Visiting a new church can be exciting and intimidating. In my own experiences with other churches, I have found that in some, the visit becomes nothing more than sitting in a pew, one stranger lost in a sea of others. Sadly, some churches are as cold and hard as their pews. I have visited other churches however, where though I’m among strangers, there is the overwhelming warmness and reality of worshipping with family—these are my brothers and sisters in Christ. The Holy Spirit that lives in and works through them is divinely evident, shining brightly. As a congregation invites strangers in with warmth and welcome, the stranger experiences God in a very real way, because it’s the Spirit of God working through the church to touch the life of the person who has walked through their door. I tell you, with that kind of love a stranger won’t remain a stranger much longer. When the Holy Spirit is alive and moving within a church, there is no sense of strangers amongst strangers, but rather the beauty of oneness in Christ Jesus.
I had a friend in college who conducted a social experiment that every church should hear about. He grew a scraggly beard, disheveled his hair, wore dirty, worn out clothing, and did not bathe. Yeah, I know—isn’t that what most college guys do? Well maybe, but the next part is not. He went to several of the most influential churches in the city looking like a homeless man to see how they might respond.
One church greeted him warmly at the door, but didn’t do much beyond that. In two others he was not spoken to at all; only met with confused and bewildered glances in one, and cold darting glances accompanied with whispers of “…who is that….what’s he doing here…he doesn’t belong here…” in the other. In the last church, he was warmly welcomed, even being offered some money and an invitation to someone’s home for a warm meal following the service! I know which church I would return to.
I wonder what I would have done. How would I have responded? Would I have squelched the Spirit within me and missed my opportunity? How are we perceived to those who visit us as a church? Do they see oneness and love, or strangers amongst strangers? How will we respond to those who come through our door?
Jesus, the night he was arrested, after praying for his disciples…prayed for us. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:20-23