Churches can do better at extending the welcome

Newcomers should sense your church really cares about them, that they’re not just a number, a customer or an outsider.

By Ronald E. Keener

The simple act of extending the right hand of fellowship to visitors to our churches is fraught with difficulty and ineptitude, and many first-time visitors won’t come back as they experience a cold or indifferent church.

Robert Schnase says, “The culture of a congregation is an aggregate of distinct practices, behaviors, values and attitudes.

There are a thousand nano-practices that comprise our systems of inviting, welcoming, assimilating and forming new Christian disciples. Some church systems are very effective and some systems are unconscious, ineffective or perhaps counterproductive.”

Schnase is bishop of the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church, Columbia, MO, and radical hospitality heads his list of Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (Abingdon Press, 2007), explained in his new book. Those key practices for healthy churches, as he sees them, are radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity.

Church Executive asked Schnase whether people typically take a while to feel warmly received. “It often takes a while for people to feel at home. On the other hand, first impressions run deep and life-decisions are made on the basis of little but powerful symbols of welcome and encouragement.

“I would also remind church leaders to remember the importance of ‘the middle doors.’  Often we give good attention to the welcoming practices for newcomers to worship, and then they join or commit to the church and a few months later they drift away. They are warmly received at ‘the front door’ but they leave by ‘the back door’ because they’ve discovered that ‘the middle doors’ are closed to them.

“By that I mean that the small groups, adult classes, Bible studies, mission teams, kitchen teams, men’s groups, etc., are all cliquish and closed and newcomers can’t break in. Sometimes in our small groups, we so love each other and our lives are so intertwined that we fail to realize that our group is impenetrable to new people.”

Bishop Schnase responded to questions about congregational hospitality from Church Executive:

Is there a part of hospitality that is particularly Christian?

The welcome we offer is not our own, but the welcome of Jesus Christ. We are not welcoming someone to a retail outlet; we are inviting them into the body of Christ. The hospitality I’m describing is not simply the corporate “how to please the customer,” but rather the gracious welcome that imitates the welcome of Christ. This is not just a modern church growth strategy; it is embedded in the core of our faith.

In Hebrew scripture, people of faith are told to welcome the stranger, the sojourner and the traveler in the land. Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Jesus’ life and teachings always point toward costly demonstrations of unexpected love that surprise people by the grace of God and change their lives. That’s the hospitality of Christ, the hospitality that is particularly Christian. It is hospitality that reveals the grace of Jesus Christ.

What is the significance of modifying “hospitality” with the word “radical?”

Radical means arising from the source and describes practices that are rooted in the life of Christ and that radiate into the lives of others. Radical means drastically different from ordinary practice, outside the normal, and it provokes practices that exceed expectations, that go the second mile, that take welcoming the stranger to the max.

What are a few things that churches can do to make hospitality authentic?

Churches practicing radical hospitality offer a surprising and unexpected quality of depth and authenticity to their caring for the stranger. Newcomers intuitively sense: “These people really care about me here. They really want the best for me. I’m not just a number, a customer or an outsider here. I’m being invited into the body of Christ.” For these congregations, their contact is personal, not mechanical, and their systems and processes are relational, not merely technical. Even when the congregation is far too large for anyone to know everyone’s name, nevertheless, everyone’s name is known by someone.

Churches that practice radical hospitality look at their ministries through the eyes of visitors, newcomers and the unchurched. Their members focus on those outside the congregation with as much passion as they attend to the nurture and growth of those who already belong to the family of faith, and they apply their utmost creativity, energy, and effectiveness to the task, exceeding all expectations.

All churches will think they’re friendly. But that doesn’t always translate well in application?

Churches all think they are friendly because the people who say that are already on the inside, cared-for, part of the family. Sometimes our greatest strength is really our greatest weakness, and that is that we love each other so much and our lives are so interwoven in a particular group, class, mission team or choir, that we don’t realize that our group is so tight-knit that it has become impenetrable to newcomers. Paradoxically, a church can be both friendly and impenetrable.

Or we become good at saying the right welcoming things to newcomers, but then we don’t allow them to change anything about what we do or how we do it. It’s the difference between welcoming a temporary guest into our homes for a night or two versus adopting some new family members. When we really adopt new family members, they get to use the TV remote control sometimes too.

You say hospitality is more than politeness to newcomers; what is it then?

Hospitality involves more than politeness because it includes that invitational openness and initiative that has us fulfilling the Great Commission. Radical Hospitality pulls us out of ourselves, stretches us, and imbues us with a sense of purpose.

This outward leaning embrace stimulates a genuine prayerful desire for the best of others, including strangers, and willingness to do all we can so that they can deepen their relationship with God. Evangelism at its best is unselfish, grounded in Christ, active and outward focused.

It’s more than just visitors’ name tags, pleasant greetings, and a flowerpot delivered to the door after the first visit. It’s a cultural transformation that means the church sees its purpose beyond “what’s in it for me” or “as long as my needs are met,” and focuses on those outside the church with as much passion and care as those inside the church.

How should a church evaluate its hospitality quotient?

There are some fairly objective signs we should attend to. For instance, are visitors showing up to worship, to small groups, to help with missions? Are the visitors who are showing up moving deeper into the congregation’s life, growing in faith, taking the next step? Is the congregation growing and including more people and younger people, or is it aging and becoming smaller?

It doesn’t hurt to ask some of the newcomers, visitors, and recently assimilated about their experience of entering the community of faith. Imagine gathering a few recently involved members and asking them, “How are we doing with inviting, welcoming, creating a sense of belonging, connection, and purpose for newcomers? What have we done that has been helpful? What has made it hard for you to connect? Why have you remained? What obstacles have you had to overcome to remain?”

When’s the last time all those who shape the guest experience have gathered together to discuss how it is working?

Should churches do more to welcome the disabled?

Absolutely. All churches cheerfully and dutifully say with their mouths, “Of course we welcome and value people with disabilities.” But sometimes their building adds the subscript, “So long as they can come up the front steps and slide into the pews, just like everyone else!”

Churches should regularly evaluate access to parking, restrooms, hallways, classrooms, and the chancel or leadership dais and look at these through the eyes of those with physical limitations. But more than just noticing facility limitations for people with disabilities, church leaders would do well to look at access and participation in committees, leadership, decision-making, worship leadership, teaching and mission participation.

Is poor hospitality a cause of church decline?

Most mainline denominations have seen precipitous declines over 40 years. This leads people to scapegoat and blame others, and to ignore and deny their own complicity in our decline.  We can’t keep blaming our seminaries, bishops, denominational agencies, liberals, conservatives, ordination processes, and the other things “out there” for our decline. Our decline has principally resulted from our failure at the congregational level to do the fundamental tasks of ministry with quality, consistency and passion.

What’s a good first step to creating a more hospitable environment?

Church culture shapes behaviors. Also, our behaviors shape and define our congregational culture. By focusing on “practices” I’ve tried to lift up the obvious:  Hospitality is not something some churches have and others don’t, but rather a continuing set of repeating and deepening practices that we learn and do and improve upon. So I’d ask churches, “What are two or three behaviors that you would like everyone in your congregation to do — the pastor, staff, volunteers, ushers, music and worship leaders, teachers?”

And what are you doing to motivate, train, model, encourage, recognize and reward these practices? This is not rocket science! There are churches small and large, medium-sized and mega-sized that figure this out, and do an excellent job at offering the invitation, welcome and embrace of Christ. But it requires intentional and consistent practice.

All about numbers?  It‘s about THE STORY

Next Sunday the Spirit of God will prompt hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and millions around the world to visit a church for the first time. The Sunday after that, He will do it again. God is constantly blessing His church with regular guests. Are we doing all we can to accept and honor His blessing?

I’m sure you know how the critics think: To those of us who advocate healthy, growing churches, it’s all about the numbers, right? Well, the critics are right to an extent: We do care about numbers! Why? Because every number represents a life. In a properly facilitated Assimilation System, the number of new members you have is a reflection of the number of new lives in your church that belong to Christ.

Your regular attenders represent people in the process of becoming fully developing followers of Jesus. Your guest count gauges the effectiveness of your evangelism and outreach. When grounded in the right perspective, numbers are an indication of life change. They are a testimony that God is at work. But anyone who looks at numbers with a competitive spirit or who wants to grow a church for growth sake alone, without life change being the driving force, is not truly in the business of fulfilling the Great Commission.

Not one person who comes through your door comes haphazardly. By sending that guest to you, God is giving you the privilege of cooperating with Him to move someone forward in their journey toward Jesus. When you have a clear plan in place to make your guest feel welcome, to encourage the person to return as a second-time guest, to keep the individual coming as a regular attender, to see the person accept Jesus and to decide to commit him- or herself to your church through membership, then do you get to include that person in your number count? Well, only as a byproduct.

More importantly, you get to rejoice over another person saying yes to God’s will for his or her life. You get to glorify God with another person that came to you unchurched and now wants to commit to the local fellowship. It’s never about numbers for numbers’ sake — it’s about the story the numbers tell.

— Excerpted from Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church (Regal, 2007) by Nelson Searcy with Jennifer Dykes Henson.


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