It started as a carefree, fun shopping excursion. When I was twelve or thirteen years old, my mom and I went to a favorite department store. She headed to the ladies' department, and I went to the teens’ section. When my shopping was completed, I searched the store for Mom and spotted her looking at a rack of ladies’ pantsuits. She had singled out an extremely unattractive one and seemed to be admiring it. This will never do! I thought, I can’t let Mom embarrass herself with THAT! I came up behind her, put my arm around her shoulders lovingly, and said, “You don’t want THAT! It’s SO UGLY! Put it back!”
She turned around. To my horror, it wasn’t Mom!!! O wretched soul that I am! How could I ever back out of this?? In utter disbelief, the stranger looked at me and snarled, “WELL!!!”. I was sure rigor mortis had instantly set into my body because I froze in place. Numbed and shocked by the humiliation and awfulness of the moment, I was mortified. The floor below me was not opening up as I imagined it in my Pollyanna happy place that I’d already escaped to mentally.
The stranger huffed off in a fury of indignation. Colorful expletives probably shot out of her mouth, but none of my senses were working as I melted into a puddle of shame, and I couldn’t hear or feel anything in the real world. Even today, as I write this, I wish I could apologize to the stranger. How inappropriate, overbearing, and rude my words were. Although they were strong (okay, harsh), Mom would have handled them well, knowing that we had an honest, loving relationship that an ugly pantsuit couldn’t ruin. She would have welcomed my fashionista expertise. The stranger did not.
Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person (Colossians 4:5-6 ESV). What were the chances of my ever leading Ugly Pantsuit Stranger to Christ? I think zero. My speech was anything but gracious. It was seasoned with strychnine, not salt. I have repented several times for this encounter, but I never got a second chance to be kind or gracious to the stranger again. I blew it.
As Christians, we should be the most approachable people on the planet—gentle, kind, comforting, and peaceable, no matter what setting. The word outsiders above refers to people outside the Christian Church, often those without Christ—the strangers among us who are perhaps visiting a church for the first time because the Lord is drawing them into a relationship with Him and His people.
I like the Law of Personal Space. Whoever coined that phrase in interpersonal relationship dynamics gets a huge A+ in social skill etiquette. Personal space is defined as the physical space closely surrounding a person, which can lead to discomfort, anger, or anxiety if encroached on (Webster’s Dictionary). Also called IPS (Interpersonal Space), it refers to the protective, safety zone that people maintain around their own body during social interaction, into which another’s intrusion may cause discomfort (Psychology Today). When we violate someone’s IPS, as I did in that wretched interaction with Ugly Pantsuit Stranger, bells and whistles of alarm and defense go off in the victim of our encroachment.
I freaked her out on so many levels!
First, my incoming, unannounced attack from the rear--she didn’t even see me approaching!
Second, my touch--I put my arm around a total stranger! Don’t do that.
Third, my words, which I’ve already confessed above, were inexcusable. I fully intruded her safety zone.
Sadly, church people often violate the laws of IPS by being overly friendly toward newcomers. In our zeal to be like Jesus and demonstrate the love of God, we do anything but that with our “sloppy agape,” and we end up with freaked-out visitors who may never come back. Church hugging must be qualified by a respectful, appropriate approach, not encroaching. (Interesting that both words contain the word roach.)
The laying on of hands? Wonderful. Powerful. Altogether terrifying to a stranger, more often than not. Be careful when, how, where, and to whom you do this, O mighty man or woman of faith and power. I’ve been a Christian for 51 years and still have a very keen IPS violation defense mechanism. Many people, especially women, do. Don’t assume you may lay hands on anyone; always ask.
Our words and actions toward outsiders should be gentle and kind. The only people Jesus blasted with His words were Pharisees, Sadducees, and demons, which He was not kind toward. Even when He raised people from the dead, they did not get freaked out. Instead, their response was loving, heartfelt praise because His approach was humble, loving, kind, and non-threatening.
Bible-thumping, in-your-face Christians are rarely effective. There’s a reason why only one wild and crazy John the Baptist was featured in the four gospels. His appearance alone probably scared off many, though his ministry was uniquely great and necessary for a time.
We are to clothe ourselves with Christ and model His kindness, gentleness, humility, love, and patience. Let us graciously but gently welcome outsiders and not freak them out.
© 2022, Chris Werre