Congregational Hospitality

During the months following my retirement from the pastoral ministry and for the first time since the first year of our marriage, Judy and I were faced with finding a new church home. We weren’t dreading this experience, but neither can I say that we were looking forward to it. After all, one doesn’t just gleefully walk away from the church family we had loved for forty years. So, even if somewhat reluctantly, we began our search.

On the level of doctrine and practice we pretty much knew what to expect. Over the years we had worshipped at most of the evangelical churches in our area during stay- at-home vacations. And, I was personally acquainted with many other area pastors whose churches I had not visited. Furthermore, I had become familiar with scores of other churches via sundry encounters over the years.

However, on the level of congregational hospitality we were totally unprepared for what we experienced. Here is sampling of what we encountered in the overwhelming majority of congregations we visited: We were either not greeted when we entered or received a perfunctory greeting by a designated greeter or usher. None of those seated near us spoke to us. No one spoke to us on our way out. The pastor did not greet people in the foyer at the close of the worship service. And this pattern held true on repeat visits as well as in Sunday School classes and for congregations of various sizes.

And yet, even though in an underwhelming minority, I am happy to report that there were pleasant exceptions. But, our experience caused me to mentally mull over the history of the church I had pastored. Were we ever like that? My memory left me with the uneasy recollection that we came close to falling into this ditch - probably more than once. So, I dug through my files. I discovered a pastoral letter I had penned years ago. I am sharing it, without comment, in hopes that a pastor or church might be helped by interacting with it.

 

Dear Friends,

It is great to be a part of a growing yet warm church family like ours! As I look around, I note that many friendships, both close and causal, have been forged over the years. I’m sure some of them will last for a life time. I know that many of you still maintain an active connection with those who have moved to distant cities.

It is also exciting to realize that though these friendships revolve around shared interests, they are more often than not based on genuine fellowship around spiritual commonalities. Hence, I observe a special loyalty between friends here at FBC. That may be the secret as to why some of these friendships are elevated to a family level.

So, it doesn’t come as a surprise to observe the many and varied instances of people caring for one another. I see the busy mother who is offered a helping hand with the kids; the special notes of encouragement; the very personal prayers; the money slipped to someone in need; the difficult confrontation over sin; the shared home repair projects; the genuine smile; the hugs and cries; the mentoring relationships; the proffered meals and housecleaning; the counseling; raking leaves or shoveling snow or cleaning gutters or taking out trash; the shared family table; passing along clothes or household furnishings; or the wise advice shared at just the right time.

But, one thing does surprise me. I have recently been told by three different families who are checking out our congregation that they have noticed a certain lack of friendliness about us. When I pressed for specifics I heard two things: our people don’t initiate genuine conversation - they don’t reach out, even in small group settings; and getting connected is difficult.

Now, I am fully aware that other anecdotal accounts convey just the opposite image. Consequently, it is difficult to know with certainty what the big picture is. And, I understand that relationship building is always a two-way street. Some to whom we reach out don’t value these attempts or rebuff them. Others are content to stand on the sidelines even after they formally or informally become part of us.

Nonetheless, I must tell you that this criticism still stings. I believe it must be taken seriously. At the end of the day we must be able to say that we have made a genuine effort to welcome our first-time guests as well as to assimilate returnees and those who unite with us.

This is not a matter of our theology or our polity or our building or our worship. It is about people. Thus, we can and must get this right. Perhaps our very strength, a close knit family atmosphere, has also become our weakness. We rightly cherish our friendships. But we must also be other-oriented. Have we grown so comfortable with one another that we have unintentionally ignored those wishing to actively join us in the journey?

I encourage all of us to personally own this concern; long time members as well as newer ones, officers and leaders, ushers and greeters, Sunday School classes and youth groups, those standing in the hallways or seated in the auditorium, young adults and senior adults, parents and kids, children’s leaders and nursery workers. None of us are exempt.

I need your help with this. Please intentionally greet someone you don’t know before and after the morning worship service; or converse with someone different each week in your Connect class or Flock group; or invite others to your home - both potential friends and established friends; or invite new folks to join the gang at the restaurant following Sunday morning services; or sit at church socials with those you haven’t met. Try broadening your circle of friends. But by all means, let’s make this a matter of genuine love and hospitality rather than merely an artificial exercise.

For His glory,