Tossing and turning all night, 37-year-old Tim is a troubled soul. Raised in a Christian home Tim’s life has faltered along the way. Not everything has gone as planned and he had ended up taking a detour along the way. Caught stealing at work he not only lost his job, reputation and friends, he lost his faith in God as well. Everything seemed to be stacked against him. Tim found himself in a charity shop fulfilling a community service order from the courts. He was a good worker with a positive attitude and was well respected by others around him. Tim had simply made a few bad decisions while under pressure.
Tim’s life was turning for the better as he neared the end of the community service order but suddenly one thing after another turned out poorly. He worked a part-time job and didn’t get paid, then lost that work. Falling behind in rent, the good friend he rented from lost patience and ended the lease. Then there was trouble at school for his children. All of a sudden life was very different from what it once was. Leaving for another city became a better option when he needed to find a new place to live.
Sometimes it’s easier to move somewhere else and start afresh hoping for a new start in life. It can be a planned approach but all too often it’s a snap decision. A bad run with a series of things going wrong all add together and build momentum for the flight response. Selling up and setting off brings a fresh chance to paint life on a new canvas. It can also be a costly experience, especially when moving interstate as Tim is doing. Those costs are more than financial. A new school means hoping to find new friends to fit in with. A new house means finding new people to get to know in the neighborhood. For some like Tim, it’s like taking a flick of the coin to choose, hoping for a better future, that many people before him have made often at their weakest point. They hope that life will be better elsewhere. Sometimes it works out well, sometimes it doesn’t.
Selling up and setting off for a dream to come true can all fall in place more quickly when a friendly helpful neighborhood awaits the newly migrated family. As they set out trusting in the goodness of others and God to start afresh there are promises in the Bible to claim. Among them, the Psalmist advises to
Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken (Psalm 55:22).
Here are some ideas to help create a positive place to go for the restless, and the prodigal son, but also a place to grow for the seeking soul.
- Welcoming Community Networks
When someone new steps inside the door of a church they enter into an existing network as a newcomer and outsider. Eager to fit in they consciously observe the existing social structure. That is why it is important that they are acknowledged not just by the door welcomer but also by significant members of the church community network. It is the first impression that counts most. It may be the make or break deal maker that is used to sense how welcoming the church members are. Inside many are asking a deep question “Is this a place for me now and into the future?’ Their radar is attuned to the degree of acceptance there is to a range of diversity in which they place themselves. Can someone who has erred in the past find a place to grow here?
- Community Hubs
One of the important functions of a Christian community is to act as an agency of local Christian community expression. Beyond the walls of the church, those attending have networks they belong to for work, family, recreation and personal interest. These networks help open doors for newcomers. Each local church is in fact a community hub where newcomers can gain access to information and important contacts in starting afresh in a new place. What helping hand can your church network provide?
- Drop-in Centers
Those new to an area find it helpful to be able to drop-in to a community group that meets their social needs. Churches can provide a valuable space for community drop-in centers where activities take place for the different age groups in society. A playgroup for young families builds connections between new and existing young families. A teenage indoor sporting club can often form in a church hall to help create community bonds. A seniors group helps fill in the retirement void of social connection. A music group can span the generations in sharing skills and building a foundation for lifelong friendships. What opportunities does your church locality provide?
- Neighborhood Food Pantries
Settling into a new neighborhood takes time. Meeting the neighbors, establishing new social networks and friendships develop when repeated interactions occur. However, if money is scarce and a new family is in need, where do they turn? Increasingly many neighborhoods are setting up a simple neighborhood food pantry where essential surplus garden produce and simple grocery items can be accessed in times of need. This welcoming gesture creates a sense of togetherness rather than isolation. Can your church community offer food to those in need?
- Celebration of Community Events
There are milestone events in the day to day life of all communities. Some get remembered, many are lost in the past. Working together with others in the local community significant occasions can be celebrated and form the basis of an ongoing dialogue focused on bringing people together. Researching at the local library can reveal significant anniversaries for your local church to become involved in taking a lead in organizing. Involving someone new to the area is a great way to help them become part of the local community. What part could your local church play in hosting a community event? Would someone new to the church feel welcome there?
- Visitor Days
Church visitor days provide a time for newcomers to visit and interact with the local church members and facilitate a way to become part of the local congregation. Often these take place near the start of a year or are timed to coincide with when the church has a visiting group coming to present an event such as a concert. Whatever the case visitor days take planning and act as a way for a church to freshen up its approach to newcomers. When was your last visitor’s day?
- Gardening Clubs
Presenting a newcomer with a plant to place in their new garden allows them to see the changes in the plant as it grows while they settle into their new community. Inviting them to become part of a gardening club connects newcomers into a network of ‘green thumbs’ that can share friendship and local knowledge. Adjusting to the new climate of their newly adopted neighborhood helps establish awareness of what is happening around them. It encourages the newcomer to also share their garden surplus with others and pass on their newly acquired neighborly knowledge. Do you have a garden club in your neighborhood?
- Fix-it Hubs
A fix-it hub is not only a place to bring broken items for repair but a place to restore oneself through conversation. It is a great opportunity for those with expertise and time on their hands to help those in need of repairing something. Do you have an unused garage nearby where a community fix-it hub could operate one or more days a week?
- Friendly Fridays
A great way to end the week is to have a “Friendly Friday” night get together around a theme or topic and a simple meal. Whether this is in homes or a church hall, newcomers can be welcomed and gain a sense of the flavor of the area. Specific topics of interest can be explored with guest speakers, visiting experts and local personalities. Keeping the atmosphere welcoming and friendly creates a place to go and grow with return visits encouraged. Do you have some spare time on a Friday night to welcome in the Sabbath with newcomers?
- Walk and Talk
Nothing beats a one on one get to know each other walk and talk taking in the sites of the local community. Friendly greetings to others encountered on the walk builds social capital at the local level. Taking time to stop and introduce a new neighbor or meet one literally moving in nearby helps build and strengthen the bonds of community connectedness. Do you walk the talk in how you live your life in sharing it with others? At different times in our lives, we can all do with finding a place to go and a place to grow.