by Grady King
I have seldom met a church that did not say, “We’re a friendly church!” or “We welcome all people.” Here’s the truth. Most churches consider themselves more friendly than they really are, and every church has a sophisticated screening system of who is welcome and who is not. I am fortunate to visit many churches and have met some very kind and welcoming people – mostly, after I introduce myself. A few former minister friends have shared, after visiting several churches, they concluded, that one out of twenty-five churches they visited in 18 months could be characterized as welcoming. Yet, all the literature, signage and rhetoric at the beginning of the service communicated – “We are a welcoming church.”
Biblical hospitality is about proactively receiving people. Literally, the word for hospitality comes from two Greek words, love and stranger (guest). Ironically, at the root of refugee is refuge—a safe place to reside. Hospitality is the first move of the gospel. God spells it out clearly in the life of Israel, the commandments, and her journeys. Jesus models it as foundational for his followers. Some of the strongest rebukes of his disciples involved their lack of understanding and practice of hospitality.
Everything from the parking, signage, care of the building, way-finding around the building, condition of the restrooms, and thoughtfulness about what it means to think like a guest matters. Most important, is the intentional habits of hospitality that are cultivated in the church.
Some Essentials for Welcoming Others:
1. Invite a secret guest to share their experience–listen without excuses. We are so comfortable with our comfort that we are blind to our habits that hinder appropriate welcoming.
2. Go visit other churches to experience what it means to be a guest. The longest walk of the week can be from the car to the front door of the church. Many churches have no identified front door and feelings of confusion shape the experience.
3. Greeters are essential but need training in the skills of hospitality. Many guests to a church don’t want or need a ten question drill that actually functions to “qualify” their identity, rather than simply being welcomed in a genuine and helpful way.
4. Provide easy ways for people to find information about where to go–directions to classes, where to find restrooms, etc. It is awkward to wait in a church foyer for class to be over and watch people interacting without being acknowledged. Guests need to know what to expect in church and why we do what we do in unobtrusive, “don’t draw attention to me” ways. I am an extrovert and prefer not to stand up, be recognized, etc. It is even more true of those who have not grown up in church.
5. Stand up and greet time is AWKWARD. In too many churches when it happens, members talk to members and guests are left alone. Asking a guest to sit with you is more important than a group stand up and greet time.
6. Invite guests to small groups, lunch, and follow up with hand written, personal notes if possible. Guests may not come, initially, but the spirit of hospitality sows seeds of care.
7. Nothing replaces genuine, personal and engaging people of hospitality. Every church has a spirit and can do things technically right but relationally wrong. Pay attention to details. Listen more than talk. Use children, families and all generations to welcome. Having something for children, and not just the professional brochure for adults matters. Teens interacting with teens matters.
Be intentional about matching your welcome rhetoric with your practice of hospitality. There are plenty of refugees, who need refuge.