The friendliness charism

As I contemplate moving my home and office to a rural area of upstate New York, I worry about being isolated and friendless.

What’s my first move? Scouting out a local church. I imagine meeting people at worship and non-Sunday events, adding my hands to mission efforts, chatting over coffee – the time-honored ways people use church to make friends.

As I explore church web sites, I have no interest in a congregation’s history or the excellence of its facilities or its stance on various church-political issues. I am asking two questions: do they do mission work, and do doors to church life seem to be open to strangers?

If they do mission – I mean do it, hands-on, not just give money away – then I can have some confidence that their hearts are in the right place and they will welcome a stranger.

It’s hard to discern openness on a web site. I look for pictures of children, people at work, new ideas getting airtime, ministers interacting with all kinds of people. Mainly, I will need to visit in person.

I share this with you for two reasons:

First, I think we should all be aware of how many people come to the faith community seeking friendship. They want what Jesus said a faith community would pro- vide: ”I call you friends.” Right-opinion, doctrine, church politics, tradition – bah! People want friendships. In an isolating and disjointed world, church is one of the few places where new friends can be made, especially as one gets older.

Second, whether visitors come on Sunday or, as is increasingly the case, on weekday events or mission projects, they will cut the congregation some slack on most things. But if they encounter a chilly reception, it’s game over. I don’t mean assigned friendship-providers. I mean a natural, organic, deep-seated charism of basic friendliness.

We need to remember that, whatever our age when we cross an unfamiliar church threshold, we feel like middle-schoolers all over again. We wonder if anyone will like us. It’s that basic. One reason younger and newer churches grow so readily is that many people remember that awkward first-time-visitor feeling. They see the problem and act to resolve it.

When the community gathers, I think ministers should be ”working the room” with a special eye to new friend- ship-seekers. Longtime members and people who want to conduct church business during coffee hour need to stand down. Let the ministers be free to connect with strangers.

I know from experience that friendships take time to build. I won’t expect magic on my first visits. I will need to assert myself and be outgoing.

If I encounter friendship, I will stay and pour myself into church life. If I don’t encounter friendship, I’m gone.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH is a church consultant, author (”Church Wellness” and other books), columnist for Religion News Service, president of Morning Walk Media (, New York City, and publisher of Fresh Day magazine (, a new online magazine about faith and life. You
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