Hospitality is one of the most generous things we can do: it reveals our heart in very practical terms. Our willingness, both as individuals and as a church body, to be generous in this area is one of the most powerful actions we can take for the benefit of the Kingdom of God and the healing of those with whom we are entrusted.
My experience as a guest in churches I visit is that they often pride themselves as hosts yet have no generosity of hospitality: the generous reception of guests or strangers.
For a shy person, I am quite bold and seldom slink around the perimeters of churches I visit in order to remain invisible or be ignored. That being said, most often that is exactly what happens. For example I visited a reasonably large church. We arrived early so I could find my way into the building, locate the restroom, and become acclimated to the unfamiliar surroundings. I am very uncomfortable going to any place that is unfamiliar to me - so much so, that it is often necessary to have someone accompany me the first time so I don't hyperventilate. Sick, right? But true, nonetheless.
A well decorated bulletin board full of proof and proclamation that this was the friendliest church in town seemed a good place to be welcomed. So, that's where I stood. Having stood there before services started and returning shortly after services ended, the only acknowledgment of my presence there, including the 'meet & greet' time was by another visitor to whom I extended my hand first. Absolutely not one other conversation that morning - in the friendliest church in town!
The problem isn't just with that church. That is pretty much my experience at most churches I visit. There have been exceptions, though.
Not too long ago, Anita and I were in Dallas. We decided to attend a large church near where we were staying. The day before, I drove around the parking lot to see if I could spot the visitor parking, the front door and generally to look for a safe way to enter this strange place. We found the visitor parking but no clear 'front door' or other invitation to enter.
We returned to their first service on Sunday morning and found our way through a door and into an empty hall and, as yet, empty sanctuary. It was obvious we were visitors: we were the only people of our color there. Not a surprise to us but very obvious to them - we were different at the outset. We found our way toward the front and sat and waited. The auditorium remained empty even up through the start of the worship service. However, even though there were few people there, one or two made their way to us. Instead of a safe handshake, they embraced us warmly and blessed us.
As the service began, the audience swelled to 600 or more. The pastor wasn't on the platform. In this church the pastor wears a special robe so it is easy to spot them. As this pastor entered, starting at the back and one end of the auditorium, and person by person, each and every person was warmly embraced. Not just a 'happy hug' but a healing embrace. We noticed that every so often, after an embrace, a beckon was given and a prayer partner came and took over and engaged in prayer for and with that person. This pastor/shepherd was checking the health of the flock. This happened over and over as ministry and pray began to swell in that auditorium during an extended worship time.
When the pastor came to us I was about to explode with curiosity and fear. I'm not much of a hugger and feel very awkward in most social situations. As the pastor hugged me a blessing was gently whispered - not a generic 'bless you' but a genuine sincere, personal and prophetic blessing acknowledging my presence and the presence of God with us.
During their meet and greet, we were hugged and sincerely welcomed many times with genuine blessing and interaction appropriate for that short time. As the service progressed, we were given the opportunity to bless several of those around us: returning the generosity of their hospitality by praying with them and encouraging them. Remember - our difference was obvious and dramatic. We were different in color and dress and tradition. However we were blessed with the generosity of their hospitality.
Which church would you rather visit? Which church do you suppose enhanced my desire and ability to worship and learn? The 'friendliest church in town' that lack the generosity of hospitality or the one that approached me with generous hospitality - welcoming me and my difference?
May I extend an invitation to extend generous hospitality? I invite you to be intentionally generous by giving up some of your personal privilege of familiar conversation and setting in services to engage a guest and our regular attender who hasn't yet established social connections and security networks.
Here are 7 simple tips to help you engage the generosity of hospitality next Sunday. These are the things our First Impressions Team tries to do but are most effective when we all do them as generous acts of hospitality.
- Anticipate: set your heart to search out someone who needs a touch of generous hospitality. Is there someone who is isolated, who doesn't fit, or looking confused? Start here.
- Smile: let them see on your face that your discovery of them is a great pleasure to you.
- Greet: a simple acknowledgment or handshake. A gentle touch on the elbow that says you aren't afraid of them.
- Escort: Ask if you can show them to the theater, to KidCity, or wherever they need to go next.
- Refresh: invite them to the cafe' for coffee or drink.
- Engage: Begin a conversation by telling them how glad you are they are here; ask what led them here.
- Celebrate: relax and enjoy this brief time with your new friend; share the enjoyment by introducing them to someone else. If they are a first time guest, invite them to the Welcome Desk for an Andre's custom chocolate bar.
If fear began to rise in you as you worked through the list, remember that you are generous. Don't let fear, comfort, or familiarity rob you of the opportunity to be generous through the simple act of hospitality.
"Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." Heb 13:2
Pastor Charlie Blair