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The Introduction of Newcomers

The people who make up a congregation changes regularly — new babies are born, individuals and families move in and out of the community, and members die. Membership in religious organizations in the United States is a voluntary activity, and one that is the matter of individual choice rather than cultural prescription. All religious groups must integrate new attenders into the community or risk diminishing congregational rolls. 

Some newcomers are newborns — born into the community by attenders or members and raised within the community. How these children are initiated into the community can share vital information about the community’s culture. Sit in on children’s Sunday School classes — what sorts of lessons are taught about the religious history of the congregation? What specific values or morals are taught? Examine words in songs sung by the Children’s Choir — what sorts of lessons are instructed through those songs? These children are often then entered into youth groups where deeper lessons are discussed. How do the stories and methods of discussing religious ideas and values change?

Not all newcomers come to the community as babies. With geographic mobility, individuals move into new areas and must find faith communities for themselves. Religious mobility is also increasing — meaning that people are more likely to change religious groups over their lifetime. Religious intermarriage — marrying someone from a different religious background — is more and more common, and finding a faith community to fit both partners’ needs is thus a negotiation.

Imagine how these newcomers would find out about your community — do you have a website or a sign outside? Do your current members seem excited about your community, open to talking about it to those who might be looking for a religious community? Taking an inventory of how the last few members found out about the community is a good way to see the sort of impact any and all advertising (intentional or not) is working.

Once you have new people regularly attending, a New Member class is common to initiate people into the customs and ways of the congregation, as well as expectations for membership. Sit in on those classes, and perhaps discuss with the attenders how what they are learning aligns with what they see on Sunday mornings. How does the congregational culture they experience match with the narrative expressed in class?

Baptism is a common rite of initiation for newborns in Mainline Protestant denominations, and many other groups choose to baptize individuals at different times in their lives. What does Baptism –the timing, as well as the ritual, say about how newcomers are initiated into the community?

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org