What's Tony Thinking

Emerging Slowly (2) “We Will All Be Newcomers”


Let me build on yesterday’s thoughts about “emerging . . . slowly” with a particular look at the life of religious congregations.

I was struck by the comment of one pastor, about which Alban’s Nathan Kirkpatrick wrote in this week’s Alban newsletter.

Her comment was, “When we return, we will all be newcomers.” Perhaps an offhand comment, but full of insight. Here’s Kirkpatrick musing on it.

“As church and office buildings begin to reopen in larger numbers after a year of on-again, off-again COVID-19 closures, our habits in these once-familiar physical spaces have been broken.

“What was instinctive and comfortable in March 2020 is now, for many of us, just outside the realm of memory. How did we share life in these spaces? How did we get work done here?

“Even with a widespread yearning for a return to normalcy, we may find that our familiar places now feel somewhat foreign. Ongoing and necessary health and safety precautions will change the ways we interact in these spaces.”

Although I am no longer pastoring a congregation myself, I think a lot about the post-COVID transition for churches.

The idea that “we will all be newcomers” has at least two aspects. On one hand, being a newcomer can be uncomfortable. You don’t know the lay of the land. Part of church-going is the familiarity of it, knowing who’s who, where people sit and hang out, the smells and sounds and what they signify, the patterns of our being together. Such familiarity can be a comfort — but also a obstacle. Which leads to the second aspect of all being newcomers.

There’s an opportunity here. Buddhists (and some Christians) speak of having a “disciple’s mind,” meaning “knowing that we don’t know.” Hierarchies and pecking orders are swept away. We are all equal in our need of guidance, of a teacher, a sensei. Our need for God.

Having a disciple’s mind, or as Jesus puts it “becoming as a child,” can be a great gift, bringing with it openness, curiosity and wonder. Could we return to our faith and faith communities in such a spirit? Could the pandemic be the source of a new beginning, a fresh start, in our life together as a community of faith?

Kirkpatrick advises congregations to call on what they know about welcoming and hospitality. Here’s Kirkpatrick again:

“One of the particular gifts of religious communities is that most of us do some of our most intentional ministry with newcomers. In this moment after we have missed so many other moments, we will need the best of what we know from that to help us find a way of being back together.

“For example, we have cultivated practices for welcoming one another and inviting one another to share in something larger than ourselves — the mission of the church in the world. At our best, we know how to listen for, celebrate and receive the gifts of each new person. We know how to help each other share our stories of heartbreak and hope and, in each telling, find new layers of meaning.

“We know how to invite people into service in the world that is good for the world and deeply fulfilling for them personally . . . We will need all those capacities and all that experience to help us be, and become more than, newcomers together.”

While that is wise counsel, to call on what we know about hospitality and welcoming, I’d be cautious about turning it too quickly into a program . . . and losing the “disciple’s mind” opportunity, the knowing of our shared need for God . . .

The words of a Tracy Chapman song are going through my mind. “Make a new beginning. Start all over.” There could be a real opportunity here for many congregations. Here’s the first verse of Chapman’s song:

“The whole world’s broke, it ain’t worth fixing
It’s time to start all over, make a new beginning
There’s too much pain, too much suffering
Let’s resolve to start all over, make a new beginning.”

I don’t know exactly what they would mean for a congregation. But it feels like something worth pondering, worth praying about, worth exploring.




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