Week after week, when we walked into church, I would scan the congregation looking for a familiar face. No one’s eyes lit up with recognition when they saw me. No one knew my name or my story. Brothers and sisters in the Lord surrounded me, but they were strangers to me and I was a stranger to them.
Most of the time, my husband and I live in southern California where we’ve been part of a church for fifteen years, but we recently started heading north for a few months every year. We found a good summer church where the sermons are nourishing and the worship is rich, yet every Sunday I came home feeling lonely.
Then it all changed. My daughter went to a conference and ran into some women who went to the same church we attended each summer and, being Kate, she went into action on my behalf. She introduced herself, explained that, although her mother had been in the service every summer Sunday for years, she had never connected with anyone. “And there’s nothing wrong with her!” she assured them.
She texted them my picture and then took their picture and texted it to me. They promised to seek me out and sure enough, the very next Sunday, I turned around at greeting time and there was Jan. “You’re Katie’s mom!” she said. The next Sunday another woman came up to me and said, “I think I met your daughter! I’m Carol!”
Since then I’ve been introduced, welcomed, invited to lunch, and included in a little summer Bible study with some other women who transition from one place to another every year. Thanks to my sweet daughter’s matchmaking, I’m no longer a stranger—and it makes all the difference.
It’s been a fresh reminder to me of how important it is to welcome strangers into our fellowship.
The Lord gave Israel a compelling reason to welcome strangers. “You know the feeling of a stranger, because you were strangers and aliens in Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) But as Christians we have an even more compelling reason. Paul says, “Remember that … you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:13)
We were once strangers but the Lord introduced himself to us and brought us in—into his friendship, into his love, into his home. We “know the feeling of a stranger” and we know the feeling of being welcomed by the Lord.
A recent study found that people have 40% less empathy than they did ten years ago. There’s a great “who cares” attitude forming in our culture but when the gospel takes root it reverses the trend. There’s a unique power to the gospel. It can create, not just empathy, but deep compassion for others. If someone is lost we know how it feels; if someone is lonely, we know how it feels; if someone is an outsider, we know how it feels.
Our actions of love and welcome spring from the memory of our story—of our own personal before-and-after. We’re meant to keep the memory fresh and let it reshape our lives along gospel lines. My new friends at my summer church brought me into their fellowship with the love of Jesus. Now when I scan the faces at church there are a few that light up with recognition. I’m no longer a stranger.
Lately, I’ve been thinking the church is like a table—a big banqueting table in the Father’s house with Jesus sitting at the head and a special designated place for each returning prodigal son or daughter. There’s an intimate sense of belonging around that table and great joy because we’re home with him. Even those believers we don’t know personally are not really strangers—they belong to us and we belong to them. So we keep living out that reality amongst ourselves, loving, offering hospitality, welcoming new comers and making sure they’re known and loved.
But there are empty seats around the table waiting to be filled and let us not forget that we are the appointed inviters. I’m not making this up, of course. At a dinner party of a leading Pharisee, Jesus described his Father as a host planning a wedding feast. He sent out messengers to invite anyone who would come so his house would be full.
Like this parable, we, too, are meant to go outside the doors of the church, out to a world of strangers and “compel them to come in,” as Jesus put it. People move in down the street longing to make a connection. Refugees arrive in our communities far from home and lonely for a friend. And we have the opportunity to be the “then it all changed” point in their lives, not because we feel guilty and obligated, but because we remember how we’ve been welcomed into the Father’s house. And we know there are still empty seats at his table.
Janet Morris is a mother of three, a grandmother of three, and wife to Charles Morris, the speaker and president of Haven Ministries. She helps write the programs for Haven Today, has co-authored three books—Jesus in the Midst of Success, Saving a Life, and Missing Jesus—and is also a women’s Bible study teacher and leader. Janet confesses that she also drinks one pot of Chai tea a day, talks to her dog, and is close friends with C.S. Lewis. But most of all, she needs Jesus every day.
Sharing a meal with someone has been a sign of friendship in many cultures for centuries. But for the believer in Christ, breaking bread with others means so much more a communal meal. Listen to Charles and Janet Morris on this week’s radio series to find out more about the lost art of hospitality that we first learned from Christ.