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Dec21MonAre we making room for outsiders? December 21, 2020 by Darryn Oldford
There’s one part of the Christmas story that bothers me: Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, and there is no guest room available. The fact that the Saviour of humanity, who has prepared a place for us in heaven, couldn’t find an adequate place to safely come into the world speaks volumes about our species.
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Hospitality is a much bigger concept than just the travel industry. It is the social contract we follow to make sure we have good relationships with those outside our nuclear families. Strangers should be treated with courtesy and respect, as any of us could be a stranger in a strange land at some point. The rules for hospitality change from culture to culture, but as someone who has lived in a few countries, I can say that kindness and thoughtfulness are always appreciated.
Each church has its own culture and, unfortunately, I have had the misfortune of attending some congregations where people chose not to make room for outsiders in three key ways.
In the hierarchy of problems facing the world, including climate change, racism, the pandemic and poverty, having someone sit in your spot at church is far down the list. And yet, on more than one occasion while visiting a new church, I have been told not only that I was sitting in the wrong spot but then asked, rather gruffly, to move.
While I have been described by some as a “dyed-in-the-wool Christian,” and so these embarrassing moments don’t prevent me from going to church, take a moment to imagine what it would be like if that happened to an unchurched person. You’re curious about Jesus and want to be part of a community that explores faith and how to minister to society. You’re anxiously sitting in a pew, minding your own business, when someone approaches. You smile, hoping to be welcomed to the congregation, only to be met by an annoyed parishioner telling you to move.
How likely are you to come back if the followers of a God, who supposedly forgives people from sin, don’t even deign to forgive you for a minor annoyance? New people coming to a church is something to celebrate, not just tolerate. Remember that, for some, this is their first-ever experience with Christianity and act accordingly.
I have been told not only that I was sitting in the wrong spot but then asked, rather gruffly, to move.Second, a church may not be making room if there are no opportunities for leadership or ministry. I believe that a fundamental part of human nature is a desire to contribute, especially as part of a team, toward the common good. People have varying degrees of time and energy to dedicate to a church, but we all feel part of something bigger than ourselves when we help.
Problems arise, then, when people’s talents and abilities go unused because existing church ministries are at capacity. Whether your strength lies in teaching, music, packing food hampers or vacuuming the sanctuary, there are those who are expected to sit in a congregation week after week, contributing nothing but a tithe. Meanwhile, volunteers at some churches are so stressed and overworked they start to burn out. The best churches, I find, are those who make room for you to join in ministry, but also to scale back your involvement as needed. This involves planning, preparation and trusting in God that things will work out as they should.
The third and final way I see churches failing to make room is by expecting everyone to conform to the same beliefs. There is no room for differing opinions or discussion, rather a general feeling of, “This is what we think. Believe it or leave.” This “love it or leave it” approach does not take into account those who genuinely love their church and wish to stay, but desire to have the tough conversations about the role of the church in the world, precisely because they love their church. Making room for respectful dialogue, where we recognize differing opinions but can continue loving and worshipping together, is vital to church health and growth.
Hebrews 13:2 is one of my favourite Scripture verses. It says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” We are all made in the image of God. Showing thoughtfulness and kindness to the strangers in our church is to show our love for God. And who knows? Maybe one day the stranger sitting in your seat will be Jesus himself.
Darryn Oldford is a senior soldier in Regina.
Photo: SDI Productions/E+ via Getty Images