How we welcome immigrants, sojourners and refugees into our communities, neighborhoods, homes and churches says a great deal about our values and the source of our hope.
A community idealizing its past will place its hope in trying to bring back the “glory days.” An insular community will find its hope in re-bolstering its own identity, which often plays out along racial, ethnic or tribal lines. But a developing community will align with transcendent values that can be shared by others, including newcomers, causing that community to move forward together.
Active “welcoming” of newcomers to a community creates a dynamic experience that can help move the community from what anthropologist Paul Hiebert explained in 1978 as a “bounded set” to a “centered set.”1
A bounded set is something that is defined by essential, uniform characteristics. This set has clear boundaries and is static, but a centered set “is created by defining a center and the relationship of things to that center.” While it “does not place the primary focus on the boundary, there is a clear division between things moving in and those moving out.” Objects within the set are not uniform, and the centered set is dynamic instead of static. There is movement and change, growth and development.
The very process of “welcoming” newcomers creates a situation where transcendent values become more important than boundaries that keep people in or out. Hiebert’s distinction between bounded and centered sets help us understand that synergy and movement toward the center is more important than where the boundaries are.
As Christians, we are to see the “center” as Jesus Christ, and we understand that what is essential is that we move toward and specifically follow him, rather than just personally identify as a Christian in a nominal or cultural sense. Hiebert informs us here.
According to Matthew 25:35, Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The word “welcome” is the Greek word synagagete from sunago. It implies a harvest and means “to gather together, collect, assemble [or] receive with hospitality.” Sunago is the root word for synagogue: the assembly of God’s people. Christians took this concept, and it became a pattern for the ekklesia: the church or “called out ones.”
As followers of Jesus, we are to welcome (synagagete) strangers or foreigners as we would welcome Christ. When we encounter sojourners, this means that we are not to reject or despise them or keep them beyond our boundaries. We are to receive them into our lives with gracious hospitality. The word for hospitality in Greek is philoxenia, which means “love for or being a friend to the stranger.” We are to make room for them and, consequently, “church” them.
This is especially true for sojourners who are fellow Christians. For a church or community to do this requires adherence to a centered set of transcendent values that all can move toward as opposed to a bounded set of uniform characteristics that is static and only the initiated can access. The church that is dynamic enough to welcome strangers and express hospitality (philoxenia) is a community that holds to universal, transcendent truths that can be grasped and lived out by people not born into that community. The church is to be a people moving toward Jesus together and gathering strangers and sojourners along the way.
The church can model this centered-set dynamism for a community or a city and help demonstrate how people from different backgrounds, nationalities and cultures can live together with their unity based in something greater than their understood identities rooted in fixed, static or uniform characteristics of race, economics or even shared cultural memory.
As the church “welcomes the stranger,” it shows the rest of the world how people different from one another can live together in unity and will perhaps provide an example to emulate. Of course, this can only really happen in Christ, but the church following Christ in this way will testify to the community that Jesus unifies people in a way that might otherwise be considered challenging under normal circumstances.
In Matthew 25:35, Jesus is not just telling us to be kind to strangers. He is also laying out a missiological principle that will shape the very identity of the church and witness to the communities we live in if we will have faith enough to receive and find him present in the very sojourner that we might otherwise reject.
Paul G. Hiebert. “Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories” in Gospel in Context vol. 1 no. 4 (1978):24-29.