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Asking the Clergy: How does your congregation attract new members?

Rabbi Shalom M. Paltiel of Chabad of Port

Rabbi Shalom M. Paltiel of Chabad of Port Washington, Samantha Tetro of Samantha's Lil Bit of Heaven Ministries, and the Rev. Wendy C. Modeste of United Methodist Church of Bay Shore. Credit: Rampage Studios; Judy Donnenfeld; Jennifer Mercurio

Americans are increasingly leaving organized religion, according to recent studies. A Pew Research Center survey, for instance, found that religiously unaffiliated people have been growing as a share of all Americans, and that many young people now identify as agnostic, atheist or “nothing in particular.” This week’s clergy discuss how they work to attract new members to their religious communities.

Rabbi Shalom M. Paltiel

Chabad of Port Washington

The Chabad movement has become highly successful because of three key realities. First, many Jews are searching for a deep authentic connection to the timeless truths of Judaism. Second, they want to see how those truths profoundly impact and benefit their day-to-day approach to life. Third, they don’t want to feel guilty, judged or pressured but loved and accepted.

At Chabad of Port Washington, we address all three realities. We offer an authentic and joyful experience of Torah Judaism. We show people how relevant it is to enhance and enrich one’s life. Lastly, we do it in an open, nonjudgmental, loving way. Walk into our Chabad Center (or any Chabad Center) and you’ll find educated, modern, often successful American Jews learning and growing in their embrace of traditional Judaism. People are not judged for their level of religious observance. Instead of feeling looked-down upon for what they don’t observe, they’re encouraged and admired for what they do observe.

The moment they walk through the doors they feel right at home and part of a family. Like a family, our congregation is a very diverse group of people coming together with genuine respect. Every individual is embraced for who they are, a child of God created in the divine image, unconditionally accepted and loved. This is a magical formula: If people are inspired, loved, admired and part of a family, they’re going to come back for more. Over time, they might find themselves taking small steps forward in their religious observance, not out of fear but out of love; not because they feel guilty but because it makes them feel good.

Samantha Tetro

Samantha’s Li’l Bit of Heaven Ministries, East Northport

My heart and vision has always been to create a safe, loving environment for people to grow in faith and friendships. Loneliness and depression are clearly at epidemic proportions today, revealing a guttural cry (and need) for a relationship with God (John 15: 12-15) and each other. (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

We try to meet both needs through outreach. We offer Biblically based classes, support groups, Bible Studies and workshops that address situations they might be facing. In addition, we feature faith-filled music events that we find birth friendships and community. (Proverbs 27:9) Social media has enabled us to reach far beyond who we could have in the past.

I find that over the past 25 years, however, the majority of our guests have been referred by a friend. I find that to be the greatest recommendation of all.

The Rev. Wendy C. Modeste

Pastor, United Methodist Church of Bay Shore

In the gospels, we learn the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Jesus and his disciples had traveled miles outside the city, and throngs of people followed them on foot. But out in the wilderness, there wasn’t enough food and water to care for the followers. And in a miracle, Jesus fed the multitudes with five loaves of bread and two fish. Why did they follow Jesus into the wilderness? Because people need to feel that they matter, that their needs are being met.

Although our needs are different, fundamentally we all want to feel accepted for who we are, without judgment. One Sunday a few months ago, a teenager walked into our church alone. After the worship service, he came into Fellowship Hall and saw the congregation enjoying “coffee hour.” I invited him to join us, but the teen shared that he wasn’t sure he would be accepted. But it wasn’t long before some members came over and introduced themselves — and the teen stuck around for coffee and Bible study.

What made the difference for this young man? He felt included. We attract new members to our congregation when we extend the same love and compassion that Jesus did. We strive to be welcoming to all people and love them because they’re God’s creation.

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