Most churches employ some kind of intentional method to recognize, welcome, and host visitors. And they should. After all, hospitality is a biblical concept and ought to be practiced among God’s people everywhere, especially at the local church. Literally, the word hospitality means, “loving strangers.” Nobody ought to be more predisposed to love people whom they’ve never met than those who follow the ultimate lover of strangers—the Lord Jesus Himself.
Would it surprise you then if I told you that many churches unwittingly do more damage than good when applying a methodology to hospitality? In fact, at times our efforts to systematize hospitality send a conflicting message. Let me explain by posing three thought-provoking questions. But first, I want us to personalize these questions. Whoever we are, let’s view ourselves as the greeters—the welcomers—and let’s be honest about the hospitality culture in our own respective church.
Do I genuinely love people or am I merely looking for membership prospects?
This first question might be the most difficult to answer because it speaks directly to my motive. And to Jesus, motive is paramount. Don’t misunderstand me, of course we would like to see our churches grow, but I’m afraid that growth sometimes becomes the goal itself. When I view a visitor through the lens of his potential membership in my church, I am focused on what he can do for me, and not on how I can serve him.
It is only as I view a stranger through the loving eyes of the Lord Jesus that true hospitality can take place. Jesus graciously viewed people in terms of their needs, regardless of social, religious, ethnic, or financial status. Perhaps our first encounters with visitors would be more impactful if we were less concerned about getting their contact information for future processing, and more concerned about making a genuine personal connection in the moment.
At my church, is hospitality a ministry assignment or an ingrained culture?
Obviously there’s nothing wrong with assigning greeters, staffing a welcome desk, or distributing gift bags. To be sure, a great indicator of what we value is what we intentionally do. That said, a culture of hospitality is more than having Walmart-esque greeters at the door. The smile at the door might encourage the guest, but it will fade quickly amidst a contrary culture of cliques and less-than-friendly (even territorial!) fellow pew sitters.
Culture could be defined as the behavior and priority of the corporate body. Do the behaviors and priorities of your local church reflect a legitimate concern for everybody, including strangers? To make it personal, are you looking for opportunities to meet and engage others—even those you don’t know–for the purpose of encouragement?
When greeters do the greeting and ushers do the seating, a church is certainly doing some good things. But when the average church member sincerely engages himself in the life of another, a church is being what it ought to be. When it comes to hospitality, some may carry the title and work the kiosk, but everybody should embrace the concept. Healthy churches do. Healthy Christians do. Does yours? Do you?
Is the hospitality my church extends to visitors a valid indicator of what they can expect in the weeks to follow?
Sometimes the stellar hospitality we demonstrate to visitors is little more than bait and switch. That may sound harsh, but I think we have all been guilty of it from time to time. Like too many marriages, we honeymoon the visitor until a relationship has been established, and then we begin to take advantage of the relationship.
Here’s the thing though: guests are more savvy than you think. If I were to visit your church as a first time guest, I would be much more interested in the way you treat each other than the way you treat me. Why? Because that’s the way you’ll treat me when the newness wears off!
Hospitality is not a hook we use to catch fish; it is a genuine outflow of Christ’s love for all people. Its influence is in its simplicity, not in some kind of a strategy. So do the kiosk thing, and do the welcome center, and do the connection cards, and do the coffee* coupons, and do the name tags, and do the other creative stuff you do so well. But no amount of doing will ever replace being real and demonstrating a bona fide, Spirit-filled, Jesus-centered love for people.
*Dunkin’ Donuts of course. 😉