By Jack Barraclough
I remember visiting a small church of less than twenty people. The welcome was warm and friendly and I was given a seat in the front row. I didn’t feel like a stranger until ‘Testimony Time’, where all the members of the church were expected to shout ‘Testimony Time’ in unison. Personally, I like to think of participating in that kind of thing as optional. Apparently it wasn’t, and we had to keep trying until I got it right.
Later, while we were singing worshipful songs that were new to me, we paused the singing so the worship leader could encourage us to worship better. I think I was the only one who hadn’t been dancing. As the only visitor, I felt a little targeted when I heard the phrase “No one is here just to check out something new. We are here to worship and we won’t stop until everyone does.” I had been singing, but maybe not passionately enough. Dancing with strangers takes a little more confidence than I had that afternoon. Therefore, I closed my eyes, held my hands out in front of me as if I was carrying a wide screen tv, and tried to look as spiritual as possible. Thankfully that was considered an acceptable form of worship and the church was able to continue with the service.
Being a stranger
Being a stranger is not easy. Arriving at a new school, job, football team or church has challenges. Maybe we will feel awkward and spotlighted, like I did at that small church. Or we might feel the opposite, invisible and alone. I feel loneliness most strongly, not so much when I am alone, as when I am surrounded by new people whose longstanding friendships don’t include me. Being a stranger can be confusing. Patterns and systems that are second nature to everyone else leave me baffled. When the rugby squad splits into forwards and backs, which pack do I follow? Was I supposed to cross myself and bow before I sat down? When is it too late to tell them my name isn’t Jeff?
Willingness to be a stranger
Thinking about the challenges of being a stranger will hopefully make us think a little about the way we welcome and include visitors in our churches. And about the way we seek to offer friendship and open our homes to others. Good hospitality goes a long way to making things easier for the stranger and it is important that we practise it in our attempts to build community. But it can’t be our only option. We need to learn to be strangers too.
For many of us, the main way we seek to offer others an experience of Christian community or a chance to engage with Christian beliefs is to ask them to become a stranger. When we invite people to Church, to a bible study, or to a special event hosted by our church, we are inviting them to become a stranger. We ask them to come into our comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, maybe they will be glad you asked. Maybe they will be brave and risk being a stranger for a little while. But it can’t be the only way for people to have a chance of experiencing Christian community or engaging with what Christians believe. We can’t expect others to come to us, to be the strangers. We need to be willing to be strangers ourselves, embrace awkwardness and step out of our comfort zone into other communities.
When we look at the way Jesus and the Apostles built community, we see them stepping into the role of stranger more often than we see them as hosts. Jesus spent three years living as an itinerant teacher and miracle worker. He looked for new communities to approach with his message about the coming Kingdom of God. In Mark 1, Jesus’ miracles make him a local celebrity in Capernaum. But rather than stay in a community that praises and honours him, Jesus says, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is what I came for.” Later, in chapter 6, Jesus commissions 72 of his followers to take his message to new towns and villages. This included being strangers; to depend on the hospitality and welcome of others. We see the same thing happening in Acts, as Paul and his companions visit new towns, synagogues and marketplaces. They stepped into communities, at the risk of being rejected and persecuted.
Bearing the burden
Being a stranger makes us vulnerable. It makes us depend on and trust the people we are hoping to connect with. It’s is a burden that Jesus and his followers in the New Testament take on themselves for the sake of building new friendships and bringing their message to new communities. But for many of Jesus’ followers today, myself included, it is a burden we prefer to put on others. Rather than get to know our neighbours at the neighbourhood watch meeting, we put carol service flyers through their letterbox. We pray for our events to be well attended, but we enjoy a night in when our colleagues are at the pub quiz. If we really want to build community and connect meaningfully and deeply with others, we need to be willing to become strangers.
Seeking to be a good host and to include others in communities where we feel a strong sense of belonging is wonderful. I hope anyone reading this article will not be discouraged in trying to do that. But let’s not rely on that. Let’s take the burden of strangerhood on ourselves so that we can build friendships and have conversations in other peoples’ comfort zones. And let’s become better hosts ourselves as we grow in compassion for those who take a risk by accepting our invitations.