It was one of the worst fights I had ever had with a friend but, in retrospect, it was also the funniest. Back in the fall of 2011, a fellow seminarian and I were attempting to find a church together. I don’t even remember what our argument that morning had been about, but our conversation was tense and heated as we walked through the doors of Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Durham. Within seconds, we were welcomed by a greeter, so we paused our argument long enough to don plastic smiles and say how glad we were to be there. Returning to our argument, we grumbled the whole way to our seats, but within seconds of sitting down, we were greeted by a friendly small group leader. The corners of our mouths again jerked upward as this leader invited us to an activity the next weekend. We exchanged email addresses and thanked her for her hospitality. Immediately after her departure, we were back to our debate, but we had resorted to passing angry notes since we now had friendly church members all around us. It was a huge frustration having to put our argument on hold every few seconds, but we also couldn’t help but laugh at the whole thing: a petty dispute was being constantly interrupted by genuine, Spirit-led hospitality from a loving body of our sisters and brothers (at least two of whom sent us follow-up emails later that week). It was one of the most annoying and beautiful outpourings of hospitality I’ve ever seen from a congregation, and even though I wound up attending at another friend’s church instead, that group of Methodists still holds a special place in my heart.
Every time we discuss hospitality and evangelism here at Bayshore, I can’t help but think back to that experience and how a group of Christians defused a fight by being obnoxiously welcoming. They repeatedly violated our personal bubbles that morning and unapologetically invited us into their church with every conversation and email. The more I think on it, the more I am convinced that this is exactly what God calls us to do when new people worship with us.
I can find no mention of privacy and personal space in the Bible, and my suspicion is that these concepts are largely the invention of our own individualistic and superficial culture. After all, Jesus had this annoying habit of talking to anyone who approached him, dining with anyone who invited him, and never ever minding his own business. In fact, a quick glance through the gospels shows that violating people’s personal bubbles and breaking down societal walls was kind of his thing. Jesus had the guts to ask people about their business dealings, the states of their marriages, and all sorts of other embarrassing things that civilized people don’t discuss– and all on his first time meeting them! With his example in mind, it seems that “respecting personal space” just isn’t a Christian virtue.
While it might be silent about personal space, the Bible does have a lot to say about showing hospitality to strangers and looking after one another. In Genesis, Abraham’s righteousness is defined by his treatment of visitors, and throughout the New Testament, the early church’s hospitality and care for one another are constantly praised and encouraged. In the early church, we see a body of believers so intertwined that they live together and hold all possessions in common, constantly supporting one another and heartily welcoming others into their fold. In the face of that, a slightly over-the-top welcome or a simple phone call to say “We missed you last Sunday. How are you?” really doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, so maybe we should approach these with even more zeal and cast away the concern of respecting space.
Nowhere in Scripture is obnoxiousness listed as a sin, so let’s not let it scare us. If you haven’t seen someone at church in a few weeks, give them a call; maybe they’re going through some sort of personal difficulty and could use the support of a Christian friend. If someone is attending worship or Sunday School or small group for the first time, extend an extra welcome and invite them out for lunch, exchange emails, touch base later in the week, or do anything else that comes to mind to let them know they are welcome. As a church, it’s part of our job to look after people and make them feel welcome, and I’d rather we fulfill our duty and get on someone’s nerves than be respectful and let someone slip through the cracks.
So go, and be obnoxious.
Grace and Peace,