A warm embrace: welcoming internationals to our churches
2:19 Teach to Reach is a charity which aims to help churches connect with the international communities around them through English conversation classes. Its CEO David Baldwin explores how we can ensure our welcome of the stranger is genuine
The fact that our churches are surrounded by people from ‘the nations’ is no longer news. More than 10 per cent of our population was born overseas and immigrant workers (and the children born to them while here) are predicted to fuel a 15 per cent population increase over the next two decades as we nudge towards 75 million. A quick walk down most high streets will quickly put faces to the stats.
Something else that is self-evident is that we all want our churches to be welcoming places. Our church noticeboards trumpet that desire; ‘All Welcome!’ But just how welcome do people from other countries actually feel, and how can we do our best to ensure our embrace is genuine and warm?
In his book, Distinctly Welcoming, Richard Sudworth lists several top tips to ensure a Christian welcome that crosses cultures effectively. They include things to do on Sundays, such as ensuring that diversity is displayed visibly, including other cultural styles in worship, promoting a global perspective and working towards diverse leadership. But I think the most important of his recommendations describe church life not during, but between Sunday meetings.
That is to say, the strength of the church as community 24/7.
Sudworth warns us against thinking that we can concentrate our welcome into a couple of hours on a Sunday morning and maybe a midweek meeting. For someone coming to the UK from a collective culture (as opposed to an individualistic culture) and perhaps coming to faith from another religious background, a meetings based approach is inadequate:
'As Christians, we are very good at challenging people from other faiths to make a decision for Christ: to leave all and follow him. .... those from other faiths often genuinely leave all behind them: families, friends and culture. What they often receive in return is a Sunday morning meeting! It's a poor trade-off because many of our other faith neighbours come from deeply interwoven and supporting communities.' 
Incidentally, if you want to know how it feels to enter a Christian worship service and feel all at sea, all you need do is show up unannounced at a local Mandarin, Amharic or Farsi service. Sit through it feeling lost and uncomfortable. Then you’ll get some pretty concrete ideas about how to welcome internationals to your church.
More sharply focused on the communal aspects of church life, among other things, Sudworth recommends the following (paraphrased):
- Lose the British reserve – teach your established members that British reserve may come across as coldness. As well as cultural learning, cultural unlearning is also important.
- Don't be over-sensitive – be culturally aware but don’t get frozen in the headlights. Don’t take yourselves too seriously, relax and, as misunderstandings crop up, enjoy laughing at yourselves.
- Genuine pastoral care – don’t just say you’ll pray for people but get involved in each other’s lives more and help each other out.
- Warm church community – foster a loving community feel, where people know that they are loved, valued and cared for.
Don’t see this as one way, but let love and kindness flow both ways, as your internationals also have lots to offer.
I want to argue that hospitality and the use of our homes is key to this last point, and indeed zigzags across all these points.
But hold on! Isn’t this article supposed to be about making church more welcome? Not our homes! Can’t we just do this welcome thing when on the welcome desk and officially ‘on duty’? Apparently not. Anyway, you can be hospitable at church as well as at home.
The Greek word for hospitality, philoxenos (φιλoξενος) literally means ‘love of stranger.’ Think of that word the other way around, substitute phobos for philos and you have xenophobia. We all know what that means, and hospitality seems to be the opposite.
Hospitality is clearly commanded for all believers in the New Testament at least three times:
- Pursue hospitality … it requires effort (Romans 12:13)
- Practise hospitality … it sometimes makes us grumble (1 Peter 4:9)
- Don’t neglect hospitality … your guests might be angels (Hebrews 13:1-2).
Far from an optional extra, or a spiritual gift for those so blessed, hospitality is, to quote Rosaria Butterfield, the 'ground zero of the Christian life'. She goes on to describe inhospitably as ‘violence’. Some of the worst scenes in the Old Testament are characterised by inhospitality. Think of the contrast between Abraham and Sarah’s generous hospitality in Genesis 18 with Sodom’s inhospitality in Genesis 19. Hospitality is an outward movement towards the stranger, giving and filling, inhospitality is a selfish sucking dry.
But the main reason Christians should be hospitable is because God has been, and goes on being, hospitable to us. We love because he first loved us. God’s super-abundant hospitality to us, his welcome and embrace, is demonstrated most powerfully in the salvation he provided through his Son, who welcomes us to his table, which overflows with delights. We remember this saving act in a shared meal - who’d have expected that? Our future hope centres around a heavenly feast (Rev 19:9). Why is shared food on the table always so prominent in the Bible?!
In A Meal with Jesus, Tim Chester comments that The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost, yes, (Luke 19:10), to serve, yes, (Mark 10:45) but the thing that got him a reputation as a ‘glutton and drunkard’ (Luke 7:34) was that he also came ‘eating and drinking.’
Citing another author, in Luke’s Gospel; Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal or coming from a meal! Chester counts at least nine occasions in Luke where important spiritual business happens around the meal table. Think of what went on at Levi’s house (Luke 5), Simeon’s house (Luke 7), Mary and Martha’s house (Luke 10), Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 19), in the upper room (Luke 22) and on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24). Life changing gospel encounters, all happening around tables laid simply with food and drink.
We all instinctively know when people are showing us warmth, welcome, and a hospitable embrace. It’s transparent. When you’ve known that feeling, what was it about that hospitality that made you feel loved? What was it that made you feel comfortable? What was it that made you feel at home? What made you feel welcome? Sunday services?
Yes, by all means, let’s make them as accessible and inclusive as possible for people from other parts of the world. But let’s not stop when the music of the final hymn fades away. Because what happens next may be far more important.
So tear up some of your rotas. Eat together in the church hall after services, talk and relax. Visit people in their homes during the week and take a small welcome gift. Invite them to your home and show them simple, welcoming hospitality. Listen to their stories and tell them yours. Philoxenos is powerful medicine.
David Baldwin is the CEO of 2:19 Teach to Reach, which aims to help churches connect with the international communities around them through English conversation classes. He is also the Global Missions Director, Oak Hill College
2:19 is hosting an English teaching and outreach forum on 7 October at Hillfields Church in Coventry.
More information and bookings at twonineteen.org.uk/forum
"We would heartily commend 2:19 to others thinking about launching a similar project. There are real openings out there for churches (however small numerically) to buy into. You don’t need a lot of faith – Jesus told us ‘mustard seed faith’ was enough (Matthew 17:20) – but partnership with others (rather than dogged independence) is essential." The Revd James P Binney BA MTh MPhil, Abbey Baptist Church, Reading
 J.D. Payne, Strangers Next Door, Immigration, Migration and Mission (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 92.
 Richard, Sudworth, Distinctly Welcoming, Christian Presence in a Multi-Faith Society (Bletchley: Scripture Union, 2007), 123ff.
 Sudworth, Distinctly Welcoming, 124
 You might also consider the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:37-40), the qualifications for church eldership (1 Timothy 3:1-7) and the qualifications for getting widows’ aid (1 Timothy 5:9-10).
 Rosaria Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in our Post-Christian World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 115.
Image | Mark Stuckey | Creationswap
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