WELCOMING THE STRANGER INTO YOUR CHURCH
NOTE: When I saw the September 8, 2014, WordPress prompt, Greetings-stranger, my first thought was welcoming strangers into the church. Was it a coincidence—or a God-incidence—that the title of the September 8th Upper Room devotion, written by Hugh Lake of Georgia, was Welcome Stranger?Some of the content of the following was excerpted from this devotion.
The boxes of stuff were finally unpacked, freeing me to explore our new community. It had taken several months to unpack, during which I’d noticed a small café tucked behind the local dime store.
On a midweek midmorning I entered the cozy homelike café. I took a seat at a table for two. The steaming coffee hit the spot, and I settled in, reading the local newspaper left behind by an earlier customer while waiting for my order of scrambled eggs, rye toast, and sausage links.
I was absorbed in a local story when I was startled by a tap on my shoulder.
“What’s your name?” the tall, older woman asked.
“Carolyn,” I said. “Carolyn Holland.”
“I’m Anna. I’ve been looking for you,” she said. “I saw your name in the guest book at church last Sunday and hoped I’d see you somewhere this week. May I join you?”
“Certainly,” I said, welcoming the company.
“It was nice you visited my church,” she said. “Are you considering returning?”
“My husband and I are visiting different churches in the community. We’re not certain where we’ll end up.”
“It can be scary to walk into a new church, being a stranger. Tell me about your explorations.”
For some reason I felt comfortable enough with Anna to share my impressions of the church visits.
“I’ve been really disappointed. I’d hoped we would find an authentic church environment but it hasn’t happened. We visited several churches in our denomination. We visited one three times and not one person spoke to us. In the others we were greeted at the door and then ignored. It’s not that I expect we should be fawned over, but at least there should be some welcome extended to a visitor.”
“Sometimes those of us who’ve been part of a local church for years forget how scary it can be to walk in as a stranger. We may also forget the importance God places on hospitality. I recall being a stranger in one community when our four children were small. It was scary to attend the church service, even though it was in our denomination. We sat in a pew in the center of the church. Not a single person spoke to us, either. When we attended another church the next week we were inundated with interest, handshakes, and hugs. They followed up our attendance with a home visit from a church member. That’s the church we chose to attend.”
“By not identifying the stranger in their midst church members can miss greeting them. And it can be as scary for church members to approach a stranger as it is for the stranger to enter the church.”
“That’s true. But by not overcoming that fear they could miss an opportunity to offer someone spiritual support. They may be the answer to someone else’s need, but they can’t provide the need for them if they don’t step outside their comfort zone and answer the call. God doesn’t call us to minister inside our own little zone of comfort all the time… He calls us to minister in His strength through us.”
“Not recognizing the stranger in their midst is especially true of larger churches, but I don’t think this is an excuse in churches in this community. None of them are so big that they cannot recognize there is a stranger in their midst.”
“I know that in my church a stranger can always be identified.”
“At another church we visited the pastor greeted everyone around us but didn’t bother to speak to us. And when I called for prayer they told me to put my request on the church’s Internet site.”
“Strangers and visitors also attend church events. Can I tell you what happened to me at a community church luncheon?”
“I was almost the first in line to be served, and decided to sit at a table and see who filled in the other seats. I’m aware people attend these events and sit with family and friends, so I wasn’t concerned when no one sat at the table. But they did something strange. I noticed that as they passed by me their feet shuffled faster, their heads hung down, and they avoided looking at me. I felt like a leper.
“Finally, when people had to sit at my table, they filled it up from the far end. Ultimately a middle-aged couple sat down across from me. They literally ate their meal, heads hung down, looking at each other by turning their heads. An awkward way to converse. I finally made eye contact and they couldn’t avoid responding to my greeting. Then they hung their heads down again. I finished my meal, and noted that I had to leave due to an appointment. As I rose from my seat the woman said ‘You get what you give.’”
“What did she mean?”
“I have no idea. But I left totally confused, and knew I didn’t want to join their church. If we don’t show love and care to strangers…isn’t that negating the words of Jesus?”
“Strangers entering the church sanctuary should find a warm and loving atmosphere where all can praise God and bless His Holy Name. I’m sorry the churches in our community don’t offer this love of God.”
“If churches would only learn ways to welcome the stranger. Wearing name tags helps. When I brought this up at a church in another community I was told that everyone knew each other, so why would name tags be needed?”
“Business and social meetings use nametags. I’ve found it easy to talk to people there, even if I am a visitor in their midst. What other suggestions can you make?”
“Warm greetings at the door are always helpful, although churches do seem to do well at this. However, they drop the ball after that initial greeting. Members could approach persons they don’t know, perhaps saying ‘Hello, my name is…and it’s good to see you today.’ This encourages a response. If the stranger is new to the community members could welcome them into the fellowship beyond the worship time in meaningful ways—perhaps arrange to meet them at the local café for breakfast, inviting them to their home for coffee—or something else, if these aren’t options. But I guess in today’s world church members have no time or energy.”
“You’re right. They can be absorbed with their family and friends, but that’s no excuse for ignoring strangers entering their midst. They forget that welcoming strangers in their midst opens the door to entertaining Jesus.”
Before Anna left she made arrangements to meet again for breakfast. And if she tapped me on the shoulder I wouldn’t be looking into the face of a stranger.