Saviour of men, thy searching eye
Doth all mine inmost thoughts descry;
Doth aught on earth my wishes raise,
Or the world’s pleasures, or its praise?
The love of Christ doth me constrain
To seek the wandering souls of men;
With cries, entreaties, tears, to save,
To snatch them from the gaping grave. — Translated by John Wesley.
Shepherd of souls, with pitying eye
The thousands of our Israel see;
To thee in their behalf we cry,
Ourselves but newly found in thee.
See where o’er desert wastes they err,
And neither food nor feeder have,
Nor fold, nor place of refuge near,
For no man cares their souls to save. — Charles Wesley.
I was a stranger, and ye took me in. — Matthew 25:35
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. — Hebrews 13:2
NEGLECT of this duty is nearly universal in our churches. What is everybody’s business is nobody’s business, and as this duty is common to all, it is neglected by all. This growing habit—and terrible—of going into a church or coming out of the church without effort to notice the strangers within the gates is most earnestly condemned. Men shake hands and speak with men they see every day of the week, and women talk to women the very same. Still, the casual visitor, the newcomer, is overlooked, if not ignored.
A case probably repeated in a thousand churches last Sunday: A well-dressed woman and two fine, first-class young men went to the morning service of one of our largest and most popular churches. After some time spent waiting for the usher, they were shown into a good pew, the sixth from the pulpit; in fact, as good a pew as there was in the church was placed at their entire disposal. At the close of the service, they slowly and quietly left the pew, entered the aisle, and walked unmolested the whole length of the aisle, out into the vestibule, lingered for a little by the outer door, and then took their departure for their home, and from first to last no one had reached out to them the friendly hand, or said “Good morning,” or “We are glad to see you here, and will be glad to see you again.”
The only word spoken to them was “Seats?” by the usher, and when his question was answered with “If you please,” the whole sociability of the occasion was exhausted. The visiting trio escaped to the sunshine of the street, feeling great relief from the utter formality and coldness of the worshiping congregation where they had attended service. The most singular thing is that in the auditorium every morning, at the close of worship, a large class of young men, a Sunday school department, assembles to study the lesson for the day. Many of the young men are members of the church and the Epworth League. Probably fifty or more of them were in the church. Yet, they let two excellent young strangers come and go. In all the company, there was not a young man with business tact and Christian fraternity enough to welcome the two visitors, who were not boys but tall, conspicuous young men, nor invite them to join the Sunday school class. How many times the experiment could be repeated is uncertain, but very likely, from the sample, an indefinite number.
It does not infrequently happen that in neglecting strangers, we throw away, or miss securing, those who would greatly benefit our cause and our Church in the future.
Years ago, the son of a devoted Methodist mother left his country home to make his fortune in the city of Boston. His mother was impoverished and a widow. The boy had been most carefully trained, was a converted boy, was a church member, and had the promise of great usefulness. He had always lived in the country, was timid, shy, and retiring in his nature, and all the more so under the changed conditions of city life. On the first Sunday in the city, he sought a Methodist church, as his mother had suggested. Doubtless, his clothes were not primarily fine. He was just a poor country boy and not especially attractive in his appearance, the result of all of which was that he waited a long time for a seat. Then the janitor, or sexton, dropped him into the back seat of all, under the shadow of the gallery. After the benediction, he departed, and no word had been spoken to him by man, woman, or child. The orphan boy, commencing a struggle for life, was completely overlooked. No one cared for his soul or body either. This experience continued for seven successive Sundays. In complete desperation, absolutely frozen out of this Methodist church, it occurred to him that he would drop into a Baptist church that he had passed every Sunday morning as he had been going to his own. Scarcely was he inside the door before a genial, warm-hearted usher took him by the hand and, in the pleasantest way, said, “Good morning. You haven’t been long in the city. Glad to see you out to church so early. I hope you will keep up the good habit. Let me give you a good seat now, and every morning look for me, and I will see you are well taken care of. By the way, we want you in our Sunday school; what is your name, and where do you board?’ Down went the young man’s name and address in a little book, and he was shown into a nice seat, and the young man from that day on was a Baptist. In the final event, he became a very prosperous merchant, an enthusiastic Baptist, and one of the Baptist Church’s most efficient church and Sunday school workers in Massachusetts. The Baptist usher was wise. The Methodist, in this case, was exceedingly foolish.
The unthinkable carelessness, indifference, not to say stupidity of many of our people concerning looking out for strangers is so common that illustrations multiply on every hand. Long years ago, as a college student, I had to spend a Sunday in one of the larger towns on the Hudson River, not very far above New York City. Going to the Methodist church in good season, I lingered a long while in the vestibule, waiting for the usher to show me a seat. Still, he and the in-going people were oblivious to my presence, so I finally walked in and helped myself to a seat, where the cushions did not appear to be much used. As the case turned out, I had the whole pew, the fourth from the pulpit to myself. At the close of the service, a class meeting was announced. While the congregation dispersed, I remained in my pew, while those who remained to attend the class meeting gathered in the front pews. The preacher led the class, speaking to each one in turn. While I was not twenty feet away from him, he ignored my presence and concluded the meeting. Then, the people arose to take their leave with no little chattering, handshaking, and general sociability. Then the idea came to me that I would test their style of fraternity, and so passing down the aisle to the outer door, the only one that was open, I took my stand on the threshold in such a way that no man or woman could pass out without coming near enough to touch me with the extended elbow, and there I remained till preacher. All had passed out, busy with themselves — and their gossip, and not one in all the number had noticed me, much less had spoken to me, until at last, while I was meditating upon the event, the janitor came along and shut and locked the door while I was standing close to the threshold, and, like the others, he was so taken up with his thoughts or business that he uttered not a word. Why will people persist in doing such things and so turn away from the house of God hungry people, who might be won for Christ and much service by a warm handshake, a kind word, and some little attention that real Christian love would naturally incite and prompt?
Every church member needs a feeling of personal responsibility to look after strangers and see that no one comes within reach without a cordial welcome and an invitation to come again. Especially the young people drifting into our churches ought to be cared for most constantly and lovingly so that we may turn them not only to our membership but also to win them from those influences and associations that are so abundant, enticing, and destructive.
It is surprising how many years good people can go to the same church and not know each other. In our larger city churches, those who sit on one side of the church may be as much strangers to those who sit on the other side as though they do not belong to the same congregation. It is also true that in some of our churches, strangers may drop in occasionally, never hear a word of welcome, and never receive an invitation to come again. There is a particular danger in this respect concerning young people and strangers in humble life who frequent our churches.
There should be a radical change in many of our places of worship concerning the treatment of strangers. First of all, the pastor should set the example of friendly sociability. Let him learn the happy art of greeting strangers kindly and shaking hands with them genially and courteously. He need not gush; he ought not to do so—but he can be really and genuinely interested and should treat the poor and the rich with equal consideration.
If this is the pastor’s duty, is it the duty of the people? Whether young or old, every church member should feel a personal responsibility for “the strangers within the gates.” How many hearts would be cheered by a kind word! A lonesome feeling fills the heart when away from home. This is true in the case of the one who enters a house of worship for the first time where all is unfamiliar, and all faces are strange. Why do not all Christian people watch for such and take the pains to speak to them, find out their names and their residences, and then call on them and ask the pastor to do the same? Our American people are nomadic. They are forever going about from one end of the country to the other. They are in danger of becoming strangers in a strange land. They must be noticed and cared for when they come into our churches. Let every church member do their duty; there will no longer be cause for complaint. We plead for more friendliness and more sociability in all our congregations. This is one of the sure ways to fill our houses of worship and build up enduring congregations.
By Bishop W. F. Mallalieu
Updated 2023 Nathan Zipfel