For most of us, the caution of well-meaning adults is embedded deep in our bones. “Don’t talk to strangers.” From fear of being hurt to a concern we might be misunderstood or launch a debate we did not intend, or on some days just plain laziness, we just to avoid starting a conversation with someone we don’t really know. Limiting ourselves to familiar conversation partners helps us avoid all manner of unpleasantness and allows us to lapse into common shorthand, inside jokes, and shared memories. This is not all bad. The comfort of feeling understood and knowing we understand is a gift that allows us to take risks and explore deeper meanings and relationships. Yet talking to strangers is actually a gospel mandate. Jesus made quite a habit of it, hanging out at wells and chatting up the folks who showed up at odd hours. We know these were life-changing encounters, and we can’t deny all of the ways he sends us out to do the same.
If we’re sincere in our intention to strike up a conversation with someone outside our regular circles, if we’re seeking to be faithful in our going into all of the world to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, we probably need some language lessons. We’re going to have to learn the local dialect, the seemingly strange idioms of our neighbors. We’ll have to work hard to make sure that we translate the stories we hold so dear into words and metaphors that make sense to our new friends. It will take careful listening on our part to pick up the cadences of cultures not our own. We will have to risk mistakes and seek forgiveness and correction when we misspeak. It’s going to be humbling work.
I have some ideas for you for how you might get started.
Find someone you know who does not go to church. Ask them to look at your church bulletin and tell you about the things they don’t understand. (You don’t have to explain them to them – just listen for the places they are confused.) How can things be made clearer?
Take a look at your website and church social media feed with someone from the outside. How does your church tell your story?
In the preaching and prayers of your church, what level of understanding of the Bible and Christian theology is assumed of those in worship? How are biblical references introduced and used? From what sources do images and illustrations come? Who would be familiar with these? Who would be confused?
What one thing can you make easier for someone who may never have been inside a church.
If you want to read a little more about expanding the conversation and translating the Gospel, here are two articles that came through my inbox this week that offer much food for thought.
If you want to think more intentionally about how you and your congregation connect with the community around you, invite me to teach a Sunday School class or lead a midweek program or meet with your leaders. I’d love to help you talk to strangers.