“Welcome the stranger within your gates. For you were foreigners in Egypt.” —The thrust of Leviticus 19 (see verses 10, 18, and 33-34)
This is one of the greatest frustrations and painful aspects of pastoring. You try to do well—to prepare sermons blessed of God, to lead your team to present effective ministries, to build powerful worship services, to develop disciples and reach those in darkness—and then your best people fail to do the smallest thing. In so doing, they end up negating a thousand good things they do.
They fail to think of the outsider. They look right past the newcomer. They give no thought to the first-timer.
My blog from Monday, March 22, 1999—
“I made a number of visits tonight. Left notes at three homes (no one there) and visited with Carol and Bob Coleman. They’ve been visiting our church several weeks. She said, ‘We love it. Great music, etc, etc—but only three people have greeted us!’
“Three! Our people think they are friendly, but in truth they are friendly to each other. Bob told me he had volunteered to help Clyde with cooking the wild game supper at church. Was brusquely turned aside with ‘We already have enough help.’ Then Bob came on to the dinner and brought a friend. One hour later, they were back. Said not a soul spoke to them. So disappointing.”
That church, you will want to know, had a reputation from the previous decade as strong on evangelism and soul-winning. In fact, when I had asked the congregation to do something heroic and go the extra mile—more than once our people opened their home to mothers from Third World countries bringing critically ill infants to our Children’s Hospital in New Orleans—they always responded well. So, they were not uncaring.
They were not uncaring.
They were unthinking.
They were preoccupied with their own plans, their own families, themselves. They were thinking about everything in the world other than the strangers and newcomers who needed some slight indication that they are welcome and wanted in this place.
It’s scary being a newcomer or first-timer.
I once stood before our people on a Sunday morning and held up two notes. “Both came in the mail this week,” I assured them. The first was from a former resident of our city who had moved to some big city out west. I read it. The woman said, “We’ve not found a church yet. The ones we’ve visited were not friendly at all. Not a single person spoke to us. We sure do miss you folks back at home. We loved the friendliness of our congregation.”
I looked at our people and said, “Do we have a friendly church?” Headed nodded everywhere. They certainly thought they were friendly.
I said, “Now for the second letter. The writer is a newcomer to our city. ‘Dear Pastor. We visited in your church last Sunday. Not a single person spoke to us. You have a most unfriendly church. We will not be back.’”
I assured the congregation that this was no put-up job, that both of these letters arrived unsolicited in this week’s mail.
“We are a friendly church,” I told them. “But we’re friendly to one another. Not to outsiders or newcomers or first-timers.”
“And there is a word for that. We are a clique. A little bunch of snobs.”
Sit in a Sunday School class where the members all know one another, and listen to them. The leader will say, “Didn’t we have a good time at Elsie’s house last week. Now, this Thursday night, we’re meeting at June’s house. You all know what to bring. Don’t be late.”
Good luck to you if you were a visitor trying to find a Sunday School class. They’ve just sent you a clear signal that they are a closed group, that they like their membership just the way it is, and you would not be welcome.
Churches have such a wonderful ministry filling the needs of their members for fellowship and togetherness that we sometimes forget we are not a fraternity or sorority, not a club and not a family reunion. We are on mission for the Lord Jesus Christ, sent with the gospel message to reach the world for salvation and to disciple all who turn to Him in faith. The fellowship factor is a legitimate thing, but we must be inclusive, not exclusive. That is, we welcome the newcomer and first-timer and do not exclude them or leave them no choice but to force themselves upon us.
Our people will plan a great program. They will build sets and memorize lines and fill weeks with rehearsals. They will do everything right except for two things: They often fail to get word to the community, but limit their promotions to their own membership; and then, when they present their long-awaited program, they ignore all the newcomers and outsiders. They hug extended family members who came, ooh and ahh over one another’s babies, and make plans to go out for pizza afterward. Meanwhile, the family filling the third pew on the right stands there isolated, looking around and waiting in the vain hope that some of these wonderful people will step across the aisle and show some indication that they are welcome in this place. They like everything about this church but one thing: They wish the people were friendly to strangers.
Now, in a perfect world, visitors and newcomers will not wait to be welcomed. They will know this is the House of God and they are welcome in this place. They will know that these good people are just unthinking, not uncaring. They will keep coming to this church, and when the pastor gives an invite to do so, they will join. And then—in this perfect world we’re presenting—they will determine to make this a friendlier church and will go out of their way to find newcomers and first-timers and give them a hearty welcome.
The only problem with their plan to become faithful greeters and welcomers is that, being new themselves, they have no clue as to who is a member and who is the visitor. So they wait until they know the church. And by then, guess what happens…
Right. By then, they have built their own little group in the church and have become satisfied and give little thought to those who are here for the first time today.
That’s how it happens. It’s how we fail the Lord.
The solution—and the only solution to my knowledge—is that the preacher must keep this before the people. Keep reminding them that they are not a closed group, but all are welcome, and that while they will no doubt find great friends in the congregation, they must work to become the same great friends to others the Lord will be sending this way.
It’s a never-ending process. And a constant headache for the preacher, until he realizes it has ever been this way, and his work will not end this side of Heaven.
God help His church to get this right.
This article originally appeared here.