There are lots of new experiences for our family here in Visalia, and one of them reminded me very much just how unaware and confused we can be when navigating unfamiliar territory. I once lived in a town where I could pull up to a small food truck and be handed my exact order, with a smile, and occasionally a freebie, because I had a great relationship with the owner and workers. They knew when I was coming and knew my vehicle; I knew where to go, and what I liked. We had a very opposite experience here in Visalia.
I have to preface this story by sharing how I joked with my son, so you know that I did correct it. Just a few days ago, we were picking up something that will eventually be a neat tool for ministry… but that’s another story. After we exited our store, I spotted Panda Express, and pointed it out to my son, a notoriously picky eater. I asked him to name the animal, and he couldn’t remember at first. After helping him to identify their mascot as a panda, I asked, “want to see what panda tastes like?”
“NO!” the predictable response came from Avery Joe, with an extra dose of confusion. Why would anyone eat a panda? My son didn’t know that pandas are endangered, nor that Panda Express served Chinese food. He was very unaware of what the place was at all. Don’t worry. I did explain it to him, but I got a laugh out of it. Today (the day I am writing this), I met Heather and Leliana there to eat lunch. I had eaten at a Panda Express while on a ministry training trip years ago, and could barely remember what it was like other than that I had loved the taste of what I had eaten. We had never lived in a town with one. Heather was confused on how or what to order. We came in at an angle that completely blocked the menu from our sight, and I wasn’t much help. We allowed someone to go in front of us who knew what he wanted, because we needed a little extra time to figure out what was going on. We ended up going through the line, having some good food, and laughing at my daughter declaring that their mascot was a “naked teddy bear.” The whole situation has more in common with the church-going experience than what we might think.
For a large portion of us — perhaps most of us — church attendance has been a regular part of our life. Many of you have been attending First Christian Church for years, and in some cases, decades. You are much more like the person behind us at Panda Express, or my relationship with that little food truck more than five years ago. You know the terminology, know the items on the menu, maybe the person behind the counter, and can go through the process smoothly without much help or direction.
God’s word certainly isn’t a pick and choose style restaurant, but I do of course hope that you eat much spiritual food. The similarity I see here is not in how we order, but instead in how people become familiar with routines and respond to new situations. We can quickly take for granted those first steps of identifying important info, and we can easily forget the feeling of anxiety that new places and new situations can bring.
As we continue to Organically Outreach into our community, not only is it likely, but it should be our deeply held desire to see new souls come through our front doors. Some will have some church experience, perhaps similar, perhaps very different than the way we do things here; others will have none. The Bible has a lot to say about hospitality. One very memorable section from Hebrews says this, “Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:1-2 NASB)
I am thankful for your hospitality and the love that you have shown to me and to my family as your incoming pastor. I have seen amazing friendliness and love within the body, and I am excited to partner with you in Organic Outreach. In the spirit of furthering that goal, I have a challenge for us (me included). Some Sunday morning this month, try to put yourself in the place of a visitor or guest. How easy would it be for them to find where they need to go? Their kids? What about for a first-time church attender? How nervous might they be? What might they want to know before they ever get here? How well are we welcoming them? Are we patient enough with them as they figure things out? What things might we miss around church, simply because we are used to them? As you reflect on that, please pray with me, that we as a body will be blessed and guided by God to go from outreach… to welcoming… to active discipleship… always increasing in effectiveness in bringing glory to God at every step. If God puts something specific on your heart, let’s talk.
Originally printed in the October FCC Newsletter