Recognizing the Stranger
by Jay C. Rochelle (September / October 1999 — Volume 15, Number 5)
Here are five reasons why congregations often have a difficult time welcoming outsiders into their fellowship — and some ways to overcome the resistance
When we began new programs at St. Timothy's church in Allentown in 1995, I put a hand-lettered sign on the front door that said "Enter Here."
Several people asked why we needed that sign, because "everybody knows where the door is."
I replied that the statement"everybody knows where the door is"referred only to our members, not to strangers.
I then pointed out that the facade of our building has four sets of doors. People might walk to two doors, perhaps even to three if they were determined, trying to gain entrance. But by the time they got to the fourth door, they would conclude that nothing was going on and they would walk away. We might never see them again.
I put up a newsprint easel with arrows and words to direct people to the lounge where programs are held. Again, puzzled looks. Again, my explanations. Here's my formula, rough-hewn though it may be: for each moment of needless confusion you cause someone, to that extent you lessen the possibility of presenting them with the main eventthe gospel.
Why do we need books to tell us this? Why are we so resistant? I offer you three behavioral reasons, followed by two theological reasons.
Why People Join
My first reason is failure to understand what moves people to come to church.
Older churches, those whose predominant majority is in the 65-80 age bracket, are populated with "members" in the old sense of the word. These people are joiners, who find meaning in and through their various memberships. Obituaries teach us that many active older people in churches also belonged to and were active in the Masons, the Rotary, the Association of University Women, and so on.
God bless these people. They were not only "the last great generation," as network television anchor Tom Brokaw tells it, but they were also the last great generation of joiners.
These members gain strength from belonging. They define themselves by their associations. They know who they are by where they belong. They believe that their spirituality is best exemplified by painting the church basement, by serving tea and coffee and cakes, or by volunteering at the local hospice unit.
When we formed a shepherding committee for the church, we talked about what membership meant to those who were called to this ministry. Most, if not all, of them defined themselves as "member" in the sense outlined above. They were genuinely surprised to learn that people come to churches for other reasons: they may be on a search for some truth for their lives, or they believe the church is or can be an effective agent for change in the community under the sign of faith, or other reasons.
Older members have not yet grasped that "membership" is a wholly secondary reason for being in church to many younger people. Boomers look for facilities and programs. Busters look for spiritual value and meaning.
My second reason is xenophobia. We fear those we identify as strangers or "outsiders" because they make us rethink the way we understand the world. That is a difficult task. Many persons of goodwill shun the exercise, or give up at a certain point in life. They may revert to stereotypes in order to get a handle on how the world works.
This is an understandable reversal; it lets us keep working without making constant adjustments in our field of perception. If we invite the strangers to sit at table with us, truly or metaphorically, we have to grant them the freedom to exist fully among us. Moreover, we have to grant credibility to their way of seeing the world on a par with our own. We freeze out gays, lesbians, blacks, high church, low church, Asians, Arabs, whoever the particular "minority" may be, not because of hatred but because to admit them to the table causes us too much re-thinking.
Of course it's easier to be with "our kind" — except that, for every family in our churches, there are "those kinds" who now occupy our houses and/or our hearts. We all have gay friends. We all have relatives who have married somebody who is not "our kind." But so often we limit our acceptance, and then only grudgingly, to those who invade the family circle, and we do not extend that acceptance into our churches.
The lack of hospitality extends, however, to those who are quite the same as we are, except that they are not members. Visitors "just like us" may get a cold shoulder equal to that of the stranger who is other than us. This is the least understandable phenomenon, but it may have to do with the fact that people age into a routine that gives them maximum comfort. Our churches are populated by the aging and the comfortable. Hence the value of comfort overrules the cost of openness.
My third reason is benign thoughtlessness –"benign" because all of us tend to make assumptions. In church we assume that people know where the doors and the bathrooms and the nursery are, what sort of a place they are coming into, and at least know what worship is before they experience it in our midst.
Are we not thoughtless, however, when we expect people to be able to follow our liturgy without assistance from a member who will show people where the right pages are? Are we not thoughtless when we expect people to know what door to enter, when they have never been here before? We are thoughtless when we expect people to know where the facilities inside our building are. Signage is hospitality, as my wife succinctly puts it.
I emphasize that such thoughtlessness is benign, not intentional. But as my father used to say, "Don't overestimate a person's knowledge but never underestimate their intelligence." In that way lies benign thoughtlessness.
The opposite of thoughtlessness is the path of hospitality. Put yourself into the place of the stranger in order to understand the discomfort you feel in a new setting and how alienating the very setting may be with no words or deeds that truly welcome you into a new space.
In his own ministry, Jesus provided a place in his own orbit for those who were strangers to find their home. In that vivid picture from Luke 24:13-35, Jesus becomes the host in the house of the disciples walking along the Emmaus road. He who was the stranger becomes the host as he breaks the bread and says the prayers that mark the host at a meal.
Dominic Crossan calls this quality of Jesus' ministry "commensality," that is, sharing the common table and thereby providing a wholeness both political and personal to those who are gathered into the community.
Unsure of Message
Now for the fourth and final reasons, which are theological. The fourth reason is complex, and categorically different from the first three reasons, each of which has to do with attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. With the fourth reason, however, we move onto the level of theological challenge: we are not sure we believe the message we proclaim, so we don't want people to challenge what's left.
The ground has shifted under our feet. Some days we wonder if any ground remains. The church cannot change fast enough to re-formulate the message of the gospel for this age.
I believe in the deep meaning of the gospel, and I believe it to be truth for us. But at the same time, the formulation of that gospel has to be a major agenda item. Bonhoeffer called for it half a century ago in Letters and Papers from Prison. Bishop Robinson called us to the task almost four decades ago in Honest to God, and for all the confusion he may raise, Bishop Spong calls us to this task today in Why the Church Must Change or Die. Regardless of what we may think, these writers speak for and to a growing number of people.
The point is this: can we continue to proclaim the gospel in ways that are so alien to people's thought patterns? Thus there must be a rebirth of the images, a move beyond the impasse at which theological understandings currently leave us.
The church's vocabulary contains many in-words. We participate in what the philosopher Wittgenstein called "language games," and in order to play the game you have to know the language. We place unnecessary stumbling blocks in people's paths when we expect them to know the language game we are playing.
Many people have no background in the Christian faith to fall back upon for definitions of terms. They consider our terminology to be mystification, not mystery.
Every preacher might offer definitions of terms used within the sermon in the interest of clarity, on one hand, and hospitality on the other. If you cannot define sin without using the word, you may be losing your audience — and that includes people who have been in the church for years. The language of the church is not a code, nor is it static, and hence we must engage in re-definition every time out. Preaching is the harbinger of change, in this case.
Furthermore, in this post-modern era, all the senses are used for understanding. Hence preaching must consider how visual imagery works, a direction toward which Marshall McLuhan pointed us in the sixties in his benchmark book The Medium is The Massage.
Preaching is predicated on orality, not textuality. This communication form antedates the rise of print culture and may supersede it again. Today visual images hold as much content as does verbal communication for people raised on TV and movies. There is no reason to believe that liturgies which contain symbol, drama, icon, and movement fail simply because dry-mouthed iconoclasts want them to fail. Liturgy succeeds on a level that's unmeasurable: like dancing, like cycling, like swimming.
Why not complement ritual with a sermon that is open-ended and descriptive rather than conclusive and prescriptive, one which is evocative and image-oriented rather than propositional and doctrinal in content?
An "Alien" Word
The fifth reason is connected to the fourth one. Is not our very proclamation of the gospel itself a form of estrangement?
The gospel brings an alien word to the world. The gospel creates an alternative culture no matter what culture it invades. But that's not what I mean by this question. What I mean is, are people able to understand the gospel in the context of their own lives, with its proper challenge and its proper comfort intact?
So often you hear as "gospel" a message which takes away the challenge and offers only the comfort, or one which takes away the comfort and offers only the challenge. This means, of course, that the preacher has not learned the lesson of the law/gospel dialectic very well.
Richard R. Caemmerer's model holds: goal, malady, means. The goal is always to hear the gospel (the proclamation and not the proclaimer), the malady is the existential or social condition that blocks people from hearing that gospel, and the means is the way to shape the message so that gospel can be heard. The church will change or die through its preaching.
The concept of a singular truth that can bind together hearts and minds into a whole community is foreign to our contemporary ears. We live amidst a multiplicity of voices, and the culture is diverse. We are centrifugal and not centripetal as a people; that is, we tend to move outward like spiders along a web. Like the spider, we sense new impulses that throb through the webbing and we move toward them without giving up any of the web that lies behind us.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze called this phenomenon the "rhizome," a model taken from agriculture. Tubers are rhizomes; they grow by the multiplication of root systems and not by sinking a taproot or by shooting roots off a single blunted start. Deleuze's postmodern theory — if we embrace it-means that meanings are gained horizontally through juxtaposition and repetition, rather than linearly through logical extension. I think he is correct, and preaching must consider this way to describe how humans understand.
This consideration will lead to a certain humility in preaching, a welcome thought in and of itself. Such humility is expressed when we lay meanings alongside those already found in the hearers. This is the way of analogy, of course, and recognizes the role of imagination which George Bernard Shaw pointed out years ago in his play Saint Joan.
When Joan is asked how she knew that God spoke to her, she replied, "I hear God in my imagination." Charged with heresy at this statement, she says "On the contrary, that is the only way God speaks."
Surely, part of welcoming the stranger these days is welcoming the imagination back into church. Difficult to do for word- and logic-oriented protestants, but if we hear the prophets of our age rightly, it will be necessary if we are to reach those for whom the modern consensus has broken up and who now search, like scavengers, on the rubbish heap of Western civilization for artifacts and shards they can juxtapose into new (or renewed) meaning for life.
Such reaching would be a recognition of the stranger who is within us as well as among us.
Jay C. Rochelle is pastor of St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Allentown, Pennsylvania.