Create New Inner Circles for Fellowship

Even in church plants when everyone was new, I have observed the development of some social tension. It does not represent spiritual failure. It is simply an inevitable aspect of a developing social organization. The challenge is universal and potentially affects every congregation that is attracting visitors and new members.

Part of friendship is shared history. So newcomers who join the church, whether by transfer or by baptism, must get past a natural, inevitable social barrier before they are fully assimilated into the congregation.

If we do not have a carefully thought-out strategy for helping people build relationships outside of Sabbath morning, our smiles and hugs will appear over time to be insincere.

Notice that I’ve said nothing about cliquishness on the part of the “inner circle” of longtime members. The old timers have no intention of excluding others—newcomers feel excluded because they lack longtime relationships.

Longtime members cannot offer friendship to more than a few newcomers. Why? Almost all lay leaders I've ever known in church have very full social calendars: family obligations, business connections, and all the social duties that come from knowing people at church. They need more time—not people—in their lives.

On the other hand, more people in their lives is precisely what newcomers need. The move has disrupted their established social networks. And those networks—especially those of a new believer—need to be rebuilt. The old-timers take on these projects gladly, but the friendship is unlikely to be deeply satisfying. It’s not based on mutual need. The newcomer needs the old-timer, but the old-timer doesn’t need the newcomer.

There must be mutuality of relationship that is essential to high-quality friendships. So longtime members must help newcomers make friends with other newcomers. But longtime members themselves cannot—alone—provide the friendship and connection newcomers need.

Longtime members cannot by themselves solve the newcomers’ problem. Deep, satisfying friendship must be mutual. Leaders must create new social circles headed by and populated by newcomers. They need to be in Bible study groups especially for newcomers. They need to play on softball teams that include more than one newcomer. They need to be in Sabbath School classes that are not dominated by the questions and answers of lifelong Adventists.

Stated as bluntly as possible: You have to create new inner circles with newcomers as charter members. That’s the only way they can avoid having to play catch-up.

The old-timers can plan social events at which newcomers will meet one another. They can invite two or three newcomers to their home for Sabbath dinner so that the newcomers get acquainted beyond Sabbath morning. They can support giving authority and responsibility to newcomers who will then provide new links between leadership and visitors. But old-timers themselves cannot provide the friendship and connection newcomers need.

A warm Sabbath morning greeting is received as an offer of friendship. If after attending for a month or two, the newcomer is still receiving nothing more than a smile and a hug on Sabbath morning, the smile becomes an empty promise.

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindness there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”
—Samuel Johnson

John McLarty
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists