At a recent life group meeting the following question was posed. Do you think our church is friendly? The question arose because a first-time visitor had commented that they did not find our church to be very friendly. After some discussion, we seem to reach a general conclusion that we are, in fact, a friendly congregation. It felt good to be affirmed about being a friendly church.
How then do we reconcile the visitor’s experience with our conclusion? Easy enough…
She was probably not very approachable.. She may have left immediately after services before anyone had a chance to engage her… She didn’t speak to anyone… et al. More significantly she was a stranger.
It only takes a cursory observation of the foyer to see how friendly we are. People are everywhere, warmly greeting and talking with one another. A closer look reveals that our friendliness is mostly directed to people we know. Yes we are friendly. That sort of interaction is what we have in mind when we declare that we are friendly. One author would describe the foyer scene as “The Territory of Our Kindness”
The Territory of Our Kindness
The walls we have to tear down to make room for each other are rarely physical. The walls that separate us are mostly psychological. Feelings are what exclude people from our friendship and dinner table: ignoring versus noticing, suspicion versus trust, exclusion versus embrace.
To describe how our affections carve up the world into friends versus strangers, the ethicist Peter Singer uses an idea he calls “the moral circle.” A moral circle is created by a simple two-step process. First, we identify our tribe. We make a distinction between friends and strangers. We locate our family, friends, peeps, and BFFs. Everyone in this group is inside my moral circle. Everyone else is a stranger. So that’s step one: make a distinction between friend and stranger, between insider and outsider. The second step is this: extend kindness toward those on the inside of your moral circle. Consider the roots of the word kindness—kin and kind. Kindness is the feeling I extend toward my kin (my tribe, my people, my friends), toward those who are the same kind of people as me. Our affections are for sameness—like attracted to like, as Aristotle noticed millennia ago. We’re drawn toward the similar and the familiar. We care and look out for “our kind.” There is goodness in this dynamic—our love for family and friends, our loyalty to our tribe and “our people”—but there is also much darkness. The moral circle highlights our natural tendency to restrict our kindness to the few rather than to the many, limiting our ability to see or notice the stranger, let alone welcome him or her. Because the walls that separate us begin with our emotions, only a few people are admitted into the circle of our affections, the circumference of our care. [*]
Perhaps the better question is: “Are we hospitable?” Being friendly is not the same as being hospitable.
… hospitality — welcoming God in strangers and seeing Jesus in disguise — begins by widening the circle of our affections , the circumference of our care , the arena of our compassion , and the territory of our kindness.
We make room for each other because God made room for us . “ Welcome one another , ” Paul says in Romans 15 : 7 ( NRSV ) , “ as Christ has welcomed you . ”
Hospitality is expanding the moral circle to make room in our hearts for each other .
Beck, Richard. Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise (p. 9). Fortress Press.