A great amount of attention is devoted to the need for “community” in the church and, on a related note, the need to welcome guests. This article is perhaps just another addition to that wealth of talk; but I think it is important to address it from another angle.
Most conversations in public begin–and end–with, “How are you doing?” The obligatory answer is, “Fine.” People sometimes attempt to compose answers that feel more honest but don’t violate the mores that they associate with “How are you?” But the question is still most often considered a pleasantry and not a point of conversation.
In a public space, people aren’t actually interested in staying still for a few minutes and having the kind of conversation that forms relationship; but they feel it would be rude not to speak. So we have these empty conversations; and I wonder how many people go home from church wishing they had more relationships with people from church.
How shall this change? How shall we become a society that welcomes and lives in community, a society where people do not go home from church wishing they had deep relationships, a society where people go to church feeling that they are truly worshiping as family? What does it take?
The church lobby is most often a place where people attempt to build community. Church members greet each other after being about their separate lives during the week. Hopefully, someone welcomes visitors. More often than not, visitors hang around and watch the church members greet each other.
These seven steps can help to break the cycle and build community, beginning (but not ending) in the lobby.
1: Stop and Talk
We must change our focus from trying to see everyone to trying to form relationships. There are certain situations when mingling with everyone is appropriate, e.g. you are the bride and want to thank your guests for coming to your wedding. However, Sunday morning at church is not necessarily a time to see everyone. In fact, it may be the most important time to build one or two relationships.
2. Have Something to Say.
Be skilled at conversation. If you don’t know the person, be interested in getting to know them. Introduce yourself by name. Ask general questions. If the person is of a different racial background or has a visible disability, don’t launch right into “Where are you from?” or “What’s wrong with you?” questions that will make them feel alone in a room full of people who are all alike. Ask questions that help you connect with them as a person who has similar interests with you. If nothing else, start with questions about their familiarity with the church. Perhaps you can create a safe space for them to ask their own questions.
3. Be Strategic About Exiting.
When you need to leave a conversation, do it mindfully. Say goodbye, and tell the person you are glad to have spoken with them.
4. Take Mental Notes and Follow Up!
Did the person say they had a job interview coming up? A doctor’s visit to check on test results? Why not call and see how things went? In our fast-paced society, it is common to forget such things. Why not set a reminder in your phone to call, as you would set an appointment reminder? One of the most common reasons for loneliness is “no one calls during the week”. People are not looking for a call from the church phone committee. They are looking for a call from someone who got to know them and remembered them.
5. Don’t Be Distracted.
One of the most common reasons for aborted conversations in the church lobby is, “Oh, I see so-and-so. I need to ask her a question.” If you tend to do this, develop a habit of making note of your business with people and dropping an email or phone call. If you tend to be the one whom people approach with questions, make it a matter of personal discipline to check your email, Facebook or voicemail on a regular basis so that you are able to encourage community-building by letting people know that they can contact you instead of using the time before church to reach you.
6. Greet the Person Again.
There’s nothing quite like being remembered. “And God remembered” is a frequent phrase in Scripture. In fact, “remember” is an active verb, much different from the kind of sudden coming to mind that we think of when we use the word “remember” in English. “Remembering” in Hebrew is an act of will, a deliberate calling to mind that is followed up by action.
What a thrill to be remembered in friendship!
7. Invite the Person to Fellowship.
Biblical community never occurred solely at the temple. On the contrary, the temple was the center of community life; and community life persisted throughout the week. What would happen if we did this? To recapture community, we must do community outside the church. Invite that person with whom you are building a relationship to fellowship with you in some manner outside the walls of the church–and do it on an ongoing basis. As your relationship deepens, support each other in doing this for others. Your community will grow.