular he elaborated upon Paul’s words: “God is not a God of disorder but of peace… all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14.33, 40). This then led him to list a series of very practical guidelines for the many newcomers to his church.

  1. Don’t smoke in or around the church

  2. Don’t be late for church

  3. Don’t eat or drink during the service

  4. Don’t talk during the service – and don’t play with your mobile phone either.

  5. If at all possible, wash before you come to church (not easy for people coming from a refugee camp, but some of the church members had been complaining that these people ‘smelt’!)

  6. Respect the building as if it were your home (the toilets were being messed up; and that very Sunday morning some of the Syrian young people broke a new football table which had cost £250)

  7. Respect the views of others (some women feel it right to come with their head covered, and some don’t – actually, I am not sure whether this was aimed at the newcomers or at the church members)

  8. Respect the need for some women to have space (this was certainly aimed at some of the male church members, who in their desire to greet newcomers were in a friendly way putting their arms around some of these women)

Throughout this part of the sermon the pastor kept on emphasising how delighted the church were to have these newcomers in their midst – he constantly said ‘You are very welcome’. But clearly this influx of newcomers had created tension within the fellowship, and so understandably the pastor felt obliged to tell these new members of the congregation what a God of order would expect of them!

This in turn led me to wonder what – in a very different context – I would give as guidelines for newcomers in my church. Indeed, what guidelines would I want to give to my own church members?! Under the general rubric that ‘we are delighted you have chosen to worship with us’, I think I might say the following:

To newcomers:

  1. Do make yourself known. Tell the person sitting next to you that you are new to our church. They will be delighted to welcome you. Unfortunately in a larger church such as ours, some people may not always realise that you are a newcomer.

  2. Do stay for coffee (or tea or juice) after the service. We want to get to know you.

  3. Do join a home group. There you will immediately find friendship. Indeed, there you will begin to experience the kind of fellowship where love, care, encouragement and prayer are to be found.

  4. If you are new to the Christian faith, then come along to our next Alpha course. Alpha is a great way of finding out more and also of making good friends

  5. Come expectantly to church. Expect that God is going to speak to you through the worship, through the prayers, through the reading of Scripture, through the sermon. So listen attentively – once the service has begun, don’t read the weekly news sheet and don’t check your phone, instead listen to what God is saying.

To regulars:

  1. Don’t be late for church. Like many churches in the UK, we have lots of latecomers – and they certainly aren’t just people from another culture. What’s more many of these latecomers are ‘serial offenders’ – it is not as if something unexpected happened to delay them at the last moment. It is disrespectful to the congregation – it is not easy to focus on God when latecomers push by and distract from worship. It is disrespectful to worship-leaders who are seeking to lead people into the presence of God. And above all, it is disrespectful to God whom we are seeking to honour in our worship. The fact is ‘If you are not five minutes early, then you are ten minutes’ late’!

  2. Don’t miss church. Make Sunday worship a priority – don’t allow other things to take precedence. God must come first. Alas, many members of our congregation are ‘twicers’ who come just twice a month to church. Indeed, some come regularly every third or fourth Sunday. But Sunday worship is a ‘duty’ not an option. Yes, I recognise the danger of legalism – but at the moment the pendulum has gone to the other extreme.

  3. Bring a Bible and a pencil. I know that the Scripture is on the screen – or if not, then it is probably on your phone as an ‘app’. But how will you remember what God is saying to you, unless you write it down – or at least underline the particular word or phrase which has jumped out at you?

  4. ‘One new name a Sunday’. After every service always talk to somebody you don’t know, before you talk to your friends.

  5. Open your home at least once a month to newcomers – whether it be coffee, lunch, or tea – and give them a welcome they will never forget.

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