You can’t sit with us.
We think of that sentiment in regard to school cafeterias and college cliques. But has the same attitude infiltrated the church? The dreaded “greeting time” in each service offers an opportunity to turn around, shake hands and say good morning, but too often the conversation never continues past a mutual “Hello.”
As a teenager I visited many different churches. I went through the greeting time over and over again. I longed to feel welcome, make friends and get to know the people in the church. But just as it’s hard to be alone as a teen, it’s hard to be the one to welcome a stranger, and I found myself in many awkward conversations that petered out shortly after the initial “Hi, what’s your name?”
This experience is more common than you think. One of the biggest complaints concerning the modern church is the attitude toward new attendees; they don’t feel welcome. Since they don’t feel like they belong in the church, they don’t bother to stay.
I don’t believe we—the body of believers—are intentionally being rude. But we’re not intentionally reaching out, either. It’s much easier to stick with the people we know, to talk to people we’re already acquainted with, than to reach out to those who are new. Conversations can be awkward and uncomfortable at first, like a toddler taking his first steps. But every relationship begins in that “toddler” stage, and by embracing our discomfort, we’re able to show Christ’s love to others in a very tangible way.
Jesus Himself discussed the importance of welcoming others. In Matthew 5, Jesus said:
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:46-48)
Jesus points out that greeting our friends is the natural inclination; there’s nothing special about that! But going out of our way to greet those who are not our brothers—whether fellow Christians we don’t know, or unbelievers—reflects the perfect love of God. We ourselves were welcomed by God when we did nothing to deserve His interest. We are called to offer the same to strangers in our midst.
This attitude is a spirit of generosity. It says, “I have enough time, energy and thought to share some of it with you.” It reveals a spirit that desires relationships with no limitation. A welcoming heart is one of the most beautiful qualities of our Father God, whose arms are equally open to the faithful servant and the prodigal son.
The call to welcome others really comes down to the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) The heart of God’s law is always to love God and love others. We cannot truly love God without loving the people He has made; the two go hand in hand. Each time we make an effort to embrace strangers, we share a little of God’s love with the people He has put in our path.
Let’s challenge ourselves this Sunday to greet the stranger: the quiet girl in the back row, the new couple with a baby, the elderly lady you’ve never met before. God isn’t concerned with the awkwardness we feel, but with the love we can give. Be Jesus to the stranger. You may be their only glimpse of Him that day.