What was it like your first time?
Doesn’t matter what it was. Your first kiss. Your first award. Your first time riding a roller coaster. What was it like? Hopefully, it was a great experience. Sometimes it’s not. But our first time experiencing anything is like painting on a blank slate. That’s what tablua rasa means – “blank slate.” It’s like watching colors unfold onto an empty white canvas, a sudden burst of color on a pristine background. 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 sometimes we see things we’ve taken for granted in a new light. 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 Disneyland. We’d been to each of those places many times ourselves, 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. 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, you wouldn’t just be friendly at the door, but you’d want to make it nice and clean and comfortable for them. You’d try to anticipate what might make them feel welcome. Maybe have their favorite drink on hand or a favorite snack. You’d also want them to feel safe. The obstacle course you normally live in would be picked up, things put in their place. Nice and welcoming is great, but it’s that extra step that can really make a difference. The same thing is true as we prepare for new people walking in the door. We want to be more proactive than reactive; to anticipate their needs BEFORE so they feel this is 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, why we stand up and sit down are all concepts that are unknown to new visitors. I’m hoping we will 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 my family’s 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 Paul 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 Jesus beyond Christmas ad Easter 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. – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Paul is speaking to 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. 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. 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 traditional religious laws even though he didn’t have to. Jesus had set him free, but in order to reach those who still held to those laws, he followed them so they knew he was one of them, 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 plays a big role in getting people to stay with a church, it’s the congregation who decides if a visitor is coming back in the first place. 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 anything meaningful. 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 with us, we hoped we made her feel safe.
As a host family we wanted her to feel like this was home as much as it could be thousands of miles away. We wanted to make her feel welcome and wanted. And we tried to imagine being in her shoes and what would make her feel like this was a safe space. I hope we did this well. We probably learned as much from her as she learned from us. I believe that is the vision God has for our church, too. And every church like it. To make our spaces feel like home to those who wander in. To remember the courage it takes for people to enter through those doors. And to look at the world through their eyes, to better help them know the love of Christ. There can be no greater reward for us as followers of Christ than to be a part of what God is doing in the world. There can be no greater reward than for us to see the paint spill onto that blank canvas of someone’s faith and to be a part of that moment when they know deep in their heart that there is a God who loves them.