A Theology of Hospitality
Is it possible for all the congregations of our Presbytery to agree on a common goal and objective? I believe there is a common focus we all may share. I believe we all need to reorient and refocus towards membership growth. There are many, complex reasons why many of our churches do not have any growth in membership. There are cultural and demographic issues involved, there are leadership issues involved, there theological issues involved and there are questions of priority and purpose within our congregations. If you look at the statistics that I included in our packet, you will see that 2012 was a terrible year for our membership statistics.
I would like to say that we should all, every one of our churches, make a commitment to membership growth. This is a worthy goal. I would like to say that, at least, every one of our congregations should make a commitment to stop the membership decline. This is a worthy goal. But given the culture and context where many of our congregations are located, many are not going to grow. I propose something more modest. There is something every one of our congregations can do. We can create a spirit of hospitality. We can, as a starting point, create a spiritual attitude that every person who walks through the door on Sunday morning to worship with us is a blessing and a gift. We can, as a starting point, be more intentional about helping every person who walks through our doors to know they are a beloved, blessed and welcome child of God.
Our congregations like to think of themselves as friendly and welcoming. I am sorry to report that most of time this is simply not true. I am typically in a different church every week. Of course, the few people that know me speak to me. Except for the official greeter who says “Good morning” but never asks me my name, it is very common when I come in to a church that no one comes up to me and no one speaks to me. It simply does not happen. Very few of our people, usually no one, will get up out of the pew where they are sitting to initiate a conversation with someone they have never met before. But this is exactly a skill which we must cultivate and learn.
Today people in our culture do not know how to do hospitality. In our culture, we do not welcome and talk with people we do not know; we avoid strangers. Avoiding strangers is the way children are raised today. We must teach our people about hospitality and cultivate a spiritual attitude of welcoming the stranger.
I propose a simple hospitality program which, if we had the leadership and desire, could easily be implemented in all of our churches. The pastors must lead the way. Let’s call the fifteen minutes prior to the start of worship a time of hospitality and welcome:
1) Pastor, what are you doing in the fifteen minutes before worship? I propose that the pastor should be out in the congregation, greeting, welcoming, and talking, individually and personally, with everyone who arrives for worship. Pastors, as a test, I suggest you should know the name of every person who worships with you. If someone is there who you do not know, you have an opportunity before worship to greet them. At the start of worship I like the image of the pastor, not showing up through some hidden door, but actually coming up out of the congregation.
2) I am going to engage the worship wars with this proposal. I suggest that we should encourage conversation and active fellowship in the sanctuary before worship. We should encourage our people to meet and greet one another during this time. This should not be a time for silence. We do not know what to do with silence. If we want a period of silence we should include it intentionally after the service begins and give clear instructions of what to do in the midst of the silence. Before worship our people should be encouraged to talk and to greet everyone by name. We teach this by example.
3) The ‘friendship pads’ which most of our churches use are not working. No one understands these as an expression of hospitality and welcome. They are simply a chore, a sign-in sheet which many people skip. I suggest we intentionally train teams of people to join the pastor out in the midst of the congregation for 15 minutes before worship. These people could intentionally pass those friendship pads among the people, study the names, and introduce themselves to everyone they do not know on the spot.
4) We all know that attending worship is optional for our people today. We know that the worship attendance of even our most active members is dropping in frequency. We must create organizational systems so that we know who is in worship with us. We should regularly, personally thank them for participating so that they know that we know. Most of all we must become aggressive about reaching out to the many, many people who are slipping out the back door of our churches unnoticed and unnamed.
We can create an attitude of hospitality in the name of Jesus. We can make sure that every person who walks in the door is blessed, cared for and known by name. We can teach ourselves and our people to care for one another which, of course, begins with knowing one another. That to me sounds like church.