Horrifying stories about child abusers are never far from the news.
The concern that strangers will abduct or otherwise abuse vulnerable children is one of the distinguishing fears of modern life.
For older children, fear of abduction has taken on a sinister new dimension with the advent of Internet grooming, requiring parents to be ever more vigilant over technologies they may not themselves understand well.
Modern parents in the United States, United Kingdom and around the world are haunted by the specter of the stranger out to harm our kids. In contrast, the Bible commonly sees the encounter with the stranger as a means of blessing.
This is a real dilemma for Christian parents. So, how do we, as parents and church members, balance this tension?
In the Bible, the way that we treat strangers is often held up as a distinguishing mark of true faith.
Indeed, by welcoming strangers, the book of Hebrews insists, “some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
It was in wrestling a stranger at Penuel that Jacob properly encountered God for perhaps the first time in his life (Genesis 32), and in welcoming three strangers that Abraham learned that he was going to become a father (Genesis 18).
Rahab was saved through sheltering the unfamiliar Hebrew spies (Joshua 2), the rich woman of Shunem received great blessing by welcoming the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 4) and so on.
Furthermore, the Bible uses the character of the unexpectedly godly stranger to teach Israel true faith.
Abraham assumed king Abimelech was godless and so lied to him, when, in fact, by welcoming Abraham he apparently feared God and acted more honorably than the patriarch himself (Genesis 20).
In the New Testament, too, apparent strangers to Israel could embody real faith when Israel lacked it, as with the Roman centurion in Matthew 8.
Israel was constantly instructed to be kind to strangers because they had been strangers in Egypt where they learned both what it was like to be welcomed and also to be abused (Exodus 22:21).
Most starkly, in his disturbing parable of the “sheep and the goats,” Jesus makes the way that we treat the stranger one of the decisive factors in our eternal destiny (Matthew 25:31-46).
Thus, according to the Bible, the stranger can be a channel of unexpected blessing and encounter with God, and how we treat him or her is a touchstone of true faith upon which our eternal destiny may hang.
How, then, do we teach this to our children in a culture of “stranger danger”?
In our family, we have tried to model welcome to the stranger, but stressing to our children that they only do that with us, never by themselves.
As we have done this, we have found the Bible’s promise of unexpected blessings true.
For example, we have involved our children (ages 8 and 6) in inviting back for Sunday lunch new families or single people who have visited the Sunday morning service, praying in advance that God would show us whom to ask.
We have also encouraged them to invite new children in their classes to come home with them for the afternoon.
Our congregation has supported asylum seekers, both through friendship and provisions to a local refugee support charity.
In being part of this work, we can model what the biblical injunction is to care for the stranger.
As we open ourselves to encounters with the stranger, we open ourselves to God’s blessing.
At all stages, we encourage our children (sometimes with reward stickers and sweets!) that God is pleased when we care for the stranger.
We point them to the Bible and remind them of relevant texts and stories, using examples like those above as illustrations.
And we teach them to pray that we will have the opportunity to meet new people and bless them with the love of God.
We always stress that they must only do this with us, never by themselves.
In his anti-Christian treatise “Against the Galileans,” 4th-century Roman emperor Julian complained that it was Christians’ “philanthropy towards strangers … that has done the most to spread their atheism.”
Can that complaint be made against our churches?
We can wisely train our children not to go anywhere with strangers without us while also teaching them that loving strangers is a Christian duty.
In a culture that sees strangers as dangerous, it is important not to forget that strangers also may be, unaware to us, messengers of God.
Nick Megoran is a lecturer and honorary chaplain at Newcastle University in northeast England and co-convener of the Martin Luther King Peace Committee, which seeks to build a culture of peace. He is a member of Heaton Baptist Church in Newcastle, and his writings can be found on his website. A longer version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times of Great Britain and is used with permission.