Community is an essential part of the human experience. Connecting as part of a community is important to our mental wellbeing. Even the most introverted person needs some sort of human contact and support.
A community can be gathered in a geographic space where people connect inperson, or a virtual space such as a social media group or private community platform. Being part of a shared space, whether physical or virtual, gives people the chance to be inspired, solve problems, share humour, vent their frustrations, and share their achievements. Belonging to a community helps us develop a stronger sense of personal and collective identity. It can also give a boost to our selfesteem and to our willingness to take on the world and make our dreams manifest.
Since humans are inherently social beings, when people feel disconnected from their community, it is detrimental to their mental and physical health. According to an article on happiness.com, “some studies have linked the emotional strain of loneliness caused by social isolation to physical illness, including sleep disorders, heart disease and a weakened immune system. A Public Health study done in
Canada even ranked social isolation as a higher risk factor for premature death.”
It seems to me that over the last couple of years, while unable to attend school, childrens’ mental health has suffered. Without interaction with their community, kids turned in on themselves, forgot how to act around others, and grieved the loss of being with friends and teachers; you could see the weight on their shoulders. Similarly, when people feel disconnected from their faith community, it is detrimental to their spiritual health.
We, as a church, have a unique role in that we are a community that has history, that is multigenerational, that has no entrance requirements, and that (in theory) has an opendoor policy, meaning everyone is allowed in.
The church could be the epitome of community.
In Paul’s epistles, one of the repeated themes is that of incorporation into the Body of Christ. People who are isolated, separate, and alone are called into the life of a new community.
Paul describes this reality in his letter to the Galatians when he says that for those who are clothed in Christ “(t)here is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal 3:27-28). But in life, we know that those distinctions do exist! We know that in the church of Galatia they most certainly existed. Why else would Paul have written this, if there were not struggles related to the status of Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, and female?
Those distinctions also exist within our church. Not literally Jew and Greek, but most certainly the “in” and the “not so in.” Perhaps not slave and free, but certainly those with power and those without power. And who would deny that there are distinctions made amongst us between male and female, gay and straight, rich or poor, Indigenous and settler, etc? Those distinctions most certainly exist and testify to the measure to which we fall short of the standard of what Paul says it means to be clothed with Christ.
As we come out of this pandemic, we are witness to a decline in church attendance. That said, some churches are experiencing a surge of new people coming in the doors of the physical building. These folks are looking for church and its community; they are wanting the kind of connection that has been missing during the past two years. So how do we ensure that these new people are welcomed into our community? According to Jesus, it’s all about hospitality.
During my postulancy (a training period while working to become an Anglican priest), I spent a year visiting various churches around the city. What I found interesting was the rarity at which I was approached. I was a stranger to these churches. And yet, it was a rare occasion when someone greeted me. Perhaps I was spoiled by coming from a parish whose greeters knew every parishioner and when someone new arrived, they were welcomed with a handshake, and then directed as to how to follow along with the bulletin during worship.
The church can be a great source of community—a community of mutual love. This mutual love is the foundation of doing good and sharing what you have; the foundation of being in relationship with God, and with each other.
So, on a Sunday morning, know who the strangers in your building are. Greet them, make them feel welcome. Show them how to read the bulletin – never assume someone “knows how to worship,” for lack of a better phrase. All of us are tasked with making our churches inclusive and welcoming–in words and in actions. It is not our job to gatekeep or to guard the pews. Christ’s table is open to everyone. Our job is to make more room at the table, and to ensure that we are making room for all, not a select few. We do not get to decide who is allowed to be part of the community and who is to be kept outside. Community creates relationships, fellowship, and growth, but growth cannot be the main goal of our hospitality. We aren’t creating community to get something in return. We are creating a loving community, following in the loving footsteps of Jesus Christ.
Making room for the stranger may upset the balance of the church for a while, but opening the doors of the church is not meant to be a threatening situation. Making room for the stranger reaffirms the humanity of all persons. Our humanity is not based upon physical or mental ability, our intelligence, nor on our history or cultural background. Our humanity is shaped by our understanding of the importance of the community and the affirmation that we are all created in the image of God. Each of us springs forth from the imagination of God, regardless of who we are.
In Hebrews, Paul reminds us what a Christian community was meant to be: a community which expresses and shares loveand in that context praises God, because God is a God who reaches out in love and compassion.
So don’t turn the stranger away. Instead, welcome them home.