'What makes you unique or special as a congregation?' I ask this question a lot, and ironically, the answer is almost always the same: 'we're like family.' Often this is followed by stories of hard times - job loss, illness, loneliness - when a parishioner was simply surrounded by love, prayers, food, even money. No questions asked, they were taken care of. This is a beautiful thing.
At the same time, when I ask congregations what they dream of for their futures, pretty often they answer that they would like to see new members, especially young new members. This is also wonderful, and yet I ever so gently try to explain to them that 'being family' and 'welcoming new members' can sometimes seem mutually exclusive. It may have a lot to do with why we are losing many more members to death than we are replacing with evangelism.
Why should this be so? After all, most congregations are full of very faithful people who do many wonderful things. How can that not be welcoming to those who are new to us? I think the answer may have to do with the word 'family', and how it may be more true than we know.
How do we get into a family? Normally, through birth, adoption, or marriage. These are extremely high boundaries. One does not usually just wander into a family. Instead, a lot of expectant preparation is done, and we often spend much time and many resources out in the world, finding just the right ones to bring home (in the case of marriage or adoption), and then we integrate them carefully and over time into the family. Then they are forever ours, and we take care of them, provide for them, love them.
Most congregations are really not so dissimilar from literal families, except I think we sometimes suffer from amnesia just when we need to remember our 'family values' the most. We treat our religious communities more like public organizations when we seek 'newcomers' - by having newcomer committees and signs and special welcomes in the bulletin. All of these are lovely ideas, but they are designed for strangers in a strange place, and often produce discomfort for new and old members alike, no matter their good intent. I am never so lonely in a congregation than when everyone else greets each other warmly and extensively at the peace while I stand by myself, with a few kind handshakes from the more outgoing members. I am reminded then that I am definitely not part of this family.
We simply don't usually, in our actual families, put a sign on the door that says 'join us for coffee' and then go on with our other business. And if we did, I don't know too many people who would take us up on it. Conversely, in our literal families, if someone we didn't know just showed up and sat in our living room, I think that would make us somewhat uncomfortable. Sure, there are exceptions - we all know those very special people who have never known a stranger and bring everyone home for supper - but ordinarily, there is some anxiety about incorporating new people into our families, and that anxiety is even stronger for the new person, who is likely to stay distant no matter how much we might want them to come in.
And so, I think, even though a lot of congregations focus on becoming 'friendlier', better accommodating those new people who walk through our doors, I wonder what would happen if we fully embraced our feeling of family. Which means, of course, that if we want new members, we have to get them the same way families always have - we have to go out into the world and seek them, we have to get to know them outside of church and let them get to know us, and then we have to bring them with us into the church and help them get used to our community, and us to them.
Being family is a great feeling, and I think it is an important quality in a world that can feel so lonely, where more and more people live alone. Christian community is a great gift to the world, and welcoming the stranger has deep Gospel roots. And it is a challenge, too. A challenge to both embrace our congregational family life and to help it grow. A challenge to be the followers of Jesus we are called to be.