Familiarity lost: coping with new people

Tuesday, 24th June 2014 at 7:00 UTC Leave a comment

It was six months since the new vicar had arrived and an elderly gentleman from the congregation had asked for ‘a word’. He told the new vicar in quite honest terms that, having wished for many years that new people would join the church, he couldn’t cope with the new influx of strange and unfamiliar people. When he died a few years later, he still left the church £20,000.

The above story might seem ridiculous, but its entirely true nonetheless. The man in question also continued to give week by week to the church he both wanted to see grow and have a future, and stay comfortingly the same. I reckon most of us can probably get what he was on about if we’ve been part of anything for more than a handful of years. New faces mean adjustments, effort and uncertainty. It can be difficult to be ourselves around people who don’t already ‘get’ us. Or people just don’t behave the way we’d like. They make us feel awkward because they don’t know how things ‘should’ be done. Surely its obvious, right? Apparently, though, its not obvious and what seems simple to one is a different world to another.

In fact, someone once described this issue to me as the ‘Friends problem’, referring to the TV show. The producers, despite their own attempts, apparently couldn’t introduce new characters because they upset the group dynamic too much. It wasn’t just a question of taking time to write a plot around getting to know a new character – the core of the show collapsed if anyone made any changes. If apocryphal, its still a good metaphor. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a 20-something moving up in the world or an 80-something feeling a bit overtaken. Insularity of social circles seems endemic in this culture.

I wonder what exactly we need to do to move ourselves on from this frame of mind. I find myself doing exactly what I’m railing against here: the meeting finishes and I sweep across to talk to someone I can just as easily text or email, passing by people who’ve made the not-inconsiderable step of showing up when they know no other participant, and upon whom the growth of the group or organisation depends. The habit is only more frustrating when its a church and the need to outgrow the collective ageing process is paramount.

I suppose in one way I’m grateful that someone was prepared to remove himself as a barrier to the growth of my local church. I know plenty of very different tales, where people have been elbowed out by more established members with snotty remarks about perceived failings of newcomers. Perhaps it helps if we’ve stepped into unfamiliar territory a few times recently – perhaps those awkward Sunday mornings when on holiday and visiting other churches pay off when others come to visit ours. But its not just welcoming people on their first visit, but including them and making them feel at home.

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Entry filed under: Church, Community, Culture.

Space for divergence? Ice Bucket: some very sore losers?

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