Inviting the Stranger in: Including the "outsider" in the "insiders" fellowship

For the last forty years I have been an observer-participant in the integration of formerly excluded racial groups into established, homogeneous congregations. Although I claim no systematic documentation of the phenomenon, my years in the ministry, serving churches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, have provided an excellent platform from which to see it happening. Also, as an African American in the Reformed Church in America, I've had numerous opportunities to participate in the integration of local congregations and higher bodies of a predominantly white, ethnically based church.

Over the years I've observed that one of the strongest motivators for integrating local congregations is membership decline and the threatened loss of fiscal viability. Flight is all right for some, but to the more persistent (as well as to those who are stuck) only one choice remains: to open the doors and invite the stranger into their midst.

Inviting in people who are different from ourselves is not easy. The newcomers have a different style of worship and sometimes a different social status than the rest of the congregation. Their loyalty to their own institutions and their inability or unwillingness to communicate with "us" makes it difficult to integrate "them" easily into the church community.

However, if the congregation is serious about staying where they are and continuing in ministry, if they truly accept that a growing church is a homogeneous church, they will have to undergo some radical changes.

Several important characteristics of ministry can promote the inclusion of the "outsider" in the "insider's" church fellowship.

First, the ministry must be flexible—especially in the area of worship. A congregation's ritual may be changed to include the outsider with minimal discomfort.

Music is probably the easiest aspect to change. Singing "their" songs along with "our" songs—the "quaint" spirituals alongside the stately hymns, the anthems mixed in with the gospel songs—makes for very interesting, if sometimes difficult, worship. A congregation that learns to sing together is in all likelihood well on its way to becoming united in community.

Second, to integrate diverse peoples into a congregation of God's people, two nonliturgical rituals are important. The first is an informal greeting. In most cases, it can be regularized through the assignment of greeters whose task it is to welcome each worshiper. Greeters should not be tagged. Since greeting is a function of all, the greeter's task is to see that all are welcome. A warm, friendly hello from a fellow worshiper is the best call to worship.

The second important ritual, one of the least acknowledged aspects of worship, is the sharing of congregational concerns and the announcement of congregational and community events. It is here—whether included in the order of worship or printed in the bulletin—that the church announces its concern or lack thereof for issues that touch on the life of the newcomer.

Third, and perhaps the most important characteristic of a church that is able to become homogenous, is a Christ-centered theology as expressed in worship. Radical Christian worship has the power to recreate a oneness of disparate peoples—breaking down our human tendency to focus on distinctions of race, ethnicity, and social or economic status.

Paul's letter to Philemon is archetypical of what must happen in our houses of worship: the servant becomes the master's brother; the master becomes the servant's friend. Inclusiveness begins at the cross where privilege has no standing and humility is the way of life.

Worship that is radically Christ-centered cannot read the compass and is partially color blind: In Christ there is no east or west, no Gentile or Jew, no black, white, brown, or yellow. The highest and only real value is Christ, and the color is red—the blood of Jesus.

The liturgical acts in a congregation that is radically Christ-centered will be as narrow as the cross but inclusive of all persons at worship. The preaching will be established upon the bedrock of the good news of Jesus Christ, and it will address whosoever will listen. The prayers will turn toward Jesus and lift up the praise and needs of the thousand tongues that sing of Christ.

Such worship will not ignore differences. Rather it will rejoice in the multiplicity of peoples in God's family. Integration, inclusiveness, can be ours only on the basis of Christ's deed—for in him we are all one. Praise the Lord!