“Toy Story 3” was as marvelous as its predecessor films. Who can fail to like talking toys? Or toys that are jealous when birthdays roll around because they may be replaced? Or toys that are tossed aside when the next “big thing” comes around? This particular sequel also sports toys that are forgotten when the owner grows up and heads to college.
The now-grown Andy’s toys are donated to the local daycare center as he prepares to leave home. Most are scared to death at the thought of going to a new place, making new friends, and leaving their beloved owner behind. Yet, when they arrive they are met with a hearty welcome. Lots-O’-Huggin’ is the gregarious teddy bear who has some experience under his belt. He immediately rushes to meet the newcomers. Ken doll struts out of his house and flashes a wink, inviting the new friends to enjoy his pool, big house and sports car (particularly the lovely Barbie). Various other toys extend a warm welcome. The newcomers are immediately put at ease. This place isn’t as bad as they thought!
I immediately thought about the welcome many visitors receive at church on Sunday mornings, or to our organizations as we diligently work behind office doors or in cubicles. Do we make the newcomer feel like they are the center of the moment? Do we recognize their fears or anxieties and relieve them with warmth and humor?
Many of our churches are very good at this. In fact, most churches are described as “very friendly” by those who visit them. Most churches have a big teddy bear waiting to greet those who visit.
In the movie, however, a surprise takes place after the initial welcome. On first arrival the toys were able to view the preschool room where three and four year olds were nicely playing with their toys. They assumed this was their classroom. But then the new toys are assigned to the toddler room where they were stomped, spit on, pulled, hung upside down and smothered in spaghetti. Clearly the new toys were expected to go through a period of hazing before making it to the ranks of preschoolers. The toys end the day in pain.
Hoping to rest after their trauma, they quickly learn that once night comes and the teachers and children go home, the atmosphere at the daycare shifts. Lotso once the loving old teddy bear, becomes drill sergeant for an army of toys who handcuff the others into the organizational bins at night and force them to submit to the elder toys’ every whim and demand. Disneyland quickly becomes haunted house.
The trends in church hospitality continue. For all of our techniques to welcome new people robustly, do we quickly move them into cubicles where the once gregarious leaders are suddenly drill sergeants for committees, worship styles, outreach programs and Sunday school classes? Must newcomers conform to “the system” after we have so warmly welcomed them into our care? Must they be hazed before being allowed to move up in the ranks?
At a recent church committee meeting, we discussed our assessment that we generally greet visitors to worship very well. People are friendly and anxious to be warm and welcoming. Our greatest challenge as a church is when someone has been visiting for 3-5 weeks and is then ready to move into a deeper relationship with our church and its ministries. We seem to have a harder time dedicating ourselves to the task of genuinely engaging new people. It is easier to hope they plug in to the things we have already decided are important. Can these things feel like organizational bins to a newcomer?
Consider the ways your organization can focus time and attention to the important work of transitioning newcomers from first time visitor to deeply committed participant. Can it be done without smothering them in spaghetti?
Cynthia Weems is senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Miami, Florida.