Strangers in a Small Church.

"Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and [a]the alien who is in your [b]town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law." Deuteronomy 31:12

 It's been a little over a week since the horrific shootings in Charleston. Dylan Roof opened fire after Bible study, killing 9 people. The shooting was no doubt racially motivated, and much ink has been spilt over diagnosing the causes, cures, and more of racism in our country.

One particular commentator I heard on NPR made sure to mention that as an African-American church, Emmanuel AME was welcoming to all who came through her doors. In fact, the commentator continued, an African American walking into a historically white church would not receive the same open arms that Dylan Roof did at Emmanuel. I was unable to glean the name of commentator, but I do know that I disagree with that statement, at least in part.

I want to approach the shooting from a different perspective, from that of a small church. I don't know the attendance normally at Emmanuel AME, but the small group there on that Wednesday night puts them in the average as far as churches are concerned across the country, no matter the denomination. I myself pastor a small church in rural community, filled with other small churches. At most (all?) of the churches in our community, it's not uncommon to have groups of under twenty in attendance at services not on Sunday morning. I have been a part of services when a stranger walks into the church, and no doubt they attract attention. Not because of race or gender, but because there is someone new there! Anyone who is not a "usual" stands out in small group, no matter if we are meeting in the sanctuary, downstairs in the basement, or somewhere else, you cannot help but notice someone new. Roof has stated that he almost couldn't go through with the shooting because everyone there was so nice to him, and I bet that he would have the same welcome at many small churches throughout the country, regardless of denomination, race, or gender.

In light of the shooting, many have urged churches to re evaluate their security procedures, to train responders, to look out for "suspicious people." But what is a church community to do when a stranger walks into a small group? Pat them down? Install metal detectors? Make Wednesday Bible Study a "members only" event? The very nature and mission of a church is for it to be welcoming and opening to anyone who walks through the door. The very nature of a church is even to put itself at risk in order to accomplish it's mission: loving our neighbor as ourselves.

I freely admit taking note of different people in service, particularly because of such events as the Charleston shooting. But what are we to do, church? Close our doors? If we want to reach the community, we will be at risk every time the doors are open. My church sits right on a major highway, and we always get  people passing through town on way to somewhere else. I remember one particular event, a large (large) cowboy of man walked in to our Wednesday night service after we had already served meal and were about to start Bible study. In a small community we know "of" everyone, it seems at least. But this man was a complete stranger. He stayed for study in our small group of twenty or so. We talked afterwards and I heard his story, of passing through from Alabama to Wisconsin to Texas looking for work. I gave him some meal money, prayed with him, and he moved on. When he walked in our service I had no idea his purpose or mission in coming, but we did what Christ command us to do. Welcome him in the name of the Lord.

By all means use wisdom and take precautions in your church.  But when a stranger comes in your church, we have no other option but to welcome them. It's what God commands of us. We must not stop there though, we must love them as ourselves, and work to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all who will listen.


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