New kids on the block
“I think they see it as a chance to … spread Christ’s word.”
Sarah Willett is a primary school teacher who has been attending Blaxland Uniting Church since 2008. She said that the congregation at Blaxland proved to be welcoming through a variety of ways. “I have felt very welcomed both by the minister and the laypeople,” she said.
“The minister, Alimoni Taumoepeau, made a point of visiting many people when he first arrived at our church, which made me feel a worthwhile part of the congregation.”
Like Ms Cook, Ms Willett also believes that the Uniting Church actively encourages members to think deeply about their faith.
“I think that, above all, I appreciate the questions that are not just allowed to be asked but are actually encouraged to be explored, to question assumptions that may be intrusive to the core message of the gospel,” she said.
A clear and owned church vision is another aspect of church life that NCLS Research says is important. The Uniting Church did well in this category in the 2006 NCLS results.
The percentage of attendees who were aware of the vision, goals or direction of their local church increased from 59 per cent in 2001 to 70 per cent in 2006.
The ‘newbies’ interviewed told Insights that the Uniting Church’s vision was something that they identified with and that was influential in their attendance.
Ms Cook said that the Uniting Church’s concern for social justice was something that resonated with her. “The Uniting Church has such a strong commitment to social justice that I find absolutely liberating and inspiring and the people really believe in what they are advocating.”
She said, “The (church’s) policies … towards Indigenous people and asylum seekers echo my thoughts so much it’s quite scary.”
An active community
All of the “newbies” interviewed also said that they found their congregation or small group to be a vibrant community ¾ and that this played a part in their decision to get involved.
Tamsin Paige is a law student who worships at Ultimo University Church. Ms Paige said that she was invited “to be a part of community and not just to attend Sunday services; this invitation into community was crucial to my feeling welcomed.”
Ms McCrossin said that South Sydney congregation’s community focus ¾ such as its community garden, parish-based newspaper the South Sydney Herald and accommodation for homeless people ¾ was significant to her decision to attend.
“The wide range of activities associated with the church also means that there are many ways to help and feel needed,” she said. “Many people distribute the newspapers, for example, and this is genuinely valued. There are many ways to feel part of the community at the church.”
Making the transition into a new church is, in many ways, challenging. Among other things, the move can involve adapting to church traditions and theology sometimes alien to what one is used to.
Ms Willett said that making a denominational shift to the Uniting Church was sometimes challenging, as she had been exposed to different theology and tradition to what she was previously accustomed to:
“Having grown up in a different church there were a few different traditions to get used to,” she said.
“I felt nervous about that, about doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, but people have always been considerate about telling me what is going on and not expecting much of me.
“The theology is very different to anything I have been used to and so some ideas I’ve never thought to question before can be unsettling. But that also serves to strengthen my faith over time so it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.”
Ms Willett said, “The Uniting Church is an intelligent denomination; meaning that there is a lot of thought that goes into theology, which can be difficult to keep up with.
“It can feel intimidating to meet so many clever people! At the same I have always found these people to be gracious.”
Ms Cook says she has also experienced this in her Bible study: “It’s just trying to absorb as much knowledge in a short period of time but it’s a positive challenge.”
While the Uniting Church has been identified by the NCLS as a welcoming denomination, adapting to a new group of people can still sometimes be daunting.
Ms Willett told Insights that this had been challenging at points.
“I think there’s a danger in forming cliques in any church, when people become comfortable with each other … I think it can become disruptive when people no longer feel the need to welcome others or even feel threatened by new people,” she said.
“I have experienced this to a small degree in some parts of the [Uniting Church], but it’s been rare.
“In the times I have experienced it, it has been subtle and difficult to pinpoint but it felt that people’s friendships had already formed and that I was going to have a difficult time of breaking in.”
In order to guard against such a problem occurring, Ms Willett recommended that churches extend their welcome to newcomers beyond the four walls of the church.
“I think perhaps having more focus on getting to know new people through inviting them to your home is particularly welcoming, as it says, ‘I want to be friends with you; not just at church.’”
Send us your own newbie experience stories
Insights is interested in hearing from any readers who have themselves recently joined the Uniting Church. Email us through firstname.lastname@example.org or write to us via PO Box A2178, Sydney South 1235. We will share some of the stories in a future letters page.
Jonathan Foye is a freelance journalist and Uniting Church Chaplaincy Associate at UWS.
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