Tabula Rasa means “blank slate.”
And that’s what it’s like when you share an experience for the first time with someone new. It’s like watching the colors unfold on top of a blank slate. It just pours out in a brilliant rainbow of moments and you get to experience the world through fresh eyes, see things in a brand new way, or maybe just start to appreciate the things you take for granted. We had the chance to do that when we welcomed Kristina into our home. She was an exchange student from Russia we hosted back in 2010 and we were so blessed to have her! She was sweet and thoughtful, always polite, and open to all the different experiences we were able to share with her. We took her horseback riding at Pismo, brought her to Georgia for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (Southern style), traveled for the weekend up to San Francisco, took her to Las Vegas for the New Year, and of course to Los Angeles and Disneyland. We’d been to each of those places many times, but for Kristina it was all so new! Everything was exciting! Everything was a new adventure! Even things we might think were ordinary were extraordinary in her eyes. And being able to see things from her point of view helped us to appreciate even more the blessings we have. But I also admired her bravery and strength of character. Can you imagine what it must have been like to travel half way across the world and spend nine months in a foreign land? Away from family and friends, away from what is familiar and comfortable, for the chance to experience life somewhere else. Plus, I’m sure most kids were hoping to be in New York or Los Angeles where the culture is hopping 24/7 so to be assigned to a family in Fresno, CA must have been filled with even more unknowns. It must have been a strange mix of both excitement and anxiety, of hope and of fear all at the same time.
I imagine that’s what it’s like for people coming to church for the first time.
Whether they have been a part of church before and are just coming back or if they’ve never been at all, it must be a mix of both hope and fear at the same time. On one hand, it’s an adventure. On the other, it’s a place where you don’t know the customs, the people, or what to expect. There’s a tension from the moment you walk in. And just as if you were welcoming someone new into your home for the first time, we need to not only be welcoming when they walk in the door, but anticipate what might make them feel like this was a safe place to be. Every church I’ve been a part of has had loving sincere people who go up and talk to visitors, guide the kids to Sunday School, and help out where they can. But we need to be more than nice and welcoming. We need to take that extra step. What I’m talking about is being more proactive than reactive; to anticipate BEFORE they walk in the door what they might need from us to make this a safe space to explore their faith. It’s been so long since many of us have been new to church we don’t often think about the little things that might make people feel out of place or unwelcome. The words we use, the assumptions we make in worship, why we stand up and sit down are all concepts that are unknown to new visitors. I’m hoping we will learn to take a step back and try to see things from their perspective. Not from the perspective of someone who comes to church or is familiar with church but from someone for whom worship is a new experience. Like our experience with Kristina, we can’t assume that what we might consider “normal” is at all normal to those who are visiting for the first time.
The apostle Paul thought about this a lot.
Maybe Paul was drawing on his own experience being one of the newest of Jesus’ disciples and the only one (that we know of) who was recruited by Christ AFTER he died. But for him it seemed vitally important to find ways to reach out to those who did not know Jesus or who were starting to explore a life of faith with Christ. He probably also remembered clearly what it took to convince him. It literally took a miracle. So he knows how tough it is for someone unfamiliar with the teachings of Jesus to suddenly become a follower, and he determined to do whatever it would take to get people to listen to him.
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Paul is speaking directly to each one of us.
His message is clear. It is OUR responsibility to bring the Gospel to others. It is not THEIR responsibility to come and get it. It is OUR responsibility to bring the Gospel to others. It is not THEIR responsibility to come and get it. We sometimes act as if it is. We act as if it is the responsibility of other people to come and seek the Gospel. But a man who doesn’t know he’s lost isn’t going to ask for directions. A man who doesn’t know he’s lost isn’t going to ask for directions. Before a person looks for help, they have to be convinced that help is needed. That’s where we come in. There is a whole world out there chock full of people who don’t know why they should bother to follow Jesus if they even know who he is, and we have to be willing to do whatever it takes to bring the Gospel message into their hearts. That’s what Paul did. He became whatever he needed to become to bring people the Word of God. To his Jewish friends, he practiced all the Jewish customs. He celebrated the Jewish festivals. He worshipped with them and loved them and helped them so that they would come to trust him when he shared God’s word with them. He obeyed the laws even though he wasn’t restricted by them any more. Jesus had set him free, but in order to reach those who still held to those laws, he followed them so they wouldn’t blame him of being a radical, so that he could speak to them and they would listen. He showed empathy to the weak even though he was emboldened by Christ so that in his weakness, in his vulnerability, he could make a connection with others they felt they could trust. As Paul said, he became all things to all people so that he might save some.
Hospitality literally means the love of strangers
Hospitality literally means the love of strangers. We are called upon to offer love to everyone, even those we don’t know. Maybe especially to those we don’t know. More radically, we are meant to be self-sacrificial when it comes to showing love to others. When we exhibit that kind of hospitality, when we show love for others with our gifts, our words, and our service, we honor God and we become a living testimony to his work in the world today. You matter. While a pastor might play a big role in getting people to stay with a church, it’s the congregation who decides if a visitor is coming back. Did you know that a person decides whether or not they are going to come back to your church within the first seven minutes? A person decides whether or not they are coming back to your church within the first seven minutes. Generally, that’s long before they ever meet the pastor and certainly before they hear if he can even preach worth his salt. It’s in the little things that make a difference. How they are greeted, how easy was it to find parking, whether or not it was obvious where they could find out what was going on; these are all important to people who have finally made the decision to come to worship. That alone is a huge deal.
What happens before a person enters those doors is more than we’ll ever know.
If someone makes the choice to come to church after years of being away or if they’ve never come to church and decide there might be something here for them, there is likely a story behind that. I remember taking a seminar on communication and our leader told us people are like icebergs. What we see on the surface, the things people say with their mouths, are often only 10% of what’s really going on. The other 90% is all hidden beneath. We are not going to know the 90% on their first visit or even their fiftieth. What we need to do is realize they didn’t come to this decision easily or quickly, but with some serious thought. And we have to make the adjustment to worship as painless and as comfortable as possible. We need to offer grace. We need to offer understanding. We need to exhibit patience and kindness. And we need to be self-sacrificial. They are probably already wondering as they walk in the door if they made a mistake. Whatever we can do to help can make a big difference.
When Kristina first came to stay, we tried our best to make the transition easy.
Our hope as a host family was to take her in, embrace her, and make her feel welcome and wanted. We tried to imagine being in her shoes and what would make her feel like this was a safe space for her. But maybe more importantly to try and anticipate her needs and wants. I hope we did this well. It was such a joy having her with us. We still keep in touch, we follow each other on Facebook and Instagram. We send messages to each other once in a while. And each time I’m taken back to all the different ways she touched our lives and hopefully we did the same for her. What I am hoping we do as a church is to take that same approach. We need to take a step back and see the world with fresh eyes every once in a while. We need to seriously contemplate and examine how we do what we do from the perspective of those we are trying to reach. We need to work hard to create a safe space for them to encounter the living God and to feel like they can ask questions and learn how to be comfortable in what must be both a hopeful and a fearful experience. And I believe when we make decisions not from our own point of view but from that of someone new, we will create that safe space where a person’s faith can truly grow. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.