I'm reading a book, which I'll review later, and was brought up short by an interesting account of how not to be the church. It doesn't happen quite that way in any churches where I have ever fellowshipped, but often the end result is the same. A young man who was visiting a church for the first time and who already felt out of place in the congregation because of his age and body art, noticed some people sitting apart from the group. He asked one of them to join him, but the man refused. Later he found out that there was a section of the church reserved for the undesirables that showed up on Sunday morning. They were allowed to attend the service, as long as they stayed in their place. As soon as church was over they were invited to get their things and leave.
The scary part of that story is not just that the church being mentioned has a corner where the marginalized are invited to sit, (away from 'decent' people), but that in far too many churches the invisible walls that go up when a stranger walks in make the stranger feel like he is in an isolation ward.
Jesus was so in touch with the needs of, gasp, can I say the word, sinners. He ate with sinners and let the unclean(sinners) touch his clothing. He even touched a leper (sinner)- before healing him. He talked with the Samaritan woman (sinner), and was friends with prostitutes (sinners) and even with a tax collector (sinner). And then he calls us (sinners) to follow him; after all isn't Christian the name given to Christ followers? Are we willing to eat with sinners, will we go out of our way to love the unlovable?
Week after week we make it a point at 11:00 am on Sunday morning to be in our 'assigned' pew. After all, we're good Christians, and that’s what Christians do. And then the unthinkable happens. We walk in and one of those people is sitting in our pew. How dare they? Or Worse, we're already seated and they come in and without even asking, sit down next to us. And they aren't dressed right, they may not have showered, the men have long hair, the women have short hair. Didn't anybody ever tell them what's appropriate grooming for church?
We don't know them, and we don't want to. We want to be safe in our little Christian cocoon that we call a church. But here's the thing. We're sinners too. We're all in this sin thing together. Sure our sins are different - in our eyes; but in God's eyes a sin is a sin. Yes some of 'those people' don't dress like we do, they might not have had a chance to take a shower, and some of their body art is questionable at best, or maybe the result of poor choices, or maybe it belongs to a time in their lives that God has already put behind them (and so should we).
Your church probably doesn't have a separate room for people who haven't yet proved that they fit in; mine doesn't either. But it's a sin that sometimes, without even realizing it, we make people feel that way. They walk in looking for something, and instead of showing them the love that we have found, instead of sharing with them our hope, we leave them on the sidelines to figure it out for themselves. The gospels would read quite differently if Jesus had the same attitude towards outsiders as many self-professed Christians do.
Churches want to grow, but they don't always do really well at making a visitor feel welcome; and then they wonder why people visit once but don't return. The only requirement for membership in a 12- step group is a desire to drinking/using/smoking/overeating/whatever. Why does the church insist on making it so much more difficult for someone to join a fellowship of believers?
I love it when people in the church are able to put aside their initial reactions to someone new, and go to the visitor, the stranger, and they introduce themselves, and find a place for them to sit…not in a corner, but next to them. "This is my pew, please sit here with me", rather than "this is my pew - you'll have to find someplace else to sit". After all, that's what Jesus would do, and we're supposed to be following Him.
My prayer is that each of us would get up the courage to share a smile, a kind word, hey maybe even dare to share your pew with the stranger that walks into your church next week. After all, a stranger is just a friend you haven't met, and as it's written in Hebrew (13:2) " Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it." (NIV)