WELCOMING THE STRANGER BY DEVELOPING FOUR ATTITUDES.
WELCOMING THE STRANGER BY DEVELOPING FOUR ATTITUDES.
By Randy Nabors
Recently I was asked to lead a seminar on “Welcoming the Stranger.” It helped to me to think about some things the Bible teaches about the subject. One of the things that came to mind was the importance of two words; “culture,” and “attitude.”
These two things can either help us or hurt us in how we ought to respond to situations in our lives. Much of the time we live without consciously thinking about our culture. We do not usually analyze or question if it is driving us to be godly, Christ like, or hinders us in living as we should. We often just live according to the habits and patterns we have developed.
We are usually more aware of our attitude about something, whether it is positive or negative. We usually know (or feel) if we want to do something, or if we for various reasons don’t want to do something; even if our conscience tells us that we should.
Creating a positive and hospitable culture in our lives, family, and church is important for giving us a readiness to do right, an inclination to meet circumstances with faith and obedience to God. We usually associate cultures with ethnicity and nations. Some countries are famous for being hospitable, and for their friendly people. Geographic regions are known for the degree in which they are polite, courteous, and helpful. In some places everyone says, “hello” while in others people are suspicious if a stranger greets them.
This is also true for congregations. Congregational culture and the attitudes of the people of a church don’t just happen by accident. If the people of a church are proud, arrogant, stand-offish, and selfish then they are reflecting the leadership of that church. What have the people been trained to do, what have they been taught to think?
Churches of course are made up of individuals, all of whom are sinners, even if saved by grace. Any church can have unfriendly people in it. Even the most loving of churches that gives the warmest of welcome to strangers will still have folks who fail God, and each other. It is not the exception however, as unfortunate as it may be that marks the church, but consistent behavior that creates their reputation.
However, the acceptable standard of public behavior grows from the expectations of leaders in that church. What is the usual pattern of meeting new people, is it something everyone dreads, or have the people been trained and conditioned to not only welcome strangers, but to seek them out?
There are at least four biblical things I want churches to consider, if this is even a concern for them, as they think about strangers. The first is to understand that God wanted Israel to have a cultural attitude toward aliens and strangers. This attitude was to be built on their remembrance of having been slaves in Egypt.
Leviticus 19:33-34. says, When a stranger sojourns with you in our land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
God wanted this to be a cultural attitude within the people of Israel. Notice that he references the Second Great Commandment, so he reinforces the idea that loving your neighbor as yourself applies to people you don’t know. God reminds them of their horrible sojourn in Egypt, and with it reminds them that they survived by his grace, and were delivered by his grace. Then he seals it with a reminder of who is telling them to live like this, the Lord God himself.
This is not an essay or article about immigration, legal or otherwise. In fact to fall immediately into such a debate misses the point, the biblical point, altogether. Some use politics to create obstacles to obedience. We are not the government, nor the police, we are Christians. We as churches must not break the laws of the State when it comes to employment or documents. But the laws of the State must not prevent God’s people from loving the stranger.
So, if people are thirsty or hungry, it is not for the State to tell us we can’t feed them, or refuse them coming to worship. It would be silly for the State to create or try to enforce such laws. If loving people is forbidden by the State then we must choose to obey God, and be willing to suffer the consequences. It is right that all of us pray for good and sensible laws to be created, that can be enforced, for all those who seek to enter our nation.
1 Corinthians 9:19 says, For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
The second thing to impact our congregational culture is to develop an evangelistic attitude. Christianity is a religion built on meeting new people, not just on having and raising our own children in the faith-as important as that may be. It is actually a religion that should model its founder, Jesus, who welcomed sinners and ate with them. He taught about leaving the ninety-nine and seeking the one lost sheep.
The Apostle Paul was a missionary evangelist, who had to cross many cultures in order to spread the Gospel. He had a very specific strategy for reaching people in different cultures. He made himself a “slave” to them in order to win them to Christ. He “became” like one of them, even though he never lost his understanding of who he was in Christ.
The Apostle Paul had a proactive attitude to different kinds of people, some of whom he had formerly despised and would have never dreamed of entering their homes or eating with them, namely Gentiles. Now, he sought them out. People without the Law, people who were weak, he actually said he tried to become like them to win them.
A church that welcomes strangers is a church that seeks them out. Welcoming churches are not simply reactive to whomever providence leads to their door, but goes out into the highways and by-ways and compels people to come, inviting them to the wedding banquet of Christ. This evangelistic attitude must be modeled by pastors and elders; it is a practice our young people should be learning by experience. Seeking out the lost should be our culture.
Luke 10:25-37 tells us the story of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer, in verse 29, “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
What follows is a marvelous story of mercy to someone unknown to a traveler, who sees a man who has been beaten and robbed and needs help. It is a story of hypocrisy from religious leaders who walk on the other side to avoid the needy one. It is a story of risk as the traveler – a despised Samaritan-stops to help. It is a story of generosity as he spends his money to shelter this unfortunate victim.
Congregations need to develop a merciful attitude to strangers if they are to be a welcoming church. Should churches show mercy to people they don’t know? Should Christians? Should we withhold mercy because people should and ought to help themselves? Anyone can fall into trouble, and anyone can fall into a crisis, through no fault of their own. Many people live in poverty and have one crisis after another. What attitude should churches have to people in emergencies, and what attitude should people have to people in long term and chronic conditions of need? Whatever strategies and policies we develop there is no excuse for a church to be unmerciful. In the Old Testament God warns the people of Israel not to harden their heart against their neighbor. It is such an easy thing to do. How can there be anything like a “hard hearted church?’
The teaching and exhortation for mercy is something that must radiate from the pulpit, and from godly pastors. It should be taught and modeled in our homes. Our children should grow up with a pattern, from their parents and churches, that we – as God’s people- help people. Mercy is what we show, to anyone in need. It is what we do and who we are.
Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” I especially like 1 Peter 4:8-9, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”
Churches need a cultural attitude of hospitality. Have you ever been asked by the pastor, or the church, if you could take in someone overnight? Have you even been asked to have someone over for a meal, or even better, thought to invite someone on your initiative? If you were asked to do it did you grumble?
So many people actually visit our churches and never receive a personal welcome, let alone an invitation to lunch. How many foreign students come to our cities, our neighborhoods, and are never invited into one of our homes for a family meal? How many angels got left without a meal, and how many blessings have we missed in missing them?
The word hospitality in the Bible comes from a word which means “love of strangers.” It does not mean “love for people in my small group,” which is a good thing unto itself, but it is not really the hospitality taught in Scripture. Jesus warned against just inviting people who will invite you back. Christian hospitality is a proactive effort. Obviously some people are gifted at it, and good at it. Believe it or not hospitable people don’t necessarily have houses that are perfectly clean or groomed, they are not necessarily wealthy. They are just welcoming.
I have always appreciated how in Romans 12 we are taught that those who have the gift of mercy should show it with “cheerfulness.” And Peter teaches we should show hospitality without grumbling. Attitude is so important in these matters, not only in getting our hearts right, but also in demonstrating Jesus, the personality and love of Jesus, to people who may finally receive a creditable witness about him when we serve them with kindness. Lord help us!