Worshiping with Aliens and Angels

Generalizations are dangerous, but I'll hazard one. I have visited enough churches in The Netherlands to generalize that usually not a soul or body in those congregations will so much as nod a greeting at a visitor. After the service there may be occasional "hellos" among friends, but few people linger. Five minutes after the benediction both the sanctuary and the bicycle parking lot are empty. Dutch church folk no doubt practice hospitality, but they don't express it in church coffee time, trained greeters, or "good MORNING, FOLKS, HOW Y'ALL DOING THIS FINE SUNDAY MORNING!"

North American churches generally are friendly and hospitable, but one finds gaps and gaffes in the hospitality. This past summer—when our family was on vacation, as we shopped for a church after moving to a new town, and also when I guest-preached in a number of churches— I noticed again that it's often very uncomfortable to be a stranger. So— some thoughts on worship and hospitality.

First, a quote:

The Kingdom of Heaven is a love feast where nobody's a stranger. Like right here. There's strangers everywheres else you can think of... . There's strangers got married and been climbing in and out of the same four-poster thirty-five, forty years, and they're strangers still.... We're all scared and lonesome, but most of the time we keep it hid. It's like every one of us has lost his way so bad we don't even know which way is home anymore, only we're ashamed to ask. You know what would happen if we would own up we're lost and ask? Why, what would happen is we'd find out home is each other. We'd find out that home is Jesus loves us lost or found or any which way.

Frederick Buechner's character (Love Feast, Harper, p. 56) makes this comment in a different context, but with a slight hermeneutical twist we can move his people to our church pews. Strangers in our churches are not limited to out-of-town visitors. The biblical "aliens" may be longtime members who have become alienated from the church. In every congregation we find those who may be members in good standing, but who feel estranged from the congregation or denomination.

Biblical teachings on hospitality are legion—although (and here goes another generalization) these teachings are largely neglected in today's preaching. Many Old Testament passages focus on taking strangers and aliens into one's town or home—but with another hermeneutical twist we can apply this teaching to hospitality in our churches as well. We must treat and accept strangers as if they were members of our clan, our profession, our "do-you-remember when ..." group of friends.

New Testament passages on hospitality are equally strong, emphasizing the importance of opening up houses (and house churches) and welcoming strangers into the fellowship of the community. Whenever visitors or local newcomers approach our church doors hesitantly (with children hanging back in even greater reluctance), Paul's "welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you," begs for application.

Jesus is known to have preached from a pulpit at least once (Luke 4) and he often taught the crowds on the plain or the hillside, but he also frequently participated in the equivalent of Martin Luther's Table Talk. He often combined his teaching with hospitality—eating and drinking with those he was addressing. This supping-and-sermon combination continued even more pointedly after the resurrection. Of Christ's relatively few post-resurrection appearances, four involved a meal of some sort, of which the supper in Emmaus is the best known. Indeed, Peter says that those who were really special in the new church, the "witnesses," were those "who ate and drank with him" (Acts 10:41). So, being in the presence of the resurrected Lord (as we are on Sunday mornings) involves hospitality.

The importance of table fellowship in the early church should give us pause about our Lord's Supper celebrations. The evidence suggests that the Jerusalem church had daily table fellowship "with glad and generous hearts"; this fellowship was apparently a simple form of the Lord's Supper. The churches established by Paul continued these celebrations every Lord's Day, conducting them most often in the context of a love feast—a celebrative common meal.

The implications for our worship seem to be as follows: a) celebrate the Supper more frequently; b) celebrate the Supper celebratively; c) celebrate the Supper in the context of hospitality—that is, of a common meal.

Some of my best memories of worship and church fellowship come from the screened-in, plain meeting hall of our Wycliffe days in Peru. It's true that we can worship God in any kind of building and practice fellowship and hospitality in any setting. Still—some architectural configurations express and promote hospitality more readily than others. Dirk Hart's article "Church Buildings that Say Welcome" (RW 6) said it well and bears rereading. In terms of the sanctuary, one cannot note too often that a horse-shoe shape expresses notions of hospitality and fellowship much better than a shoe-box shape does.

The pastor is exegete, preacher, and liturgist. The pastor is also host. Pastors (and other worship leaders) can set the tone for hospitality. A word of welcome and a welcoming demeanor will help to make visitors and other aliens feel at home. As a host, the pastor can offer worshiping guests a sense of ease to replace the foreignness of strange faces and a new order of worship, the uneasiness about when to stand, and whether one will get glanced or glared at for raising hands in worship.

The "homogeneous unit principle" of the church-growth movement contains the sociological truth that like often attracts like and that people with similar backgrounds will want to worship together and thus cause churches to grow. The danger of this principle is that the congregation will tend to perpetuate itself with like-minded and like-status members. The odd ones (a white in a Hispanic church, a factory worker in a university church) will continue to be on the periphery. New Testament teachings clamor that hospitality is to be accorded to all—no matter how strange or alien or off-color or heterogenous the stranger is.

Churches need reminders (weekly?) to be hospitable. A former pastor of mine used to say, "Keep an open circle." You might check how open the circles of friends are in the fellowship hall of your church.

The idea of the open circle is summarized nicely in Kittel's theological dictionary:

The word in Romans 15:7 translated as "receive" or "welcome" means that "as God (or Christ) has taken every member of the Church into fellowship with Himself, so incorporate each other into your Christian circle with no inner reservations."

Some churches I preach in tell me very insistently before the service, "Please don't announce the numbers of the hymns. Our service proceeds very smoothly, without any interruptions." And if by mistake I do announce a hymn, one of the keepers of the liturgy is sure to remind me of my faux pas.

I suppose I know why the worship committee insists on this nicety. They all remember the Baptist church where the pastor kept up an endless chatter between songs and prayers, explaining each hymn in detail and announcing three times that they would sing all the stanzas except the second. So—"in our church we will have none of this vain repetition."

It seems to me that the announcement-less church may well be an overreaction: I don't see the "isn't-this-a-smoothly-run-everybody-can-read-the-bulletin" service as the height of liturgical sensitivity. Everyone can not read the bulletin. Older members may well appreciate the announcement that hymn 90 is next. And visitors will welcome a word of explanation about the purpose of the Service of Confession or a reminder that children may leave for children's church.

I always appreciate the "passing of the peace" in the Anglican church. Assuring each other "The peace of Christ be with you," "And with you," seems much more meaningful than "Good morning, terrible roads this morning." But I recently read an article by an Episcopalian who found the passing of the peace very automatic and perfunctory; he was deeply touched by the hospitable "let's shake hands with all those around us" in the Assemblies church where he was visiting.

I will still hold out for the passing of the peace as the more appropriate Christian greeting, but we need not eliminate the cordial "nice to have you visit us" greeting. I know of churches where the greeting and handshaking with neighbors is done just before the congregation exits; that timing is ideal for inviting visitors to stay for the social hour.

Hebrews 13 tells us that we may entertain angels unawares. How embarrassing if St. Peter would welcome us at the heavenly gate and behind him would stand an assistant with an angelic scowl who would say, "How come you didn't invite me for coffee when I visited your church back in 1991?" Much better to be told, "I was a stranger and you took me in."

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.