By Rev. Canon Grayhame Bowcott
As a priest, visiting new members can often be like a job interview: new members are always looking to explore the meaning behind what our congregations do, and answers to why Anglicans do things in certain ways. For newcomers who have been seeking a faith community, they are always interested in what makes our congregations unique and how they might be different from the other churches in the neighbourhood. As these visits generally happen in the homes of new members, the conversations often happen around tea and cookies, but amusingly, I usually find myself answering so many questions that the tea gets cold and the cookies go uneaten!
It is incredibly important for congregations who are desiring to grow to be quick in responding to newcomers in their first weeks and months in visiting your church. Long time members might not always remember how vulnerable and anxious the experience of showing up to a new church can be. The truth is, it doesn’t take much for someone to feel turned away from a new congregation. This is where an intentional ministry of first impressions is so important.
It has always been part of my pastoral practice to visit newcomers as quickly as possible. My intention in doing so is to begin forming a personal relationship between them and myself, and, perhaps more importantly, between them and potential new friends and community members in their new church.
While I always look forward to answering the barrage of questions that a newcomer may have regarding my church: What are your services like? What does your church do in the community? What do Anglicans believe about….?; at the same time I am always excited to be able to ask some questions of my own!
The number one question that I always ask is this: what was the first thing that made you want to explore coming to St. George’s?
In this most recent visit, when I asked this very question, the answer to the question really surprised me! The new member, hosting me for tea, replied: “Back in 2016, when I was moving away from this community (to move back to Toronto), I decided to host a yard sale. I needed to borrow tables for my yard sale and decided to call up some of the local churches, figuring that they would likely have tables to share. I called three churches at that time. The first two said they weren’t interested in helping out. The third church was your church, and you were the only ones willing to help me out! Members from your congregation were even willing to drop them off and pick them up. I remembered your generosity. It was my first impression of your church.”
This response moved me greatly, because I remember when the phone call came in, way back in 2016.
Before lending out the tables, members from our leadership team had a robust conversation about whether we’d be willing to share them or not. I remember some voices who argued: “We want to keep our tables looking nice. Why should we lend out our good stuff to others? They could get damaged.”
At same time, I also remember one voice that spoke out with this comment: “Doesn’t all that we have at St. George’s belong to God anyway? Wouldn’t God want us to be generous in sharing what we have with others?”
It was this final perspective that won that day: God is calling us to be generous in our first impressions!
When this new member moved back to the Blue Mountains, she remembered our generosity and was curious as to what we were up to (seven years after she had borrowed our tables)!
She explained that she noticed that St. George’s was still “caring in the community” through our outreach to an Afghan Refugee family, through hosting funerals for people she knew in the community, and in our recent Shrove Tuesday pancake community dinner.
“The more I thought about it, the more I decided that it was time for me to really find out what you Anglicans are all about!” explains St. George’s newest member. And so, in her new member visit with me, this person decided to take the next step of commitment and officially join our faith community.
Notice that it was a number of positive impressions all pointing towards a community of generosity and inclusion that ultimately led this particular newcomer to making a commitment. Back in 2016, had we decided to not be generous in sharing our tables with a stranger, I might not have had the opportunity to welcome this newest member into our community.
I share this story with you today to invite you and your congregation to reflect on the ways that you are making first impressions in your own neighbourhood and community. If you stopped a random person on the street in your town and asked them what their impression of your church might be, how do you think they would respond? Would you be known as the generous and caring church on the block? Lastly, how do you think God wants us to be known to others in our ministry of first impressions?
Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains.