By Jan Johnson
I wanted to talk to a friend before the church service, but I remembered the “three-minute guideline” presented at a leadership meeting. For three minutes before and after the service, we were asked to talk to folks we didn’t know. Umph!
So I looked for newcomers. I spoke to a man I didn’t recognize, but he seemed nervous. He hadn’t been to church in a long time, so I asked him about himself to put him more at ease.
At first, I thought the guideline was superficial. I enjoy deeper friendships, and this seemed so shallow, akin to “working the room.” Why make ourselves so uncomfortable?
But after abiding by the three-minute guideline, I saw how it eased me out of my shell and gave me eyes for folks I’d otherwise overlook. In fact, it gave me a new understanding of what it means to have the welcoming heart of Christ with persons the Scripture calls “strangers” or “aliens.”
Without such emphasis, it’s easy for us to focus on our inner circle of friends. The more different a person is from us, the more we distance ourselves. These “different” people are often those we forget to extend a welcoming hand to, particularly those “invisible people” who are quieter and less conspicuous. Maybe they differ from others in the congregation in clothing, skin color, language or lifestyle.
But to have the heart of Christ means to be open and available to each person I meet, especially “strangers” God brings across my path. To ignore strangers renders me dead to the possibility that God may use me in that person’s life or may speak into my life through this person.
We all have our own categories of strangers according to how we draw borders in our lives. We may be put off by a guy who looks like a biker or a woman surrounded by five kids. Others, like me, are drawn to folks who look homeless or transplanted from another culture, but put off by a guy in a three-piece suit.
HE DIDN’T CALL ANYONE A STRANGER
Jesus, it seems, didn’t deem anyone a stranger. In the midst of an urgent medical mission, he welcomed a chronically bleeding woman who interrupted him for a covert healing. Instead of becoming annoyed, Jesus refused to move on until she identified herself. Then he listened as she told him the “whole truth” (perhaps making a spectacle of herself?) and then spoke to her with tender affection (Mark 5:24-34).
Jesus showed how a welcomer of strangers plays “host” in a conversation, honoring the other as a “guest,” even on the guest’s home turf. Sitting by a well in the mixed-blood territory of Samaria, Jesus initiated a conversation with an indigenous woman of questionable reputation. Giving her the upper hand by asking her for help, he took a leap in the dark for this stranger. Would she be courteous to this Jewish man who clearly did not belong in her neighborhood? Would she believe he wanted to drink from a cup she had touched, or would he take it and smash it to bits?
Jesus’ extraordinary behavior toward those ordinarily excluded shows us that in “us versus them” situations, the “thems” are “strangers.” In today’s times, a stranger in your church might include: someone outside the common economic class (a rich person among middle-class folks); people of a different age (an elderly person in a church of younger folks); those with different capabilities (a disabled person in the midst of fitness buffs, a nonreader among well-read folks); someone from a different place (immigrants or refugees, parolees or drug rehab graduates); or someone whose theological persuasion is different from yours (a “flaming fundamentalist” or “liberal do-gooder”).
When you meet those who are “strangers” to you, a little “ping” goes off in your head that says, Different. Step back.
On the other hand, a welcoming spirit is what hospitality is about. We offer a sense of “home” to others, taking God’s invitation to “come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). We pay attention to them and invite them to unfold themselves. Then we wait for them to be able to do that.
No doubt Jesus knew how awkward this would be for us so he gave us this tip: to see him in the eyes of every stranger. “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:31-35, Contemporary English Version). Imagine Jesus as a refugee and emigrant, fleeing the political persecution of King Herod for the safety of a foreign nation, Egypt (Matthew 2:13-21). To welcome baby Jesus’ family today, we’d need to look not only to our own interests, but move outward to care about the interests of other folks (Philippians 2:4).
WHY I AVOID STRANGERS
But looking first to other’s interests, seeing a situation from their point-of-view is too often difficult. Before I could resolve this situation in my own mind, I had to decide why it’s easier for me to avoid strangers than to engage them. I discovered several answers.
I feel uncomfortable. Satan tries to trick us into sticking with the folks who make us feel comfortable.
I saw this clearly when two couples who had worked together on a church project for several years needed a break. When they were asked to split up and each to train another couple, they refused. They were “too comfortable” in their clique, and so the project died. Doing what makes us comfortable is often our guiding principle of behavior, forcing us to exclude strangers.
I’m shy. As a recovering shy person, I battled that three-minute guideline, wondering, But what will I say? But I remembered that others, especially newcomers, feel just as awkward and uncomfortable as I do. So I made a list of possible opening comments to use to start conversations. Then I took a deep breath to “rescue” these nervous “strangers.”
Sometimes I’m territorial. When our church began chaining our parking lot to keep out the cars of parents who were dropping children off at the adjacent school, I grieved. The school’s parking lot was miniscule, and I saw many near-accidents.
I mentioned this to church leaders, but they told me they’d just repaved the lot and wanted it kept clean. The youth pastor and I countered by suggesting we open our lot anyway and offer breakfast bars to these parents. No response.
Finally, our leaders’ minds were changed when a church across from another nearby school put up this sign:
Public Parking Welcome
Except Sunday 6:30-11:30 am.
Join us Sunday at 8:00, 9:30,
or 11:00 am.
We’re often reluctant to invite strangers into our world because keeping places neat and clean can become more important than meeting the needs of people, especially strangers.
A CHURCH THAT WELCOMES STRANGERS
One way to start “looking to the interests of others” is to make it easy for newcomers to navigate situations at your church. Not until I was new at a church did I realize that so many prayer requests and announcements include the words, “Everyone knows. . . .” I didn’t know what others supposedly knew, and I counted many others newer than me. I winced to think that so many of us were excluded.
Simple gestures such as providing maps to events help newcomers. One time when a party was announced, no address was given. Only the first names of the people hosting were mentioned. A new couple called the only people they knew for directions, but they weren’t home. They’d already fixed their potluck dish, but they couldn’t go. As I pulled this story out of them, I remembered how the announcement had been worded: “Everyone knows where so-and so lives.”
At its core, welcoming strangers is about dying to self, often in little ways. Such things as parking in the back of the church lot are no big deal, but they’ve become concrete ways to train myself to put someone else’s needs ahead of mine. We may live in a world where taking the best parking place is the normal thing to do, but as we are nurtured by Christ who welcomed us, redeemed us from the curse, and offered us a new sort of life in the Spirit (Galatians 3:13, 14), we become radically different people—welcoming ones.
Jan Johnson is a speaker and the author of Invitation to the Jesus Life: Experiments in Christlikeness, from which this article is adapted. Her Web site is www.janjohnson.org.