Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers can Save the Church -- A Review

WIDE WELCOME: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church.  By Jessicah Krey Duckworth.  Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2013.  Vii + 128 pages.

            Most churches are eager to welcome newcomers into the church.  Or at least that’s what they say on signs, brochures, and websites.  Come and join us – everyone is welcome.  But what do they mean by this word of welcome?  What is the nature of the welcome?  How far in can they come?  What are the expectations?   As a pastor I’ve been the one who welcomes, but I’ve also been the newcomer.  I’ve watched churches that I’ve been a member of and have served try to figure out what to do with the newcomer.  From experience I can attest that the newcomer can be and often is an “unsettling presence.”  Like the adage about children being seen and not heard, so goes the newcomer.  We welcome you in.  We might give you a job – after all churches always need help with this matter or the other.  But while the welcome mat is laid out and the jobs are forthcoming, the voice of the newcomer is meant to be kept mute.

Into this conversation walks Jessicah Krey Duckworth, Assistant Professor of Congregation and Community Care at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She seems to believe that newcomers, despite the unsettling nature of their presence, could be the salvation of the church.  The present book, which is brief in nature, is a revision of her Princeton doctoral dissertation in practical theology.  She writes as a Lutheran with Lutherans as her primary audience.  Despite that being the case, we who are not Lutheran still can learn much from her analysis and suggestions for not just assimilating the newcomer (when I think assimilation as a Star Trek fan, I can’t help but think of the Borg, and that’s not necessarily a positive image), but a process of intentional discipleship that brings together newcomer and oldcomer.  The latter term isn’t typical usage, but it does have a certain ring to it that is helpful.  As a pastor of a church of some longevity, not as long as a Saxon church in England, but long enough that I minister to and with seniors who have been part of that church all their lives, along with people who have entered the doors quite recently.  Indeed, I too am a relative newcomer – just five years in. 

Central to her thesis is her proposal that the way forward is the development of a cruciform catechesis, where new and old participate in discipleship practices.  Rather than separate out newcomers for pastoral attention alone (or some other official person), who conducts introductory work, people are brought together so that together they learn from and teach each other.  This in itself is unsettling – that the old might learn from the new and the new from the old.  It is cruciform because this work of discipleship is placed at the foot of the cross (in a good Lutheran theology of the cross).  As this journey is undertaken, Duckworth notes that the presence of the newcomer is a reminder to the congregation “that there are people who do not yet belong.”  Then, she writes:  This reminder is most unsettling because the majority of established members experience their congregation as a promising context where they are nurtured in faith, hope and love.  Established members assume that newcomers experience this promise as naturally as they do” (p. 4).  And of course, they don’t.   And their questions and their suggestions may lead the conversation in unexpected directions, but directions that might lead the church to experience their faith in a new and enlivening way. 

Duckworth’s message is one of “deliberate disestablishment,” the title of the first chapter.  The American church is disestablished – at least as government entity – but it has its own forms of establishment, including cultural and social establishment.  Consider the way in which religion and culture partnered during the 1950s in opposition to “godless communism.” For Duckworth, establishment ideology proclaims that God keeps us safe from the world’s chaos.  It has led congregations to turn inward, becoming “static, protective enclaves” (p. 20).  Evangelism isn’t something to pay much attention to because it is assumed that culture is sufficiently Christian that we can open the door, usher people in, and they will find their place (assimilate).  But to move in a new direction – deliberately – is to recognize that this vision no longer holds true.  It behooves us to disestablish, to take seriously the need for discipleship – of oldcomer and newcomer.  To be brought under the cross. 

In mainline circles we tend to avoid talk of boundaries, and attending to them.  I myself prefer the idea of the centered set to the bounded set.  But in reading Duckworth I was forced to recognize the need to tend to the boundaries – where people gather on the periphery.  And she recognizes that for some this is an appropriate place to be, but if we’re not cognizant of the boundaries we may pursue establishment agendas and just assume that as people come in they’ll know their place.
In the course of the book Duckworth introduces us to stories of individuals and congregation and offers suggestions that might lead us into disestablishment so that we might pursue a new course of discipleship – where old and new are partnered with each other.  That together they experience the faith, empowering both to work toward living under the cross of Jesus.  I sense that this is especially important to pursue in smaller congregations where the balance between new and old can change rather quickly, and that can be and often is unsettling.  Turf battles can emerge and this only leads to destruction.  But if we are walking together in discipleship, seeking the realm of God, under the cross of Jesus, then perhaps we can be partners in something very powerful.

Although this started out as a dissertation, and thus written for professors who would judge her on her use of sociological and theological tools, she has provided us with an insightful book that should be of interest, at the very least, to clergy who seek to not just assimilate new people but to help nurture a congregation that is being disciple into the realm of God.  We may fall far short of the vision she lays out, but she gives us a direction to pursue.  For that reason, I do recommend this book very highly.


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