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The lost art of welcoming the stranger

The 'Order of Saint Benedict' is a Roman Catholic religious order of independent monastic communities that observe the Rule of St. Benedict. The Order traces its roots to St Benedict of Nursia who established an order of Christian monastics in about 529AD. Hospitality – welcoming the stranger – is one of the key components of the Benedictine lifestyle. According to the Order, there is no Benedictine spirituality without the welcoming of guests. Historically, Benedictine hospitality protected people from the dangers of travelling alone in earlier times when there was a lack of safe and cheap shelters. Benedictine monasteries saved the lives of many travellers when they opened their doors to strangers.

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 [1]. 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.

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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.

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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.

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How important is friendliness? The rule of the Benedictines is certainly a call to action, but here is our model:

138:3.8 Jesus and the apostles remained that night in Matthew’s house, and as the people went to their homes, they spoke of but one thing: the goodness and friendliness of Jesus.

171:7.1 Jesus spread good cheer everywhere he went. He was full of grace and truth. His associates never ceased to wonder at the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth. You can cultivate gracefulness, but graciousness is the aroma of friendliness which emanates from a love-saturated soul.

And here is our mandate:

180:5.12 And all this clearly indicates the difference between the old religion and the new. The old religion taught self-sacrifice; the new religion teaches only self-forgetfulness, enhanced self-realization in conjoined social service and universe comprehension. The old religion was motivated by fear-consciousness; the new gospel of the kingdom is dominated by truth-conviction, the spirit of eternal and universal truth. And no amount of piety or creedal loyalty can compensate for the absence in the life experience of kingdom believers of that spontaneous, generous, and sincere friendliness which characterizes the spirit-born sons of the living God. Neither tradition nor a ceremonial system of formal worship can atone for the lack of genuine compassion for one’s fellows.

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