Welcoming Church: How Warmth Leads to Opportunity
Danny had recently started to live with his grandparents. Something wasn’t right at home, and Dick and Jan were happy to take him in. Dick and Jan were each in their 70s, and they hadn’t had a teenager in the house in decades. They were learning how to plug back into the school system, find friends, and get connected in the community. Danny became part of my youth ministry at St. Luke’s UMC by joining our confirmation class, and ended when he graduated high school five years later. Looking back, Danny lucked in to an excellent class of youth who cared for each other in ways that were mature beyond their age. I like to think I had something to do with training the volunteer leaders or coaching and demonstrating welcoming behavior to the youth. Maybe I even thought my confirmation program was so awesome that it could overcome any of the social barriers or challenges that youth had outside of our church. Perhaps a little of that was true, but it was really about the warmth that our whole congregation created by their welcoming nature. The youth ministry reflected back the experience of the whole church – warmth and welcome, no matter who you are.
Fuller Youth Institute has a history of research in both Sticky Faith and Growing Young providing evidence that warmth is among the single-biggest factors for churches and people making lasting connection between each other and their faith. In fact, in their latest findings, they recognize warmth as the single biggest descriptor that young people and young families use to describe why they are connected with their particular local church. That warmth is what Danny and his family got to experience. I felt fortunate to be a part of a body that created warmth in such a way that others were drawn to the group and in turn helped create more warmth because of their own experience. It seems so simple to say that people are attracted to warmth, so why don’t more churches have it?
The tough part about warmth has to do with what creates the warmth. It’s not programs. In fact, some of Fuller’s research indicates that churches who over-program and try to meet family’s busy schedules with their own busy-church schedule, fail to create space for warmth to naturally grow. Similarly, they found that many churches tried to kindle warmth in small groups, but saw those groups burn out because they felt forced, or not fully invested in by all group members. Warmth is created by the people that make up the church. Warmth must be a part of a church’s DNA. When it is, programs, worship, music, schedules, spaces (and on and on) are less important than the simple chance to be together and share the Christian life together. Creating a culture of warmth leads to opportunities to connect and grow.
Young people will often describe the feeling of warmth like family. Families care for each other. Families do things together. Families welcome new members and lose others. Families also are honest with each other. Families will have disagreements, but know that they will find a resolution because they are bound together. Honest relationship can become foundational to a young person’s understanding of belonging, and their place at God’s table.
Eight years later I still talk with Danny every once in a while. In fact, I saw him in person at the wedding of another, now adult, member of our youth ministry. We remember each other as we were, but also recognize who we are now. Even though we live in different parts of the US, we will always have our connections to St. Luke’s and to each other.
Consider how your own church creates and shares warmth among your church family!
- How authentic, hospitable, caring, welcoming, accepting, and belonging is my church?
- Have families (or youth) rate each of those attributes on a scale of 1-5.
- Discuss what might improve any of those attributes.
- Invite discussions about places or times where active church members have felt the most warmth as a part of the community.
- How does our church (or any ministry we have) feel to a newcomer arriving for the first time?
- What is it like getting in to our space for the first time?
- How do we meet and greet newbies? Who are the connectors?
- How easy is it for a new person to connect with people and groups within our community? Are there open and closed groups?
- How do we create intergenerational opportunities within our church?
- What communal elements need extra explaining or support in our worship or prayer services?
- How do we learn about newcomers? Who are they? What they like?
- Who are the five people in our ministry that could generate more warmth in our culture?
Written by Chris Wilterdink
Director of Program Development - US
Young People’s Ministries