By Joe McKeever
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
I stood before the congregation holding two letters in my hands. “Both came to my office this week. I thought you’d like to hear what they say.”
“The first letter is from a member who moved several hundred miles away last year. She is missing this church. She wrote, ‘The churches here are not friendly like our church back home. No one speaks to visitors. I miss our loving, friendly congregation.”
I said, “Do we have a friendly church?” Heads nodded all over the building.
“Well, then, listen to this.”
“Dear Pastor. We visited your church last Sunday and not a single person spoke to us. You have a most unfriendly congregation. We will not be back.”
The people sat there in shock. This was far from what they had believed about themselves.
I said, “I give you my word that both letters came to the church office this week. One said how friendly we are and the other saying much the opposite.
What are we to believe? I’ll give you my answer to that.”
The visitors are the authority on the friendliness of this congregation. Newcomers will learn in a heartbeat whether we are loving and welcoming. The fact seems to be that yes, we are friendly—to one another. Not to newcomers, first-timers, outsiders.
And that is pretty devastating.
I knew whose fault it was: Mine. I was the pastor and I had dropped the ball.
It all comes down to leadership.
Most long standing church problems come down to leadership. If a problem is imbedded and out of control, almost always it’s because leadership at the top has failed to deal with it properly.
When I ask people how churches received them as visitors and guests, two complaints are voiced again and again: “No one spoke to us” and “The people seem cliquish.”
They seem to like one another, but do not welcome intruders into their little family.
Unfriendliness and cliquishness are two sides of the same coin.
The root problem is the sinful heart of humans.
In the world of physics, there are laws of deterioration. Clocks wind down. Bodies wear out. Resources get used up. The universe grows old.
And the sinful heart retracts within its shell and cuts itself off from more and more of its peers.
Put another way, left to themselves, people pull into themselves and become private. And, unless provisions are made to counter this downward trend, people tend to pull into their cliques, small groups composed of people like themselves.
As a result of the sinful, selfish heart, people drift away from loving other people and retreat into solitude. Then, even though man is naturally gregarious and craves fellowship, left to himself he will gravitate to a small band of buddies and then freeze out all outsiders who wish to break into the cluster.
These are the result of sin.
I see it all the time. A church sits there, on that road a few miles out of town, populated primarily by three or four interrelated families. The thought never occurs to them that someone might find them unfriendly. Why, don’t they have great suppers and fellowships? Don’t they mill around for a full five-minutes during the worship time greeting each other? But then it happens…
The new school year starts and several new families move to the area. The youth group finds itself with a half dozen new kids. New families enter the worship center and end up sitting where Aunt Polly and Uncle Thomas have hibernated for years. The men wear – gasp! – neckties! And – this is important – the new people are friendly enough. They really seem to want to break into the inner life of this church. But the members erect barriers.
The members – all of whom have known one another for ages – are suspicious and superficial. They say the right words, but when church is over, no one hangs around to get to know the newcomers. They are gone. Over Sunday lunch, they discuss the new families and reinforce one another’s hesitations about welcoming them.
Eventually, most of the new people move on to the larger church in town where they are given a better welcome.
You can’t blame them. No one wants to go where they are not welcome.
The members of that church would be shocked if they knew they had sinned against the Lord by not welcoming those families.
Sin means a lot of things: rebellion against God, neglect of the things of God, disobedience to the will of God, and installing oneself as his/her own deity. “My will be done” says the sinful heart.
When our Lord said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35), He was establishing that the law of the sinful heart would no longer be calling the shots around here. The redeemed of the Lord will come out of their shells and love one another.
They will belong to each other.
Coming out of a shell is work. Ask any butterfly.
Let the pastors show themselves as friendly. Let them leave their inner sanctum (aka, “pastor’s study”) a good quarter-hour before every worship service and mill around inside the building greeting people, welcoming newcomers, and introducing them to others.
In time, the people will do what their leaders do.
That is a law never proven wrong.