When I moved to a new town over two years ago, I found a solid church quickly. However, relationships in this church have come more slowly. On one hand, careers, families, and mounds of responsibilities mean that relationships don’t happen easily or organically like they once did, so we have to be more intentional and thoughtful about our investment in people.
On the other hand, when we visit a new church, it can be daunting or we may be disappointed if our new home doesn’t welcome us like we hoped. Relationships can seem like they are stagnant. Everyone else seems well-connected except you, and that can discourage. We may even start to grow bitter and wonder why “they” are not doing more to fold us into the flock. But we must resist the temptation to place all the responsibility of hospitality in the church's hands; we’re called to do the work, too.
Say yes often. Even if you’re an introvert. After three three months at my new church, I served in the nursery, attended the women’s Bible studies, and went to the Wednesday night dinners. I went to the children’s programs even though I didn’t have any children. I made cookies and signed up to bring meals to new moms. I said yes when I was invited over to people’s homes, even if I didn’t know them well. I said yes to their kids’ soccer games and World Series parties. It was (and is) awkward at times, but most friendships consist of just showing up. Being part of a church family is no different.
Be patient. As one of the elders reminded me during my membership interview, relationships take time. Some days it seems like I have labored long enough—shouldn’t I see more fruit by now? Am I too late to the party and destined to be a really good acquaintance forevermore? When I start to despair, the Lord is faithful to remind me of a few things. The first is that he did not design friendship to spring up overnight. Two years might seem like a long time to me, but compared to the long life of the church, that’s just a drop in the bucket. There is much more work to be done. The second is that even though my relationships aren’t where I wish they were, they are much farther along than they were a few months ago, or a year ago. He is at work, even when it doesn’t feel like it. The last thing he reminds me is that friendship does not belong to me, or to my friends, but to him. He will make everything beautiful in its time.
Be a “there you are” person. This is, I confess, is less of a lesson and more just one beggar telling another beggar how to pray. Lore Wilbert explains:
… there was real value in showing true interest in another person and their life. To not stand on the sidelines waiting to be approached by others with a “Here I am, come find me,” attitude. OR to enter a room and be the life and center of the party with the exclamation, “Here I am!” But instead to enter a room and find others first. To be the first to ask questions about their lives and the last to talk about yourself. …. God pursues us like that!
As a newbie, I’m tempted to be a “here I am” person. After all, I’m the guest, and the church is the host, so they serve me, right? But such a person does not a friend make. Ask God to teach you to be a “there you are” person. Be genuinely interested in the history of the church, of the people you meet, and though this is easier said than done sometimes, don’t take their shared history personally. Let them wax poetic about it, and learn about the church and the relationships in the process. Ask questions, be curious. Listen for ministry opportunities or ways to serve a family in need or how to pray for your pastor and church staff.
Finally, pray for eyes to see the lonely people, because all of us are lonely. You and I do not have a monopoly on loneliness just because we’re new. In reality, very few of us actually feel like we’re on the “inside” of anything, so don’t assume your new friends at your new church with their old friends really have it all together or have no need for your friendship. If God has called you to this particular local assembly, then be faithful. Roll up your sleeves, labor alongside them, and love them.