This post was published by Desiring God on November 4, 2017. I am indebted to them for the gracious way they edit and inform their writers.
I still remember moving to a new city and the ordeal of “church shopping”: in and out every week, feeling the pangs of not having consistent community, displacement from a body of believers, desperate to settle. Now, I work with people who want to connect with our church. Some of these people complain that they show up to our gathering for weeks and no one says a single word to them. My heart breaks when I hear that.
When I consider the relational distance many of us feel when we enter corporate worship, I wonder if we might experience a greater sense of connectedness if we rethink how we welcome others on Sunday morning — regardless of whether we’re brand new or have been around for decades.
Let me use two terms — strangers and members — to describe how this might look. Whether you are a stranger at a church, or a resident member, the call to seek out relationships and do the hard work of community is an invitation into joy for everyone involved.
In Search of Community
Strangers — Christians who do not yet belong to a local body of believers — often leave a church feeling painfully disconnected. Many of us point the finger and say that no one tried or even bothered to see us. But beneath this accusation is often a consumerist mindset, a mindset that looks to church as an opportunity to satisfy a personal need, rather than as an opportunity to serve the needs of others.
Strangers are not wrong to desire inclusion. But as strangers, we should grow to see how our participation in worship can help create the experience we desire. Take the risk to seek community, and do your best to play your part in Romans 12:13: “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”
Pray that God will use this Sunday to fold you deeper into this particular body. And look for opportunities to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. You might meet someone who needs to remember that new people like you are in their midst. Alternatively, you might end up meeting another stranger like yourself — someone yearning for the same kind of connection you are.
Love the Stranger
If you are a member, someone planted and firmly rooted in a church family, remember that you were once a stranger. Even those who were born and raised in the church they attend must recall that we were once aliens, separated from God’s family (Colossians 1:21).
The Bible calls God’s people to love strangers. Moses wrote that God’s people must “Love the sojourner . . . for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). Peter reminds his readers, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).
Like unbelieving Israel, many of us struggle to welcome those who don’t look and act like us. But our mission of outreach calls us to bring light to the darkness, and that includes bringing strangers into our church body. This call includes strangers who are Jesus’s disciples as well as strangers who do not know Jesus.
When Christ’s body extends Christ’s love to strangers, it is a gospel miracle, a small but real reflection of Jesus’s own welcome to us: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15:7). Our hearts can rejoice to follow such commands when we view our gatherings as an opportunity to serve others rather than be served. This Sunday, be the hands of Jesus by reaching out and welcoming others. Pray and ask God for eyes to see whom you might welcome at church, whom you might linger with in conversation, and whom you might invite over to your home for a meal.
A Different Liturgy
Stranger, it is a great gift to be welcomed into a community. But that invitation only points us to the greatest gift: an invitation into God’s own family through the blood of Jesus. Member, extend the costly mercy you have been given so freely. It is costly to be a part of this beautiful, diverse body of Christ: a free gift, but one that calls us to come and die and be raised.
Corporate worship — coming together on a Sunday morning — is not about you. It’s about Jesus. Reject the cultural liturgy of consumerism, and see your act of worship this Sunday as one where even the smallest parts of the service become ways to obey the two greatest commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:29–31).