When I was a teenager, I was odd and awkward. The kids at my church were very different from me, and although we were friendly, we weren’t friends. I was lonely. Sometimes when our church would host missionaries or other visitors who had teenagers, I wanted to say hello, but I always chickened out and left church in embarrassment and more loneliness. One summer, I stayed with my grandparents, and I attended their church. For the first time as a teenager, I was a newcomer to a church. I sat with my grandparents. I went to a youth activity and sat with a youth leader. The only person who ever reached out to say hello was a very awkward boy, alone himself within the youth group.
God used that experience to give me a new perspective as an outsider. I didn’t care about being best friends with those girls– I just wanted someone to see me and ask me to sit with them. Back home in my familiar environment, I realized that I wasn’t that different than the “unfriendly” girls at my grandparents’ church. As long as I was worried about what people thought about me, my focus was inward and left me both unfriendly, and feeling like a failure. If I remembered my experience as an outsider, I didn’t have to worry about whether someone thought I was weird, or if I didn’t have common interests with a person. Suddenly, it was much easier to reach out in simple kindness.
As an adult, I still have to remember this perspective. Every three to four years, the military moves us to a new place. As we visit churches, we spend time talking with our children about what hospitality looks like, both to teach and also to remind ourselves about what is true. We see hospitality in the candy lady who brings candy in her purse to hand out to the children, or the youth leader who finds newcomers and pulls them over to connect with another teen.
Hospitality, we’ve learned, is not merely a synonym for “having people to my house for dinner.”
Sometimes we’ve visited churches that seemed unfriendly, and our default response has always been to recall that 1) It’s often the result of the dominant personalities at the church and 2) Perhaps God can use us to fill a needed part of the body. (The healthiest churches will have a wide variety of personalities, all loving others in ways that reflect their spiritual gifting.)
We want our children to love God’s church, and to see themselves as a vital part, no matter what their age. In order to do that, we have to show them both how to serve, and also how valuable their service is. I’d like to share some of our strategies for teaching our kids to reach out. These things have become a part of our family culture, but that doesn’t mean our children learned it by osmosis, and it’s definitely not our personality. Only one out of five of us would identity as an extrovert. (The extrovert interjects here: Even though I consider myself an extrovert, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to reach out, or that I always know how to love people.)
- We admire people showing hospitality at church. Why is this important to us? Mostly, because we teach them what is important by what we praise and notice. Did you see how Mr. Smith made that person feel welcome? Did you see how he brought two similar people together? All personalities have distinct ways of loving others, so we pay special attention to those ways that are surprising– like the lady who gives out candy at church. What’s happening when she hands out candy? She’s telling the children that she sees them, and that she is happy they are at church with her. This example is easy for our children to see, because they are recipients of this hospitality.
- We also teach them what is important by the questions we ask, so if we stop after “did you have fun?” we’ll subtly communicate that’s all we care about. As our children have gotten older, our conversations after church now include questions like “Who did you talk with? What’s going on in their lives?”
- We want to show them how hospitality makes them (children and young people) an essential part of the body. While we want our children to fellowship with other believing children at church, we have asked them not to hide after church with their friends. When my youngest asked a visitor to play tag with the other children in the church yard, she heard that child ask her parents if they could stay longer (The family hadn’t talked with any adults and were on their way to the car.) As they were leaving my daughter heard that visitor say “Can we come again next week?” This interaction causes me to ponder. What caused that child to want to come again? The program? Curriculum and activities? My daughter was reminded that day of her important role in the body of Christ. I’m grateful.
- We have often challenged them to look for other kids or teens who are outsiders, or to look for the younger children who are not included with the “big kids.” We teach our children to look for the people who are near to, or on the outside of, the community. Often these are those who are new themselves, or who have had big changes in their lives, or who for some reason are different from the insiders. The transition from elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school is often a time when new friendships are more easily made. Newcomers can to try to connect with the small groups who have been together all their lives and are tight, close friends, but it’s tough to connect with these groups. Sometimes friendships come in unexpected places, and we want our children to look out for God’s surprises.
- Sometimes we have to teach them what to talk about. Once I listened to a young teen excitedly tell my son about a new video game he got. My son ignored his comment and responded with “Want to see the knife I made?” I asked my son about it later, and he told me that he didn’t like that video game. That’s a normal immature response– the differences in their interests seemed impossible to overcome. But my son took to heart my challenge that one way he can love someone is to ask questions about what they’re excited about. He doesn’t have to love video games to say “What do you like best about this video game?”
- One way we can bridge unlikely personalities is to focus on what we have in common– Christ! We have suggested our kids ask “How can I pray for you?” or “What is God teaching you?” These are surprising (and sometimes unsettling) questions, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable. In fact, sometimes these questions can open a great door of community and love between very different people. My children both reminded me at this point: Don’t be surprised that teenagers don’t always know how to answer these questions. Brief discussion ensues.
- We encourage them to connect outside of the church service. For children, it’s asking another child to play tag with the others. It might mean asking them to a youth activity, or to their small group. Finding out what school they go to, and then connecting them with others at their school. Connecting them to the appropriate church social media or exchange phone numbers, if appropriate. Going to recitals and sports events. We encourage our kids to instigate inviting a family over for dinner or lunch after church, because we want them to know that they are a part of our family hospitality. In other words, hospitality isn’t just a parent’s choice that is endured passively by the kids.
- For friends that we see during the week, we deliberately save our visiting for another time. Since we can’t typically talk with everyone at church every week, the time on Sunday is best spent with those we won’t see any other time. When I lived on the same street as a close church friend, some people thought it was funny that we barely spoke at church!
- We teach our children to keep an open circle. I saw this idea described as “the pacman rule” on twitter, and thought it was a great way to explain to my kids how to talk with friends but also practice hospitality. Instead of the friend group forming a closed circle, it should include an opening, like a pacman.
Ultimately, we have to give any resulting friendships to the Lord. Sometimes, we can’t explain why someone doesn’t want to be our friend. You can only ask someone over so many times before you need to back off and be respectful of their space. One time I was really sad when I had difficulty helping my son connect with some boys that he really liked. I tried unsuccessfully to get the boys together (with and without mom, during the summer or on the weekends). It made me sad, because I would have loved to be friends with the mom, too, but it wasn’t what God had for us or them. It’s easy to blame myself or feel guilty for these failed friendship attempts. When I can’t find an explanation for a friendship that doesn’t work, I and my children can trust our loving shepherd to work out these things for his glory.
There is pain when we realize we are not wanted in a space, but God is always present. He is a faithful friend. I pray that in these lonely times, my children and I can sing “What a friend we have in Jesus! All our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to him in prayer.”
How are you encouraging your children to welcome others at church? I’d love to hear your thoughts.