Ecclesial Social Engineering, Old First E-pistle 07.15.16

Ecclesial Social Engineering, Old First E-pistle 07.15.16

With all the pain in our nation and the world these days, don’t we wish the church could pull off some powerful social engineering… rearranging power and relationships and resources — not to mention understandings and attitudes — to make this world a better, safer place? In the face of deadly racial discrimination, debilitating cultural wars and paralyzing political polarization, with so much injustice and violence, mustn’t the church find a way to effectively promote the change that can curtail so much harm and hurt? Shouldn’t the church — at least — be one of multiple voices advocating hope, compassion, communication, justice and peace?

As the fence signs that Roxanna help us create go up this week to amplify the “Be the Church” banners on the corner of 4th and Race Streets, may people passing by begin to understand the church’s real agenda:

to embrace diversity,
fight for the powerless,
protect the environment,
reject racism,
care for the poor,
share earthly and spiritual resources,
forgive often,
love God,
enjoy this life,
give God a hand.

As you come to church this weekend, walk along the front fence to check them out for yourself, even say a little prayer that they might open the eyes of people to a new understanding of what church is about, and what we offer. And that we might remember too.

I wish the ecclesial social engineering I am writing about in this E-pistle were an action plan for the church offering leadership in the macro-crises of these days, “for the living of this hour,” to quote Fosdick’s great hymn. But, sadly, I’m speaking to… settling for a much humbler micro-suggestion.

Where I worshiped last week, St. Stephen’s Bethlehem UCC in Williamsville, NY, at the beginning of the worship, they introduced or reinforced (I’m not sure which!) a cultural shift that the congregation is being asked to undertake; in a memorable shorthand, it’s called “a 5-10-link”…a commitment to an intentionality about hospitality and welcoming the stranger that seems to originate from the United Methodist Church in North Texas.

But hospitality as a practice of faith goes back much further. Ancient Mediterranean hospitality customs were a widespread measure of ‘civilization’ across the region even before biblical times. Not surprisingly then, we find hospitality as a standard throughout the biblical teachings and texts, for example, both of our scripture readings for this coming Sunday, Genesis 18:1-10a and Luke 10:38-42. The test was simple: were hosts hospitable or inhospitable to strangers who showed up on their doorsteps?

The New Testament’s social ethic provides a solid foundation for Christian habits and practices both within the community (we have unlimited responsibilities to fellow believers) and within the world (we are called to provide Christian hospitality to those unlike us in nationality, faith, or ethnicity and assistance to those in immediate crisis). Christians are called to extend hospitality to fellow believers and non-believers alike. Such hospitality is an active, personal, even intimate engagement. There is a high degree of vulnerability asked by such hospitality — particularly in the settings of the tribal ancient near east, but today also.

Hospitality is much more than “making room for:” we are not called simply to “tolerate” or “endure” those who feel like they wandered into “our space.” Rather it is a spiritual challenge for us offer and to open ourselves to those needing hospitality. To make our space their space. The Genesis passage for this Sunday is clear: the ultimate blessing is not the welcome and meal the visitors are offered, but what the host receives from the guest(s), no less than a blessing from God.

The 5-10-link is a practice meant to transform local churches and their people — rehabituating us to make us more deliberate and outward looking. It’s so easy to gravitate to those whom you know, are comfortable with, already consider friends. We ‘circle up’ at church and unintentionally close off our wagons to the outsiders. It’s not that we mean to fail to welcome the new folks who show up at church. Rather, we just get so caught up in catching up with those we you already know…

The 5-10-link “programatizes” a response that might be different from what we do unaided:

5 — Refers to Time
Fellowship and visiting with friends is so important for a church community. You still have time for that, but first, 5 minutes before the service and 5 minutes after it ends, meet someone you don’t know.

10 — Refers to Space
Even if you are with a group of friends, when someone you don’t know comes within 10 feet of you, reach out to them and invite them into your group.

Link — Refers to Passing on Connections
Once you have met someone new, before leaving them, introduce them to someone else, someone you think they might have an affinity with.

Ok, I admit it felt a bit funny sitting in worship while they introduced this needed discipline — it left me wondering if the people who had welcomed me so graciously were truly wanting to or just the obedient ones following the community’s new rule! But I also thought about how such an almost “memnonic device” for remembering to engage new folks could make Old First’s welcome more of a sure thing… I’m not suggesting we adopt this spiritual guideline right now; but I’d like to ask those who are interested to try it out, and let me know.

Back on the macro level, it also occurs to me: this might offer some suggestion for how to act in the larger public sphere too, what with all the troubles our world is presenting these days.

What if, as Christians, we remember that our first movement is to be empathically towards the ones we recognize as different and unknown (for haven’t we also know what it is like to be a stranger?).

What if, as Christians, we commit to trying to bring those we encounter into relationship with the communities we call home, and what if we covenant to linking people up in new and supportive ways.

Doesn’t that sound like church? Isn’t that what being a Christian is about? It might not change everything, because we often can’t do that. But it would offer us a creative response in the face of misunderstanding, division, alienation, separation and hurt.

See you in church,


P.S. For the sermon, I will be talking about Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), but not so much about the hospitality aspect as about how faith gives us fuel for service.