When I was in seminary, Hospitality Evangelism was all the rage. We were encouraged to welcome the stranger, making sure that we were being sensitive to those who were new to us. This wasn't just about making sure we had greeters at the doors, actually; it included an awareness of how our signs helped or hindered a sense of welcome, and how worship felt to those who were new to our congregation. How welcoming are we? Are we welcoming at all?
It's still a good question.
Somewhere along the line, though, I started to wonder if "welcoming the stranger" was really going far enough. Somewhere along the line I started considering that the church needs not just to welcome the stranger, but actually to BE the stranger.
This thought probably comes first from my experience as a missionary in Japan. What do missionaries do? They make a commitment to go and live somewhere as strangers, in a strange place, where they do not know the language (at first), where they stick out like a sore thumb, where they are not in the center of things, where they do not know everything, but where they just know one thing: Christ, and him crucified.
But lately, this thought comes from living in the United States, being in the church in this less-churched era, when people feel put out that they are greeted in December by "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas", and where some claim that Christians are a persecuted minority (a claim that cheapens somewhat the experiences of those who are really being persecuted, I think).
No, I don't think Christians are a persecuted minority.
But yes, I do believe that Christians are, to a degree, becoming strangers in this culture. Christianity is not as dominant, or as favored as it once was. There are a lot of reasons for this. Christians are not always are own best PR; there are abusive leaders, and hateful fanatics, and they often define the word "Christian" for people who don't know much about it. More and more, religious services seem strange for those who are unfamiliar with them.
Not long ago I watched the old movie, "Gentleman's Agreement." I had never seen it before (which seems incredible), but was drawn in by the idea of Gregory Peck pretending to be Jewish to expose the extent of anti-semitism in business and culture. When his own son is taunted on the playground for being Jewish, his fiancé comforts the boy, saying, "Don't worry. You're not Jewish. You're a Christian!."
I was taken aback. I could not imagine that conversation happening in 2012.
First of all, the word "Christian" seems to have a cultural, not religious meaning, which struck me as odd. Second of all, we just don't all assume a positive connotation for the word "Christian" any more. It is true that the Christian faith has lost some of its "most favored status" in the United States.
But maybe that's not a bad thing.
In fact, I'm sure it's not a bad thing. It's not a bad thing to embrace the strangeness of being a follower of Jesus. It's not a bad thing to not be "most favored". It's not a bad thing to consider ourselves strangers who realize that often, people don't know us -- and that we don't know them, either. It's not a bad thing to be curious, to listen, to learn, to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.