The Rule of St Benedict 53:1-2, 15 states: "Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for he is going to say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt. 25:35). And to all let due honour be shown, especially to those who share our faith (Gal. 6:10) and to pilgrims. In the reception of the poor and pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received."
For the Benedictines, the simplicity of welcoming the stranger is a spiritual practice that reflects a genuine understanding of who the stranger truly is, and recognition of the ultimate identity of the person received in the eyes of God through Christ.
In an intriguing survey published in The Christian Post in February 2010, less than 18% of Americans considered Christian churches to be the friendliest place in town . Among self-declared Christians, less than 25% named churches as the friendliest place and even fewer non-Christians, a disappointing 7%, agreed. For the 750 Americans surveyed, 500 of which whom were Christian, the most important factor that makes a place friendly is "making me feel like I belong". Other factors included friendly conversation, smiles and genuine interest in others.
The authors stated that what the survey revealed for them is that "people are really starved for relationship when it comes to what they're looking for in churches". Simply having a person greeting you at the church door and shallow platitudes isn't going to be enough. Meaningful dialogue, genuine interest in getting to know the newcomer or the unfamiliar member, and responding to others on a real and personal level were suggested as some ways to increase the friendliness of a church. The authors recommended that ministers, pastors and other church leaders make more of an effort to engage the church body, especially in the case of newcomers and strangers.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that similar information is available for Australian churches, but it is likely that these results would be more or less reflected here. Any discussion like this is necessarily a general one and individual churches may well be doing very well in providing a genuinely friendly and welcoming place for members and newcomers alike. However in my personal experience, and in the experience of others that I have talked to, it seems that welcoming strangers and newcomers is not always an obvious strength of local churches.
For all the benefits of large, well-resourced contemporary style churches, I think that genuine friendliness and openness to newcomers is something that has been a sad casualty of the church growth movement. It is physically impossible for pastors and ministers of large churches to keep track of new faces, and this is even more the case now that it seems out of fashion for pastors to stand at the door of their church and greet people as they leave after a service. Some church leaders seem to think that it is the responsibility of newcomers to introduce themselves.
It is way too easy for people to remain nameless, faceless nobodies in large churches, remaining on the unwelcomed and uncommitted periphery for months, or even years. I have often heard modern church attendees accused of being consumerist and uncommitted to church institutions. In truth, the large contemporary church model actually encourages the problem by making it too easy for unconnected adherents to treat church like a self-service takeaway.
So if the church leadership is unwilling or physically unable to keep track of newcomers and welcome them into the fold, and the church doesn't have an dedicated and efficient system for making contact with newcomers, it all comes down to individual members of the church congregation to make it their business to seek out and engage with unfamiliar faces around them.
Contemporary churches are stocked predominantly with Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. As a card-carrying Gen Xer myself, my observation is that, in general, my generation is more guarded and less openly friendly than previous generations. I think this is unfortunately reflected in the local church. I don't know whether it is a symptom of contemporary culture's rampant individualism, exhaustion and hassle from hectic 21st Century living, or just pure laziness, but I have observed that people in my generation seem to be less motivated to make new friendships, preferring to surround themselves with a limited clique of close existing friends.
A church full of closed cliques is extremely hard and frustrating for newcomers to break into. Cliquishness doesn't limit itself to large churches either it seems. What's worse than standing like a shag on a rock in a crowd of hundreds after a service waiting to be acknowledged, is standing in the same fashion in a group of only fifty, uncomfortably waiting for someone - anyone - to acknowledge your presence and make the effort to introduce themselves.
1 Corinthians 13:1 reminds us that it matters very little how much we sing along enthusiastically to worship songs, raise our hands during worship in visible acts of piety, or take furious notes during sermons. If we can't summon up enough authentic Christian love to smile warmly and make a genuine effort to seek out and welcome strangers and newcomers in our midst, we are nothing but a clanging gong and a pathetic shadow of a Christian disciple.
Contemporary churches, and the contemporary Christians who inhabit them, would do well to emulate the authentic spiritual practices and genuine Christian commitment of our Benedictine brothers and sisters in Christ in this area. I issue myself and others this challenge – recover the lost art and spiritual discipline of hospitality and welcoming the stranger, the spiritual traveller and the Christian 'pilgrim' in our midst. You might just save someone from the dangers and pitfalls of travelling alone in their spiritual walk.
Roger Morris is a medical practitioner on the Sunshine Coast. He has a particular interest in the interface of the Christian faith with science, philosophy and culture. He has a blog called Faith Interface (www.faithinterface.com.au).