To an introvert like me, three hours in a closed room talking about intimate things with a group of random strangers sounds about as enjoyable as swallowing a fork. But when you’re thirty-something weeks’ pregnant like my wife and I, birth classes become a necessary part of life. So that’s what we did. After we eventually found the right part of the hospital, we walked in and found a seat. As is my custom in these situations, I began trying to scope out the other 12 attendees, while avoiding eye contact with them at all costs.
Everyone else looked right at home. I probably did too, but in reality, I was terrified. Questions began creeping through my mind: “Why don’t I know more about childbirth?” “Why haven’t I done more preparation?” “Is the emergency department at the Royal Women’s set up to treat painfully uncomfortable social interactions?”
As I began to realise just how panicked I was, a thought hit me like a bolt of lightning: this is what it’s like to be new at church.
I was terrified. As I began to realise just how panicked I was, a thought hit me like a bolt of lightning: this is what it’s like to be new at church.
The similarities were striking: I don’t know anyone. I don’t know anything about this topic. I don’t know what to expect from the next three hours—but if TV sitcoms are anything to go by, this could be traumatically awkward.
It’s been a long while since I’ve been new at a church, so I don’t often get the chance to see things through the eyes of a newcomer. However, I do find myself involved in the welcoming ministries of our church. So once I realised that this birth course could teach me to welcome people better, I began to pay extra attention. Over the three weeks that followed, I picked up a few things about what helped me to feel most at home in this strange environment. Here are the five that have had the biggest impact on the way I want to welcome at church:
1. The first 20 seconds matter most
I can’t tell you how nice it was for someone to simply acknowledge my presence, and tell me that I was in the right place. Having the vague sense that somebody was glad to see me made a bigger difference than I expected. From now on, I’ll never underestimate the value of the person standing at the front door of our church with a smile.
2. The people leading matter least
I expected the leaders to be kind, welcoming and inclusive. It was the people next to me I worried about most. Even if the instructor turned out to be unwelcoming, it was the acceptance of my peers that I craved most. I want to belong with them: to like or dislike this session with them, to laugh and cry along with them. And it wasn’t until I had a friendly conversation with them, that I began to feel comfortable about the whole situation. The best parts of the night were the unsupervised small groups where we were able to make our own conversation. After that, I had at least three other allies in the room and felt like I could breathe a little easier.
3. Laughter is the best medicine
Nothing unites a group of random strangers like laughter. Every chuckle we shared served to bring us closer together and normalise the whole situation. Next time I lead a newcomer’s event or a brand new small group, I want to help us laugh early and often.
4. Name-tags might be cheesy but like a fine cheddar, they get better with age
I might be late to the party on this but this class convinced me that name-tags are great. In fact, they got better the longer the course went on. They helped a little on the first week, sure. But they really came into their own once we reached the stage where I really should have remembered people’s names but didn’t. They might not seem that helpful to me at my church now that I’ve been there for years. But through this class, I was convicted about just how helpful they are to people who haven’t been around very long. With that in mind, I’ll wear one with pride every time I get the chance.
5. It’s only awkward if you say so
As soon as I walked in, I felt like the whole situation was awkward. I’m sure everyone else did too. But for some reason, when an instructor told us we were in an awkward social situation, that made it even more awkward. We had a number of instructors across the course, and I noticed that the best ones didn’t just play the role of teacher, they acted like a flight attendant too. When something went wrong and the wheels started falling off, they were the calmest person in the room and gave us the sense that everything was totally normal. Next time I’m leading from the front, I’ll try to resist the urge to make light of any awkward vibes. It only makes them worse.
In a class designed to teach me about welcoming a baby into the world, those are a few of the things I learnt about welcoming a newcomer to church. Rest assured, I also learnt plenty about contractions, labour, breastfeeding and nappies—but that’s for another article.