Recently I had some email correspondence with a fellow gospel minister from a different Christian tradition who, in responding to my recent blog article on “The Reformed Alternative”, raised some thought-provoking, practical issues in the area of outreach and church growth. This friend and fellow minister shared with me that he and his wife, both of whom are retired, had visited an OPC church (located in another part of the country) for five Sundays. My heart was grieved as this friend shared with me that on three of the five Sundays they were visiting this OP church, no one in the congregation bothered even to speak with them. I agreed with him that such ought not to be the case in the church of Jesus Christ, for Scripture repeatedly urges God’s people to welcome the stranger and outsider.
Confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches like Lake OPC have much to offer God’s people who are wandering in the spiritual wasteland of contemporary evangelicalism looking for a church home grounded in historic Christianity. We offer things such as: a theologically-rich confession of faith & system of doctrine; a Scripturally-grounded word and sacrament ministry; reverent, God-centered, edifying worship; a rich history and heritage of faith; a faithful tradition of pastoral care; and a biblically-sound church order. But all of these wonderful blessings will mean little to outsiders who are considering the Reformed Faith if they get an icy cold reception the first time they step into a Reformed church. As those who have come to embrace and confess the lavish hospitality of God given to us by grace in the good news of His Son, of all people we Reformed believers ought to reflect that gracious hospitality in our welcoming of church guests who may be strangers and outsiders to the Reformed Faith.
How, then, can we improve when it comes to welcoming the outsider and stranger who decides to visit our church? Here are some thoughts and suggestions:
First, let us remember that we too were once strangers and outsiders.
Apart from union with Christ, we are all strangers and outsiders to the grace of God. In Ephesians 2:11-13 the Apostle Paul reminds Gentile converts to Christianity of their spiritual status before they came to faith in Christ, and contrasts their previous condition as “outsiders” with the current spiritual position they now enjoy as those who are “in Christ”: “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands – remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (ESV; emphasis added) Having once been outsiders in relationship to God’s covenant community, and strangers to the hope of the gospel, these formerly-pagan Gentiles were now insiders, fellow-members with their Jewish Christian brethren in the one Body of Christ, the church. By God’s lavish grace and abundant hospitality in Christ, and through faith in Him, these Gentiles were like wild olive shoots which were now grafted in to the Tree of Life (Romans 11:11-24).
While some of us may have grown up in the fellowship of the church and cannot remember a time when we did not trust in Christ as Savior and repent of our sins, others of us can remember a distinct time in our lives when we, like the Ephesians, were strangers and outsiders to a living faith in Christ. But whatever our own personal journeys of faith might look like, if Christ is our Savior then we all share in common the fact that, apart from His grace, we would all be outsiders and strangers to God’s grace. But, thanks be to God, through the gospel God’s lavish, gracious hospitality has come to us and welcomed us home! We are no longer outsiders, but insiders, fellow brothers and sisters in God’s forever family, the Body of Christ, the church! Therefore, as we have received God’s lavish welcome and hospitality in Christ, let us strive to extend that gracious hospitality to others by warmly welcoming the strangers whom God’s providence brings our way.
Second, let us beware of showing partiality in our treatment of church guests.
The danger of showing partiality in the treatment of church guests is not a new danger. Even in New Testament times the church struggled with this issue. Consider, for example, this strong exhortation in James 2:1-5:
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (ESV)
Every guest and visitor who walks through our doors is an image-bearer of God who is to be treated with dignity and respect, whether they are currently believers in Christ or not. Those guests who are believers in Christ are also brothers and sisters in Christ, even if they happen to come from a different Christian tradition and even if they haven’t yet learned our Reformed theological lingo or hold to some doctrinal views that we might regard as wrong-headed. They might come from different ecclesiastical, ethnic, racial, cultural, or socioeconomic backgrounds. They might dress up or dress casual for church. They might be rich, or poor, or somewhere in between. They might have a “blue collar” job or a “white collar” job. They might have a different personality or different interests from your own. But, whatever the case may be, all visitors and guests should be treated with dignity, and without partiality. All should be made to feel equally welcomed.
Thirdly, be friendly and welcoming toward church guests, but also be careful not to “love bomb” them.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is brand new to the Reformed Faith, and who decides to visit our church to check us out. We need to remember that, in many cases, it will take some courage for such individuals to step beyond their ecclesiastical comfort zones and venture into the unknown of a Reformed worship service. We need to do everything we can to make such guests feel comfortable and welcomed, but we also need to give them the breathing space just to observe how we do things and not creep them out by “love bombing” them with too many personal questions. Offering them a friendly greeting (“Good morning! We’re glad you’re visiting with us today!”), learning their names, and showing a personal interest in them are vitally important to helping our guests feel welcomed. But at the same time, let us be careful not to overstep boundaries by suffocating them with attention.
A number of years ago in a previous church I recall one Sunday morning when a single mother and her infant child were visiting our church. After the service a large group of ladies in the church surrounded her and her child in an effort to make her feel welcomed. As I looked on from a distance and saw this guest and her child surrounded by a sea of well-meaning church members going out of their way to make her feel welcomed, I felt good about how welcoming our church was. But in hindsight I wonder if it was a bit overwhelming to her. She might have felt a bit suffocated by all the attention. She was definitely made to feel welcomed, but she may have been a bit creeped out by all this fawning attention from total strangers. Sad to say, she never returned to the church.
Here is where we need to strive for balance and employ some wisdom and common sense. On the one hand, church guests will likely be turned off and turned away if they are not made to feel welcomed and valued. But on the other hand, we need to be sensitive to where they are coming from and respect their personal space. Some guests may be very extroverted and eager to share their personal stories with us. If so, let us let them do so! Others may be more cautious and just want to check us out from a distance at first. If so, let us respect their space and be thankful that they have been led by Divine providence to visit us!
Finally, let us avoid cliques and “holy huddles” at church, and let us seek to reach out to those who (whether church members or guests) appear to be “falling through the cracks.”
Our natural tendency is to stick with those with whom we feel the most comfortable. We are naturally drawn to those with a common background, common interests, and shared ideas. But when we are at church we should seek to avoid this.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with enjoying conversations during refreshment time and other fellowship times with fellow believers and church members with whom we feel comfortable. But we should also be keeping our eyes open for the individual who is off by himself or herself, not only if that individual is a church member, but especially if that individual is a church guest.
Not everybody is an extrovert or “social butterfly,” and not everyone is equally gifted at striking up conversations. So let me urge us all when we are at church: Notice those who tend to go unnoticed, those unassuming church members and guests who tend to fade into the background scenery. Remind yourself that those individuals are human beings, fellow image bearers of God, and fellow brothers or sisters in Christ. Treat them as such. Talk to them. Include them within your circle of conversation. Don’t let them get to the point where they feel like outsiders, for they are not. In Christ they too have been welcomed to the feast of salvation!
As Christ has welcomed us to the feast of salvation, let us welcome one another, and let us welcome the stranger!