Welcoming the Stranger

Palmer suggests that the church should become a kind of “halfway house between the comforts of private life and the challenges of diversity” (Palmer, 1981:28) The idea of intentional “halfway houses” where both the marginalized and church members come together as strangers has great potential for reuniting church and mission and for encouraging mutual transformation. Implicit in the idea of a halfway house is that the parties meet with the understanding that the place belongs to neither. The halfway house by its name is neither here nor there. God is the host.

…As people come together in hospitality, all parties must enter as learners (Van Engen, 1994:123-124). The risk for people who leave one community to go into another is that they will arrive as adults and not as children. They will come to offer service. They already know what to do. I really wonder whether anyone can commit themselves in a community if they do not first live a period of childhood there (Vanier, 1979:28).

The above is quoted from a chapter written by Kathryn Mowry in God So Loves the City. In context, it’s talking about what it means to welcome the stranger into our midst.

Can church on a Sunday morning be a neutral place? Should it be? I could argue that making a Sunday service too seeker sensitive can also make it less compelling. Worshipping God in community can affect both heart and mind. Hearing the good news can breath life into an empty soul. The author doesn’t appear to be talking about the music and sermon though, but about the body of Christ, and how we welcome people as a community. Therein lies the challenge. Can we be who we are, and also welcome strangers as they are?

Our church meets on Sunday mornings in a non-profit coffee house. The other 6 days of the week it’s open to the public. It’s a third place outside work and home where people gather, all sorts of people. While our staff and most of our volunteers are Christian, we are in many respects neutral. Many know we are church-affiliated, and we don’t hide that. For some, we are too Christian. For others, we are not overtly Christian enough. Still, we meet many strangers, and at times, we look around in surprise at the diversity of people sipping coffee in our community living room.

Mowry’s words remind me that God is the host, and while I have lived a period of childhood there, I wonder if it has become too familiar, and if I need to become a learner once again.

Palmer, Parker. The Company of Strangers: Christians & the Renewal of America’s Public Life. New York: Crossroad. 1981.
Vanier, Jean. Community and Growth. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.
Van Engen, Charles and Jude Tiersma eds. God So Loves the City. Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1994.