Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. – Hebrews 13:2
During a weeklong youth mission trip to Columbia, South Carolina we stayed at a local church where our group arrived late Saturday night and then attended worship the following morning. Following the service, Ray, a retired gentleman approached me and asked, “Does your group have plans for lunch?” I said no, stating that we hadn’t had a chance to buy groceries yet. He said “Good, because my wife Libby and I would like to take your group out to dinner — in fact I just made reservations to treat your group at one of our favorite local diners.” Not only did he treat us to a delicious lunch, but he and his wife also spent most of their time at the restaurant moving from table to table, introducing themselves to each of our 28 group members. Later that same week, Ray and Libby brought our group sacks of boiled peanuts and trays of pulled pork stating, “You can’t go back to Minnesota without tasting these local treats.” This couple’s extravagant hospitality and genuine interest in our group became the benchmark for how our group wanted to treat guests who visited our home congregation. They modeled for me what I hope every guest would experience when connecting with a congregation —radical hospitality based on a genuine desire to make a new friend and to create a memorable WOW experience.
Hospitality begins when we have a desire to invite people into our lives.
Another memorable mission trip moment was spending an evening at a young couple’s apartment in Denver who invited my wife and I over for dinner. By the end of the evening, we had learned about each other’s backgrounds, faith journey, gifts and passions, hopes and struggles, strengths and shortcomings. Before leaving their apartment, we prayed for each other and the ministries we were involved in. I realized that this young couple knew me better than the most of my friends. We enjoyed learning about and learning from each other. We entered their apartment as strangers and left as brothers and sisters in Christ.
What if . . . we made a point of turning every acquaintance into a life-giving relationship?
Kitty, a member of a Methodist church I served, was affectionately known as their “top evangelist.” She earned this reputation by having 12 of her friends join the church within one year. The Outreach and Evangelism Team was amazed at her results and asked her to come to one of their upcoming meetings and share her “secrets.” Her secret was simple. She had a sincere desire to turn strangers into friends and found ways to invite people into all facets of her life. When she went grocery shopping, she invited a friend. When she went to the high school play, she’d invite coworkers. When she went to happy hour at a wine bar, she invited a few friends and neighbors. And when she went to church for worship, Bible study or a servant event, she invited her friends and coworkers along too. She viewed her home as the first “church” many of her friends would experience and she had a knack for making people feel valued and welcomed. Here parting comment to the Outreach and Evangelism Team was, “I have no secrets to share with you. I simply love people and invite them into my life. I invite them to church because that’s a big part of my life.” In my faith tradition, people joke that members invite a friend to church once every 27 years. Why is it that so few people invite others to church if it’s such an important facet of our lives?
Christian hospitality goes beyond best practices. It’s genuine and takes place 24/7.
When attending worship at the same congregation two weeks in a row, I met a greeter the first week who was very friendly and hospitable to me. The next week I saw him in the narthex, made eye contact with him but noticed that he seemed to have little interest in striking up a conversation with me this week. I approached him, reminding him that we had met last week and that I missed his smile and handshake. He replied, “I remember you from last week but I’m not serving as a greeter this week.” I was taken aback by his comment until I realized that the subtle message of this church to its members was that only people assigned to hospitality are responsible for doing so! Every year, I conduct several church hospitality audits and find that it’s the exception rather than the norm where someone introduces themselves to me. I receive smiles and hellos but usually leave the church without anyone engaging me in conversation.
Vital churches create cultures where everyone takes responsibility for extending hospitality. It’s modeled by staff, board members, worship leaders and elected leaders. Many churches encourage leaders to take three minutes before an event and three minutes after an event to introduce themselves to people they haven’t met yet. Systems and best practices like these can help improve a church’s climate of hospitality but it’s not the same as having people like Gary Nelson who, as an usher, introduced himself to guests as they entered the sanctuary, stood by the exit doors after worship and thanked people for coming, and invited at least one person to join him for refreshments. It’s not the same as having people like Lil Grothe who would bring fresh-baked bread and warm cookies to church and give to guests she met. She’d also remember their names when they’d return saying, “it’s so good to see you again. I’ve been praying for you and your family.” How would your church be different if ushers and greeters not only received training in hospitality best practices but also exhibited a sincere desire to turn every newcomer and acquaintance into a friend?
What if . . . we viewed every experience as an opportunity to warmly welcome people?
Is your faith community known for creating wow experiences that extend God’s abundant grace? Most wow experiences are a series of events that reinforce each other in a seamless fashion. How would a guest have a wow experience based on your
- Website (Is it engaging, inspirational and reflect the vibrancy of your church?)
- Voice message (Do you list worship times, your tagline and directions to church?
- Signage (Is it helpful and easy to read?) and printed publications (Do look professional? Explain what and why well?)
- Greeters/ushers (Do they smile, introduce themselves, welcome guests and invite them back?)
- Member’s (Do they introduce themselves and invite people for refreshments?)
- Worship service (Was it easy to follow, sing along and understand? Is insider language avoided?)
- Sermon (Was it easy to follow, relevant, memorable and understandable for a first-time guest?)
- Announcements (Were they relevant for most people? Were guest personally invited to events?)
- Welcome Packet/Gift (Do you have a packet? Is there an appropriate gift for children?)
- Refreshments (close to sanctuary, fresh and healthy snacks, good coffee, tea and juice)
- Language (Were newcomers called guests?)
- Building (Was it clean, orderly, attractive, and well-lit?
- Interaction with the pastor/leaders and follow up (Were leaders readily accessible? Send a note following a guest’s visit?)
In his book, The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Author Robert Schnase states, “Radical hospitality occurs when there is an active desire to invite, welcome, befriend, and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves God’s abundant grace and Christ’s unending love. It’s reflected in people’s genuine love for others who are not yet a part of their faith community, with a sincere desire to know their neighbors and reaching out to those not yet known. Love is the motivating factor that mobilizes church members to adapt to the needs of their guests and change behaviors that allow for the creation of safe and inviting spaces receive the talents of newcomers. Radical hospitality is a living expression of a faith community’s desire to “not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). “
Some people define radical as “out of the ordinary” or “revolutionary.” Others describe it as affecting the fundamental nature of something. So what would it mean to receive someone with a presence that was not just polite, but to receive them with revolutionary generosity?
The term “radical hospitality” rolls easily off our tongue but carrying it out can be a demanding undertaking. It’s helpful if we view hospitality as spiritual practice in which we learn ways to go deeper with opening our hearts.
In his book, Bowling Alone, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam writes about the growing isolation of Americans. In his research, he finds that when people are near people unlike themselves, they tend to “hunker down,” avoiding others including those they know. He concludes his research with this statement, “In the face of diversity, most of us retreat.”
This is one of many gifts the church can offer the world, where we invite people to experience God’s unconditional abundance and grace and to experience belonging that comes with being part of a grace-filled, authentic community. This, however, is a growth area for most churches I work with. What could be one our greatest gifts to our communities is often one of our biggest shortcomings.
A church that recently embraced the value of radical hospitality decided to engrave the statement, “May all who enter as guests leave as friends” on every doorway. One of their leaders commented, “The engraving part is early. Living it will be much harder.”