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When churches act too much like family

When churches act too much like family

The Rev. Catherine Caimano asserts that when church members consider themselves “family,” they can make it very difficult for newcomers to feel at home. From Duke Divinity’s Faith and Leadership:

We are more like families than we realize, in ways that are not always good. Like families, churches can be very close-knit groups, with a select few people who aren’t really all that excited about bringing other people in. What group has higher barriers to entry than a family? You can’t just wander in. You can only join through birth, adoption or marriage.

No wonder we don’t act like we’re expecting guests. No wonder, even in a time of decline, we’re not putting out the welcome mat. Too many churches are like actual families, slowly bringing in and incorporating new members but rarely going out looking for them.

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Ann Fontaine

Family is a bad metaphor for church. It evokes all sorts of emotions – not all good. Sets up expectations that can’t or should not be met.

As to welcoming – usually the only people who will speak to visitors are other visitors. Very few Episcopal churches have the welcoming spirit or really know how to welcome. We ended up at our current church because people spoke to us and made space for us.

Weiwen Ng

A couple of responses.

I think one can talk about an organization’s character or personality. An organizational personality might arise because the organization tends to attract people with certain characteristics. The Episcopal Church’s personality may lean towards introversion, on average. Introverts (I’m one!) have plenty of strengths. Bur one area introverted persons need to work on is being more welcoming to unfamiliar individuals. It doesn’t come naturally to introverted persons, although we can and do work on it.

It could be that Episcopalians (the entire church on average, as well as individual churches) need to work on that as well. This might take the form or assigning specific people as greeters, or having one or more of the clergy take that role on in addition to laypeople, etc.

As a contrast, the evangelical (Methodist) church I grew up in in Singapore was pretty quick to welcome me. People were fairly quick to strike up conversation. It could be that this is something evangelical churches on average do better than we do. That doesn’t mean we need to or should simply ape them. It’s just worth noting, and worth learning from.

On a different note, I’m fairly young, and I’ve been in a couple of churches where, in my perception, one or more people have come across as almost too interested in me just because I’m young and young people don’t typically come to (that particular) church. It’s as if they’re hungry for fresh blood.

Now, perhaps they are, and perhaps they should be. But don’t come on too strong. It makes young adults feel like curiosities. Are you interested in talking to me because I, Weiwen, am an interesting person who’s a Christian? Or are you interested in talking to a young adult? I would wager that people are more likely to feel welcome if they’re treated as individuals, and not as members of a particular group. As a contrast, imagine if you were Black and you felt like people were being overly friendly to you and your fellow African Americans just because they wanted more Black people in church … you might feel tokenized.

Of course, it is generally true that Episcopal churches are aging and running out of young adults. I keep sounding like a broken record when I say we have to address this problem. Well, I’ve just outlined one way NOT to address it.

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