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What Matters to Visitors and Seekers?

By Sidney D. Fowler

What are the hopes of visitors and seekers from all across the country?
Do the hopes we discuss below match yours?  
What would you add? 
What would you want a church to know about your own seeking and longings?

If you are already a member of a UCC congregation, how does your church introduce visitors and seekers into the life of the congregation?  What do you do to orient new folk to the Christian faith as lived in the United Church of Christ?    

Over the past few years – especially since the UCC's "God Is Still Speaking" advertising campaign – people have risked, entered our church doors, and asked "What matters to you?" We have said "No matter who you are or where you are you on life's journey, you're welcome here."  How do we make good on such an appealing invitation?

One of our newer UCC congregations, Centro Familiar Cristiano UCC , in North Hollywood, California, regularly hosts a fiesta inviting the neighborhood to discover the hospitality, foods, fellowship, commitment, music, and public service agencies of the community.  For those who are interested in the church, they soon join a "cell" or "house" group where they link up with members, explore the Bible, pray together, and have fellowship. Pastor Hamleth Terrones insists that the congregation is especially sensitive to their particular community of seekers – most are Latino and come from a Roman Catholic tradition. Terrones says "many are tired or frustrated so we must listen carefully."  He trains lay leaders for each cell group and emphasizes the importance of vital relationships, becoming family to one another. Other Hispanic UCC congregations in the area have come together for training.  

The cell groups are not just about getting people to attend church.  Terrones says "It's not about getting someone to say 'I'm evangelical' or 'I'm UCC,' it's about noticing a difference in your family, your life – applying the teaching every day."  Being sensitive to the seeker, building vital listening relationships, linking with other UCC churches, and going deep in Christ is what matters to Centro Familiar Cristiano.

Vital congregations throughout the UCC are discovering distinctive ways to draw people deeper into the Christian faith and how to express that faith within the UCC.   They are discovering powerful ways by listening to God, and listening carefully to those who enter our doors or encounter us in our communities. Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind no matter what resource – as What Matters -- that you might use with groups in your church. Here are four hopes we have heard from seekers.

"We Come seeking a spiritual connection."             

Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Bethesda, Maryland, conducted research and discovered a majority of visitors and those who attended church less than one year look to worship for an encounter with God.  Yet a majority of longer-term members seek worship as a place to be inspired by God to do

justice. God calls us to both these vital ministries. God's presence calls us to justice.  The emphasis of the seekers at Westmoreland, however, suggests that visitors have a spiritual longing that must be attended to in a special way.

Although many people may have a tough time describing why they seek out a church, they are clear about seeking something other than another place to just stay busy.  They seek a spiritual connection.  Many particularly want to discover the distinctive witness of Christianity.  What does it mean to follow Christ?  Can reading the Bible touch my life today?

When introducing people to the faith, invite seekers to explore information about God and the church, but also invite them into meaningful and relational experiences with God.  Nurture head and heart. Provide opportunities to explore prayer.  The section "Prayer Matters" in each theme chapter of What Matters offers suggestions. Invite inquirers and church members together to share their journeys of seeking.  Such a personal connection with God, nurtured and challenged in community, can sustain people of faith throughout tough times, burn-out, and as they discern their future.

"We only want to belong to a place that affirms us and our families." 

Pam and her 8-year old daughter Cassidy have been part    of Hope UCC in Alexandria, Virginia, for only a year.  Cassidy had begged Pam to take her to church, but Pam was hesitant.  She says, "I didn't want to take Cassidy to a church that conflicted with what I had taught Cassidy: All people are loved by God. We found Hope online and decided to try it – sitting in the back pew on that first Sunday. But everyone was so friendly to us and all kinds of people were there. Cassidy didn't want to leave.  So I promised that we'd return.  We did and it's been great."

Hospitality matters, but it's not just a matter of cookies and a fellowship hour.  Relationships matter.  The emphasis of Centro Familiar Cristiano UCC on the use of "cell groups" is one way to nurture such relationships.  Other churches make sure that any one interested in discovering more about their church is linked to a friend-in-faith, sponsor, or companion from among church members.  This friend accompanies the inquirer throughout the time of exploration – sharing questions, reflection, and prayers.  If the person discerns to become a member of the church, the friend introduces the seeker to the congregation. Inquirers and potential members should not be isolated off from the rest of the congregation.  During a time of exploration – for example, during the weeks of inquiry classes – if seekers are willing, could they be lifted up weekly in prayer during worship?

Seekers not only know how a congregation accepts them – they notice how others are treated.  Many have been excluded from an earlier church and are keenly aware of others who suffer a similar injustice. To claim a congregation as one of God's extravagant welcome means we carefully examine all our church life and how welcoming we are.  How wide is your welcome?  How accessible is your building?  Responses to such questions, as lived in the life of your church, teach seekers about who you are as much as, if not more than, any class or curriculum resource.

"We're looking for a place that values our questions and experience."

David Parks-Ramage, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Santa Rosa, California, talks about the day that a neighborhood man came to visit him.  David says, "He said I'm George and I am an atheist.  I wanted to see what you're doing around here."  Parks-Ramage responded, "Hi George, which god do you not believe in?  Tell me what you have in mind?" From that moment, they struck up a relationship and an ongoing conversation about God and the church. George let the neighborhood know what was going on in the church through his newsletter. Together, they sponsored a picnic for the entire neighborhood community.

Some seekers come with a particular church experience; some come with a negative experience; others come with little or no experience at all.  Twenty or thirty years ago, we might have assumed that anyone in the U.S. would be familiar with church.  It was a time when Protestant Christianity infused our entire society. Today, such assumptions cannot be made.   The implications of today's church climate calls on us to make a safe place for seekers to ask questions, explore their hopes, and, at times, like George, challenge our assumptions.  As the introduction to What Matters suggested, together, we will learn to love and live questions. 

How do seekers connect with the language, tradition, and worship of our congregation? Even for those who come with some church experience, they may have no previous awareness at all with the United Church of Christ. For example, Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Cleveland, OH, was especially sensitive to the number of former Roman Catholics in their congregation and created a "bridging group" attempting to interpret a UCC perspective of faith. 

Perhaps initially drawn to the warm hospitality of your congregation, seekers soon want to understand and experience more about the life of your church. If they come with little church experience, we need to find fresh ways to explain our church practices.  It may also mean that we evaluate the language that we do use in teaching, preaching, and liturgy.  We may explore more invitational, simpler ways to articulate what matters to us.

Media and technology have also shifted expectations in our culture -- especially from young adults who consider becoming active in a community of faith.  We live in an interactive and visual culture. Notice the dominant barrage of images and sounds on cell phones, portable media players, and computer displays. New uses of all kinds of arts and language are integrated into these emerging forms.  People, especially today, grasp information that touches their heart, emotion, and imagination, as well as the mind. This challenges both how we worship and how we teach – suggesting fresh use of images and language, but also offering chances to slow down, breathe, and carefully observe what God is doing among us.
 
These suggestions aren't about dumbing-down or entertainment. Our traditions, practices and distinctive language – even ancient -- are not to be forgotten, God is still speaking.  These gifts of God in the life of a church may point to exactly what a seeker longs for.  Yet, it's about proclaiming the good news of Christ in this generation.  Proclamation requires translation into language that more clearly communicates to those seeking the gift of faith.

"We want to join people making a difference in our world."

People come to Good News Community Church UCC because of the bold witness for justice that the congregation makes in their community. The congregation is a center of compassionate service and political advocacy linked to vital worship in the "North of Howard" neighborhood of Chicago. 

"People come to Good News through word of mouth and all kinds of justice avenues," says Reverend Charlene Hill.  God has formed a people faithfully addressing neighborhood jobs, hunger, violence, housing, and youth empowerment. For example, people discover Good News through the community kitchen that feeds 150 to 220 meals a day: that's 54,000 a year.  They also come because of the church's vital work through Northside P.O.W.E.R (People Organized to Work, Educate, and Restore) – a community-organized group that watches and acts in behalf of the neighborhood. The hope of these seekers may include spiritual searching, but it is a searching known through justice and a vision as that of Good News UCC: "Proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ through transforming ministry to and with our community and our world."

How does your congregation work with and engage seekers in working for God's justice?  For seekers such as these, a mere pastor's class isn't enough.  Reverend Hill looks toward a time of providing a series of potlucks that orient new folk both to Good News UCC and the broader UCC, but the ministries and their connection to worship is the primary curriculum.  Many visitors and seekers are drawn to the church because of its vital witness – and once there must express that witness in both advocacy and service.  Look closely at theme chapter "We Thank God by Working for a Just and Loving World" and also the suggestions in the side bar "God's World Matters." 

Listen carefully and pray earnestly about the hopes of those who visit your congregation. What matters to them? Do they share the four hopes expressed above?   Then with the grace and wisdom of God, discern how their hopes may shape and reshape the ways we present what matters to us.

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