And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him . . . (Acts 9:26).
Throughout most of my years in seminary I belonged to a tight-knit church family. There were only about fifty of us, so being tight-knit wasn’t much of a challenge.
Not only did I belong to this cozy community of faith, I had the privilege of being their pastor. I was single back in those days, so these folks weren’t merely a congregation to whom I ministered. They genuinely became my family. The 800 miles between southern Oklahoma and Atlanta, Georgia separated me from my own family, so these kind people filled the gap. Until the day came when I was no longer their pastor.
After five years of this ministry I went to be a hospital chaplain in Dallas, TX. The hardest part of this transition for me was figuring out where to go and what to do with myself on Sunday mornings. I had to find a church, a new place to worship, a new community to which to belong.
I’ve been in church all of my life, and I can honestly say that fewer things are harder or more unpleasant than showing up at a church on Sunday morning as the ‘visitor.’
My eyes were opened. If visiting a church is awkward for a life-long-church-goer who’s preparing for a ministry vocation, think of what it feels like for someone who’s new to the faith or who hasn’t darkened the door of a church for years.
A Warm Welcome, or Not
Let me quickly add that none of the churches I visited were deliberately unwelcoming. None of them greeted me with a sneer or politely suggested that I might feel more comfortable at a different church down the road. In fact, I know enough about church-life to know that all of the churches I visited saw themselves as friendly. Internally, they all probably spoke often about how to reach ‘new people.’ I’ll even own that some of the awkwardness I felt was entirely about me and my proclivity to introversion.
But churches can still be a tough nut to crack. The small ones that rarely see a guest tend to overreact when a newcomer shows up, killing you with kindness and a little too much attention. The bigger churches tend to be very impressed with themselves. They hardly know you’re there. You get through the entire worship experience without a word from the ‘insiders.’
The earliest Christian community and its leaders had their home base, their main campus if you will, in Jerusalem. Saul the Pharisee was on his way to Damascus when he encountered the risen and ascended Jesus. Not long after his conversion, he made his way back to Jerusalem and attempted to join the disciples there.
The word ‘attempted’ should hold our attention. An attempt suggests a failed effort. A nice try. An attempt means you’ll have to come back again and take another shot. When Paul showed up in Jerusalem and presented himself to the leaders of the Christian community, he didn’t find a warm and eager reception. He attempted to join them, tried to find a place in their fellowship, sought their encouragement and their blessing – but he got none of it.
Until he met Barnabas. Barnabas was the game changer for the new convert Saul. And everyone needs a Barnabas.
“You Should Come to My Church”
Someone around you is more open to spiritual things than you may know. They haven’t entirely given up on God; they may have a very keen interest in Jesus. Maybe the faith of their childhood is still important to them, but somewhere along the way they had a lousy church experience. Perhaps they got distracted with a career and raising children, but for some reason now they’re paying a little more attention to their own soul.
Maybe they’ve attempted to find a faith community, but the attempt has been awkward or disappointing. What they need is a Barnabas, and that could be you.
Start with these two practical steps: If you have the slightest sense that your neighbor or coworker or golf buddy is open to spiritual things at all, be a Barnabas. Hold open the door to your community of faith. And get specific. Tell them, “I’ll meet you” and offer a plan that includes time and place. Saul had Barnabas who ‘took him’ and ‘brought him’ to the apostles. Barnabas made the difference between attempted and achieved.
You can do that for someone else. How might you be a ‘Barnabas’ to someone around you this week?
Gracious God, from the very beginning you made us to live in connection with others. Too easily, like the apostles, our fear keeps us disconnected from those searching for community. Our fear keeps us safely entrenched in the familiar friendships we already have. Grant to us the generous heart of Barnabas that we might bring others to know you as they discover friendship with your people, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.