We’ve covered the first four questions of seeker-oriented outreach:
Now, let’s take a look at the fifth question:
5) How can we help new attenders to develop a sense of belonging?
By “new attenders,” I’m talking about people who have been to the meeting at least a couple of times but haven’t been around for more than six months or so. It’s a critical time—the person has enough interest in the community to stick around but hasn’t gotten to the point of making a commitment yet. Spirit is working on them; we are, too, whether we know it or not.
It’s worth noting that for many of us, the definition of “outreach”—and the scope of outreach and advancement committees—generally ends here. The person has come through the door and has been welcomed, and now the next steps are the responsibility of somebody else—often a rather vaguely defined “somebody else.” But from the perspective of the seeker, the journey with Friends has barely begun. We are absolutely still introducing our community to the seeker, and the seeker to our community. We might as well do so with intention.
How can we help new attenders make the transition from “I’m a visitor here” to “I feel like I belong?”
Newcomers are invited to participate in formal or informal small groups. Sociological research tells us that it’s easier to enter a group in formation than it is to enter an established group. Established groups have unwritten rules and norms; it’s easy for the newcomer to accidentally sit in somebody else’s seat or bring the wrong thing for snack or ask questions at an inappropriate time, and for that reason, the newcomer feels awkward. A group—especially a small group—that is just being established is a lot easier to enter because the newcomer can be part of the creation of the social norms.
Ideally, even a small or medium-sized meeting would start some kind of new small group activity at least once a year—gardening groups, book clubs, Friendly Eights, parenting worship groups, neighborhood clean-up teams, just about anything. A large meeting might have multiple small groups running and start new ones every three to six months. There’s no reason why any small group activity needs to be considered permanent, and in fact, implied permanence makes it a lot harder to be agile as conditions change; start new groups with the expectation that they’ll last for a certain length of time (six months or a year) and then maybe continue, if there’s still a lot of excitement for it.
Committees can function as small groups for new attenders, but not easily. The work of a standing committee tends to be established, with little room for the new attender to be involved in inventing or re-inventing things. Working groups or task groups (relatively new and temporary by nature) might be better.
The whole meeting engages regularly in fun multigenerational activities. Some Quaker meetings do this very well, but for many of us, this is a challenge. “Multigenerational” sometimes ends up being interpreted as meaning “something for the little kids that the grown-ups tolerate.” And many times, adults without children simply don’t participate in any meeting activity where the primary purpose is fun. For some adults, games and singing and other types of silliness are pretty far out of the comfort zone.
The thing is, having fun together—especially fun that includes children, teens, young adults, middle-aged adults, and senior citizens—brings a community together in ways that nothing else does. For many people, social time is where trust-building happens. (If you’re someone who prefers serving on committees or participating in business meeting over unstructured social times, you’re probably someone who most naturally experiences trust-building by working together. It’s important to know that many people most naturally experience trust-building by playing together.)
Even neuroscience supports the idea of community play. Laughter stimulates chemicals in our brains that cause us to experience a feeling of bondedness to the people we laugh with.
If we are committed to being in deep, spiritual community, we need to ask ourselves whether that commitment includes the commitment to making time for fun.
Quaker jargon is explained briefly and clearly as it is used in all meeting activities. We’ve all had the experience of sitting through twenty minutes of announcements at the end of meeting. What we might not remember is what that experience is like when the twenty minutes of announcements are incomprehensible because they’re all in Quakerese. It can take practice to learn how to translate as we go along, but it’s important. The simple act of explaining what we’re talking about changes the feel of things from coded and exclusionary to inviting and open.
The meeting responds positively and supportively to newcomers’ suggestions.In other posts, I’ve used the term “permission-giving culture.” In other words, the default answer to newcomers’ ideas is “yes, and how can I help?” unless there is a compelling, Spirit-led reason to say otherwise. Newcomers develop a sense of belonging when their ideas are taken seriously and when they experience the power to make a difference in the community. This is newcomers of all ages, by the way—including teens and kids.
Worship is deep and holds a central place in the meeting, and all ages are welcome. For many meetings, worship absolutely holds a central place. But there are some meetings in which this can be questioned. Does your meeting have multiple Friends who serve on committees or lead activities but who are physically present in meeting for worship less than twice a month? If so, you might consider whether your meeting community as a whole is valuing worship as central to what you do together.
It’s also worth asking whether all ages—indeed, all Friends and seekers—are truly welcome, recalling that there’s a difference between “I am tolerated here” and “I belong here.” One of my favorite meeting rooms is in Ithaca, in central New York. There are probably over a hundred places to sit in the room, and no more than any two or three of them are the same. There are chairs of varying heights, chairs with backs and without, chairs with arms and without, short benches, long benches, benches with cushions and benches without, a gymnastics mat in a corner on the floor, and pillows and blankets stacked against the wall for anyone who needs to make their place softer or warmer. There’s a place for everyone (including squirmy sitters like me, with legs that are several inches too short to reach the floor in a standard chair).
It might not be possible for your meeting to build a space with a hundred different seats, but ask yourself—does our worship space have physical indications (variety of seats, blankets, soft baby toys, signs) that indicate that all are welcome in the space? Does our behavior (smiles of greeting, patience with normal baby noises, flexibility in meeting times, commitment to being present) reinforce the idea that meeting for worship is central to our meeting and open to all?
Is your meeting doing these five things to help new attenders to develop a sense of belonging? If not, might you personally feel called to step up in any of these ways?