Two very different experiences
Have you ever arrived at an event and felt like an outsider? You didn’t know anyone and everybody else seemed to be greeting each other like long lost friends. Have you ever felt like the odd one out? Looking around in a crowded room, you experienced an overwhelmingly unpleasant experience of being different. You were the only man, woman, young person, older person, white person, black person, individual dressed in a certain way. You didn’t feel like you fitted. Uncomfortable isn’t it?
Then there are other times when we feel very much like an insider. We are in a place and with people with whom we can easily feel at home. Everyone looks, thinks, acts like we do. We are comfortable. The overwhelming feeling is, ‘I belong’.
The difference in finding ourselves in the two situations described above is something we feel deep within. But outwardly, others around us maybe don’t even notice how their presence and behaviour as a group either sparks discomfort or creates welcome - excludes or includes. How open or closed a community is can be a very subtle, but also a very powerful thing. It either draws others or reinforces distance. This is also true of our congregation’s life.
Becoming all things to all people
The Apostle Paul is a great example of someone who understood what it was to be drawn into a community of which he was not a natural part. After all, he had been a persecutor of the first Christians before he met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, became one of his followers and a key leader in the church. But none of that happened without him embarking on a journey from the outside in. The early Christians were understandably wary, suspicious, and even fearful of him. He knew what it was like to experience the awkwardness of that and the welcome of two people in particular who went out of their way to include and integrate him - Ananias (Acts 9:10-19) and Barnabas (Acts 9:26-28).
Paul was a Jew by background, belief and lifestyle. But his ministry centred around reaching out to those who were Gentiles – non-Jews who didn’t live by God’s law. So, he had to work hard to enter their world. When Paul wanted to set an example to the congregation in Corinth of how to reach out to people who were not like them, he wrote about how he continually set himself to do all that he could to go out of his way to include them, so as to win them for Christ. Paul didn’t expect those who were different to him to become like him so that he could then share the good news he had found in Jesus. He tried to become as much like them as he could so that nothing about him would get in the way of them coming to appreciate Jesus. Here’s how he described what that looked like in I Corinthians 9:19-23.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Like most groups, congregations naturally form around likeness, rather than difference. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ even in the church. When outsiders come they often ‘stick out like a sore thumb’. They feel the pain of that. The awkwardness of their presence also throbs uncomfortably in our consciousness.
Watch this short clip that helps you think about the challenge of welcoming those who, for a whole variety of reasons, are not like the vast majority of your congregation.
Pray that we would better recognise in ourselves some of the things that both draw others into the life of our church and creates distance between us and them.
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David Thompson is Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s Council for Congregational Life and Witness.