Wednesday, 13 August 2014

How not to welcome the stranger

Don’t show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say “Here’s a good seat for you”, but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet”, have you not discriminated among yourselves...?  James 2:1-4

I visited a church recently where Bibles and other bits and pieces were given out. The lady at the door succeeded in doing this without (a) making any kind of eye contact with me, or (b) interrupting a conversation she was having with her friend over her shoulder. For a moment I felt like turning round and heading off the way I had come (possibly after telling her she could stick her Bibles and other things up her jumper - in Christian love, of course). 

I was pretty cross. I felt that to her I wasn’t a person, just a thing. Occasionally I have come across this kind of treatment in the supermarket or the bank, though even here I generally find people friendly and helpful. Oh well, at least she wasn’t wearing a “Welcoming team” or “Can I help you?” badge.

I went to that church as a Christian. But suppose I had been a non-Christian? a sceptic? someone genuinely seeking the truth? someone in serious need - ill, perhaps, or depressed, even suicidal? Those two or three seconds of rudeness could have done lasting damage.

Well, the scenario James presents us with is rather different, but it raises the same principle: the way we welcome people to our meetings and services matters, and matters very much. 

Of course some churches go too far the other way. The unwary visitor is submerged under a great tidal wave of Christian jolliness, a kind of gleeful evangelical gloop. The badges here don’t just declare “Here to help you!” but they have a big smiley face as well. 

To some this can be equally off-putting. I know someone, a regular church-goer, who hates that bit in some services where everyone is expected to go and greet their fellow-worshippers. Is it any sin to be “a bit buttoned up”, as he describes himself? He even finds the “passing of the peace”, Anglican style, more than he really wants. 

The key words in all this are, I think, “balance” and “sensitivity”. 

Balance means that we offer a sincere welcome without overdoing it - a handshake, perhaps, a smile, a quiet word. Sensitivity means recognising that that thing that has just come through the door is actually a person, a human being, someone who laughs and cries, who asks questions and makes mistakes, who loves and, yes, sometimes hates, who has ambitions and desires, experiences of success and of failure. Someone, in fact - just like you or me. 

I am sure that having a welcoming team complete with an appropriate badge is helpful. But it does carry with it a danger - that is, that people not on the welcoming team subconsciously think that they needn’t bother with this most vital ministry. This is very wrong. It is the job of every one of us to have an eye for the visitor. A little human warmth could change somebody’s life for ever. An attempt at friendliness, however shy and awkward, could be the first step in a relationship that lasts for the next twenty, thirty, forty years. All right, not everybody finds it easy. But so what? Just do it! 

Always remember - that person you are face to face with, whatever the circumstances, church or wherever, is the most important thing in the universe at that moment, infinitely precious to God, and therefore precious also to you. 

When our two boys were small we were on holiday once and saw a sign outside a church: “Your welcoming church!” Well, that suits us just fine, we thought, and made a bee-line there the next Sunday. And nobody so much as spoke to us. Nobody. Not going in. Not coming out. Nobody. 

Ever since that experience I have detested the habit of self-advertisement, self-praise. If there are compliments to be paid, let them be paid by others, not by ourselves. Others, after all, are in a far better position to judge. 

That story has a little sequel. When we got back to our holiday cottage we found that our older son, aged about 4, was clutching in his grubby fist a car which he had obviously filched from the crèche. We were, gasp,receivers of stolen goods! But do you know something? - our pangs of guilt lasted no more than  a millisecond. How wicked can you get! Perhaps we would have felt different if somebody had given us a greeting that day...

Lord Jesus, please help me to see every person I ever have contact with, however briefly, as made in your image and loved by you. Amen.

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