Fifteen years ago, when we were new to Lincoln, my husband and I tried out a few churches before eventually settling on a largish congregation in town, namely because it was big enough for me to get lost in the crowd. After all, I wasn’t exactly a model church-goer. I wasn’t even sure I believed in God. Stepping across a church threshold after a twenty-year hiatus was a big enough step for me.
Early on we attended a new member orientation. The class went smoothly, and I was tentatively interested and encouraged, but then, just as I was gathering my purse and coat, the pastor suggested we all sing “Jesus Loves Me” to close out the class.
Right on cue, twenty brand-new members joined him, singing lyrics as familiar and comforting to them as their favorite childhood stuffed animal.
I didn’t know the song. Raised Catholic, I wasn’t familiar with the traditional Protestant tune, although clearly, as everyone around me belted out the lyrics, I was the only one who didn’t recognize it. I noticed my husband, who was raised Lutheran, was singing right along with everyone else.
Meanwhile I stood with my purse and coat clutched in my hands, soundlessly moving my lips, feeling like an imposter and an outsider.
It’s a bit of a silly example – it’s just a children’s Sunday School song, after all – but I actually think my “Jesus Loves Me” experience is a good metaphor for how a lot of people feel about Christianity. From where they’re standing, the Church looks like a members-only club, a tight, exclusive circle with little accommodation for those who don’t speak “the right language.” They assume it’s not for them, that they won’t fit in.
The very words we use so casually and confidently may fit us like a pair of well-worn slippers, but they often signal to others that they don’t belong.
As Christians, we can do better than this. We need to do better than this.
I recently saw something I’ve never noticed before about a passage in the Book of Acts. When the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples with a mighty roar and flames of fire, the disciples began to speak not in their own native tongue but in dozens of foreign languages.
And not in just any random foreign languages, but specifically in the native languages of the outsiders, the “devout Jews from every nation” who were now living in Jerusalem.
God didn’t have the disciples speak Hebrew, their own, familiar, comfortable language, but the languages of the other — Arabic, Medean and Elamite (ancient forms of Persian), Aramaic, Greek, and Phrygian (a form of ancient Greek) — in order that these outsiders, who were unfamiliar with Christianity, would feel embraced and welcomed into the family of Christ. When they heard, in their familiar, native languages, about “the wonderful things God has done,” the outsiders “came running,” intrigued and amazed.
I keep coming back to that scene in Acts. I like to imagine the cacophony, all those voices, all those different languages woven into dozens of beautifully unique invitations. I like to imagine the eagerness and anticipation of the people who heard those words, the warmth and sense of welcome they felt upon receiving those invitations.
The Holy Spirit gave the disciples a spacious, inviting vision of Christianity. Two thousand years later, that inclusive hospitality is still a beautiful model for us to emulate and live out today.