1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear Him. 2 But the Pharisees and the experts in the law were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Luke 15:1, 2 (NET)
Though the religious “experts” grumbled this complaint as a put-down and even accusation against Jesus, their words capture the very reason why it was so easy for sinners to come to Jesus in the first place — to hear Jesus, know Jesus, and eventually follow Jesus. The Son of God welcomed sinners. He made them feel at home. It wasn’t because He was cool or trendy (in fact, Jesus was definitely un-cool relative to the standards of the spiritual elite in His day.)
No, it was because Jesus was relationally invested and sought to cultivate community as a safe environment for others to experience conversion.
The new cool
In a recent study of growing churches in America and what makes them effective — specifically what makes them effective in connecting with younger generations — one of the overwhelming conclusions reached was that relational warmth is a stronger predictor of church health than program appeal. Respondents described these leading churches not in terms of how hip or cool they were but rather in terms of how these churches made them feel “like family.” Kara Powell of Fuller Theological University summed it up this way:
…what we learned from young people is that warm is the new cool. Experiencing a welcoming community that’s like a family turns out to matter more.
It matters more. This isn’t an excuse to settle for less than excellent programs and ministries, but it does remind us that the excellence of our programs and ministries have little value if they’re void of warmth and meaningful relationship-building. Based on my limited observation and the few responses to our last post, I would submit this is true not just for a young person but for a new believer, a lifer, a seeker, a sinner (did I miss anyone?).
So what can we do about that? How do churches and disciples of Jesus go about generating relational warmth for those who feel like they’re outsiders to our circles of community?
5 Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. 6 Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.
Colossians 4:5, 6 (NKJV)
In a few short sentences, I believe Paul pins down a trio of best practices that would move any church toward becoming a place where outsiders can soon feel like family:
Walk in wisdom — We must not assume we’re doing just fine in relation to outsiders. That’s how fools think! To really walk in wisdom toward those who don’t feel like they’re on the inside of heartfelt community starts with having the humility to acknowledge that maybe there are ways we can improve. That humility should lead us to 1) take time to actually think about what we say and do, or what we don’t say and do to outsiders; 2) consider what that might look/sound/feel like to someone who is not like us; 3) evaluate and identify what can actually be done differently, and 4) have the courage and compassion to actually make changes when welcoming wisdom calls for it.
Redeem the time, make the most of every opportunity (NIV) — Be swift! When there are opportunities to extend relational warmth to an outsider, we’ve got to be Johnny on the spot. When we’re in a worship gathering or engaging a community outreach, I have to overcome the mental assumption that I’ll have time to connect or approach an outsider later on. All too often, I end up missing my chance. Wal-Mart’s customer service training instructs greeters on the “10-foot Rule” — i.e. to engage anyone within a 10 foot radius with a smile, welcome, or “how can I help you?” Why should Wal-Mart have a corner market on redeeming the time when Paul instructed us about this millennia ago? Let’s not wait for opportunities to connect but instead take the initiative to be an outsider’s first impression!
Speak graciously — I think Paul is encouraging believers to listen for the questions outsiders may be asking. I’ll admit that, because of my firm convictions and beliefs about Scripture, I tend to start with what I know to be true and assume that others around me are asking questions…or should be asking those questions. But that doesn’t lend itself to speaking graciously. Gracious speech, seasoned with salt, will fall on the hearts of hearers as a healing balm or a satisfying meal that just hits the spot. When we listen first and speak after, we can share answers of truth that address the felt needs of outsiders God brings to our relational circles. Can I add one more dynamic of gracious, salt-seasoned speech? When we truly desire to speak graciously to outsiders, we’ll avoid insider language that reinforces the outsider perception. It’s never comfortable being around friends who are laughing about an “inside joke” I have no clue about. If we’re going to walk in wisdom toward outsiders, we ought to think critically about our church environments — the lobby, the class or small group, the worship gathering — and whether our expressions or religious jargon inadvertently create barriers. This doesn’t mean we cover up our distinct values and beliefs, but it does mean that we share about them without assuming too much from those who may be hearing them for the first time. Whether from the pulpit or the pew, let’s speak gracious words that add value and subtract differences/outsider-ness.