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Welcome at the Table

Editor's note: This is the second part of a multi-part series on the local church. You can find Part I here.

I remember the awkwardness of going to the cafeteria for lunch in elementary school. The seating rules were strict. The benches on each side of the table held four. File in and sit with those next to you; the cut off is the cut off. Better like the people around you. By middle school, six chairs and six chairs only were fitted around the circular table. If someone else moved one over, we were all in trouble. 

I was social enough as a kid but rarely the first choice for a table mate. I was basically fine with that, but I was also an anxious child and preteen. Taking a seat at a table was a moment of tension. Would someone try to sneak a fifth friend onto a bench or a seventh chair at the table and get us all a reprimand? Would my seat be one that someone else wanted, resulting in an angry stare from the one left out or one of the ones who would have preferred someone else?

The Persistent Anxiety--Is there Room for Me?

I know church feels like that for many people. We question whether we are welcome, whether anyone cares to know us. In larger churches, early anonymity feels perpetual. In smaller churches, not being able to penetrate the community to true belonging feels permanent.  

We find discouragement when initial attempts to become part of a new church community don’t lead to quick embraces from pastors or congregational leaders. We ask ourselves why they’re so cold to newcomers. Sure, there’s some small talk, but we don’t have to come to church for that. Or, maybe worse, we get approached by people whose job it is to “welcome” me so the interaction is just happening because someone has to talk to me. They’re listening for a key word on a checklist: “He said daughter. Quick, point out the children’s ministry.”

Small Moments of Welcome

On a warm Sunday in 2016 my family sat down at a table outside of the church we had been attending consistently for a few months.  After about six months of church-shopping following our move to Grove City, we had picked a medium-sized Wesleyan church. We had never been Wesleyan before, so that wasn’t why we picked it. And in those early months, I admit to not always knowing why we were there.

That day, we had just finished an outdoor service and were having a potluck lunch. My family was still in the phase of not knowing most of the households that attended, so we didn’t know who would be joining us at the table. The tension of seating and welcoming floods back in moments like that.

In fact, we did not know the older couple with whom we shared that meal. But they were willing conversation partners; we shared some life stories and learned about each other. That day was not the start of a close friendship, but it was enough.

Around the Covid disruption, we stuck it out at that church. We kept going to lunches. We talked to other families in the hallways while waiting to pick up our girls from children’s church. We showed up to special events. I joined the worship team. We joined Sunday school classes or small groups, albeit inconsistently. We became members, and my wife was elected as secretary of the leadership board.

We had to commit to the process of working our way in. We had to give signs that we were staying.

The Process of Coming to Belong

We can easily say it’s the pastor’s job or the church’s job to make us feel welcome. And that’s true. But how many families has a lifelong congregant seen come and go from a church over the years? How many visitors have accepted a pastor’s greeting at the end of a service and never returned? Or how many people in the community have come to the church asking for help, received it, and never returned? I can understand why pastors and congregants might put up some psychological barriers for self-protection.

Of course, Jesus can give someone a tender heart that is always reaching out to others, and those people are a great blessing for a church. But I don’t want to think that it’s Jesus’s job to make others more welcoming while ignoring my need for Him to make me more gracious toward them or more persevering in committing to a church, whatever its minor faults.

In February 2024, our church hosted a surprise luncheon for our pastor’s 50th birthday. Early in the ninth year of attending the church, I looked around the service that morning and thought how many people I’d love to share a table with. There were several families with children around our daughters’ ages and memories of birthday parties to which we’d invited each other. There was the couple who own the farm where most of the community picks blueberries and who have started to teach our oldest about how to maintain the bushes. There were the empty-nesters whom we contracted for recent home renovations and who introduced us to one of their sons and his family who serve as missionaries—a family we have befriended and supported in their work. There were board members past and present my wife had befriended.

I don’t always love the process of coming to belong to a church, but I believe that faithfulness to Jesus involves faithfulness to His church. Our lives are more connected to the heart of Jesus because He has kept us coming back to the table with other believers, giving and receiving His welcome.

Born and raised in Topeka, KS, Adam moved east for college and never left. He is assistant director of the Center for Rural Ministry and an associate professor of English and writing at Grove City College. Adam has published several articles in education journals that focus on the use of language in educational settings.