Bridging the hospitality gap

Is it possible a congregation’s capacity to welcome and embrace guests is a direct reflection of the spiritual maturity of the congregants?

By Terry Maples

Recently I read an article by a newly retired Baptist minister who recounted experiences while searching for a new church home. He sadly reported members in most churches where he visited ignored him. Hospitality was lacking. Members were so busy enjoying each other they were unaware or inattentive to guests.

He filled out a guest card at each church, but most never followed up after his visit. Just one church he visited was prepared for and welcomed guests. No surprise, but he said that church will likely become his new spiritual home.

I have had similar experiences when visiting churches. While on a mini-sabbatical a few years ago I attended different churches four Sundays in a row. The only people who spoke were staff ministers who knew me.

Would you agree a hospitality gap exists in most churches? If so, how can we address the problem?

For most people attending our congregations, church is primarily about “community” and being with friends. That is an incredibly important part of gathering with brothers and sisters in Christ. Certainly, congregations must create an environment in which genuine community can be developed and nurtured.

Unfortunately, there is a down side to this drive to be with friends (those we know who are like us). It’s easy to overlook new folks. I’m sure, most of the time, there is nothing intentional about ignoring strangers, but far too often I’ve witnessed scenarios like these:

-- Members pass by guests who are sitting alone at Wednesday night dinner in order to sit with their friends at “their” table.

-- Guests enter a Sunday school class for the first time and are essentially ignored (not spoken to, not properly welcomed, not introduced, not engaged in conversation and not invited to lunch).

-- Guests come to worship for the first time and are not acknowledged by church members before they leave, or, the worst-case scenario, they are told: “Could you please move? You are sitting in my seat!”

The hospitality gap requires constant attention. Where do we start? Are there things we can do to awaken church members to the power of welcoming strangers in our midst? What will sensitize us to the vital importance of opening ourselves to give and receive Christian hospitality? Here are some ideas and observations to help jump-start the conversation:

-- Congregants need a theological foundation for understanding authentic hospitality. It begins with understanding hospitality is a gift from God to be received. God welcomes us. As we reflect God’s heart and character, we naturally embody that gift and create an inclusive, welcoming community so others may also experience the joy of being in Christian community. Because God welcomes all, we must welcome all guests as we would welcome Christ!

-- It’s time to challenge assumptions about the private nature of faith. As long as we send the message church is about private beliefs and the assembly of like-minded folks, it will be incredibly difficult for people in the church to practice God’s intended hospitality to strangers. The Bible contains many illustrations about the radical nature of hospitality God expects. Have we allowed “fear of stranger” so prevalent in our culture to rationalize away God’s expectations of us?

-- Genuine hospitality is much more than being polite or nice. What folks are looking for is something real and authentic. Hospitality flows from sincere caring, compassion and love (which always requires action). Effective discipleship that transforms heart and mind is essential to the formation of genuine hospitality.

A friend of mine enjoys saying, “You are what you do!” I don’t know any churches that advertise on their sign: “The folks who gather in this place are content with the relationships they have. Don’t bother coming!” No, signs convey that members want you to come and experience the warmth and welcoming spirit of the congregation. People pick up pretty quickly if what we say is incongruent with what we practice.

I’m aware how difficult shifting the practices of a faith community can be. Patterns get ingrained. Without awareness and attention, we continue doing what we’ve always done, unaware of the gap. More importantly, we are not conscious of the damage being done to the kingdom of God, congregations and strangers searching for a vibrant spiritual experience.

Creating new and healthier patterns is difficult, but any effort we’re willing to invest pleases God and fulfills Christian duty. Isn’t it time to acknowledge the hospitality gap? Isn’t it time for honest reflection and conversation about bridging the hospitality gap in the congregation you serve or attend? Isn’t it time to engage in practices that turn strangers into friends and enemies into neighbors?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.