Christianity 201

June 7, 2015

Theological Insiders but Social Outsiders

Thinking about people in your church who attend regularly, but exist on the fringes.

It’s only been a few weeks since we considered the topic of hospitality, but returning to that article today, I was again reminded that much of what the writers of scripture have to say on this subject refers to how we respond to the stranger, or the alien as it’s assumed that we would treat family differently.

But today I want to consider a situation that I believe is unique to the modern church, and by modern I mean primarily the North American, post-1990 medium-to-large church situation.

While small groups (house groups, cell groups, etc.) have gone a long way to create the small, community feel; some churches don’t have them, and even the best churches often only get a 50% response among people attending weekend services. In the traditional church setting (think southern U.S. around 1940) churches consisted of family groupings and in these clans, everyone was connected to someone else.

But increasingly today:

  • Often one spouse attends alone, the other is not a believer.
  • There are more singles.
  • There are people who have become unattached from their home church due to changes in job or even vocation who now find themselves in a new city or town.
  • There are people who would prefer an ethnic-centered fellowship, but are in a location where there isn’t one for their particular ethnicity.
  • For some, the local church they attend is actually a theological compromise; they would prefer something more suited to a particular doctrinal pattern if it was available and by whatever sixth sense church people use, this situation is evident.
  • Some people are perceived as intellectually or spiritually intimidating and so people keep their distance; at the other end of the spectrum, others seen as simple or shallow.
  • Local churches often have a dismal track record dealing those who are obviously the poorest among the congregation, even though their faith is deep.
  • We seem to have more people characterized by an introverted nature that inhibits the process of making deeper connections.
  • Some churches are located in college and university towns where students attend for only eight months, and even in their junior or senior year feel no sense of belonging.
  • Perhaps a couple has started attending who, even though they obviously know their Bibles and the hymns or choruses, have been ostracized because they grate on our church’s stand on people living common-law or even the gay issue.
  • There are people whose only ‘crime’ is that they can’t or choose not to join a small group.

Those are just some examples. In other words, though they have made Jesus Christ the Lord of their lives — some have been on the journey for decades — they are social outsiders in the local church. In Romans 12 we read:

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers

I think even Paul saw these two groups as mutually exclusive. There was no possibility for someone to be theologically inside, but outside in a pragmatic sense.  But Romans 14 starts out with a reminder that we might tend to be less accepting of someone we view as different than us on a particular aspect of doctrine:

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.

I think the need goes beyond this, however. I think we have a situation in many churches, even smaller ones, that perhaps could not have existed in earlier days: People on the fringes. I think some of this is good intentioned; we just assume that someone else is looking after the new family that moved into the area; that someone else has the single man covered who started attending a few weeks ago; that the family that has attended for a decade has got to be well-connected by now.

Finally, I want to get to today’s main agenda, and let me say at the outset that as a family, we a partly guilty of what I want to share. I believe that the modern church loses a lot by not inviting people into our homes. I remember in 1979 interviewing a survivor from the Jesus People revolution in California who said, “The early church would fellowship from house to house; we fellowship from restaurant to restaurant.” He said this almost as if it was improvement on the Biblical model. In Acts 2:46 we read:

They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts

And in Acts 4:32:

No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.

And in Acts 5:42

Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

Then in Acts 20:20 (an easy reference to remember) we see more vividly the emergence of the house church model that came out of the generous sharing of homes and spontaneous door-to-door evangelism:

You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.

Today, the homes we live in are often very private places. Pastors note that people don’t desire home visits anymore, and for whatever reasons, doctors stopped making house calls about two generations ago.

But I feel strongly there is something very… let’s say Christian about opening up your home and inviting people to share food or beverage (it can be kept simple) especially people who God calls you to who are on the fringes.

And Luke 14:12 reminds us to not worry about whether or not you get a return invite:

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.

Who is there in your faith community that everyone just assumes is well-connected socially?

Footnote: If you are that person or part of that family, remember the adage that “He has friends who shows himself friendly.” Be proactive, take the initiative and do the inviting; but don’t sweat it if your attempts at hospitality are not reciprocated. Do as onto God.