Perhaps this has always been the case, and I just missed it by years of attending the same church, but I can’t help to feel that the church has all but abandoned the concept of hospitality. In the last couple of years, as I moved to a new city, completed grad-school, and relocated (again), I have had the opportunity to visit many churches. The most overwhelmingly common characteristic of the seven churches I’ve attended in the last three years? A cold, unwelcome, or insincere feeling.
I’m not necessarily talking about the actions of a single person (although there have been one or two instances of an individual being actively unwelcoming), but rather the culture of the church as a whole. It usually isn’t forceful, in fact usually it’s more a matter of what’s left undone rather than what’s done. I think we’ve gotten to the point where we treat hospitality as someone else’s job, and the new person as someone else’s problem. Because surely there’s a volunteer or a staff member or an elder or someone whose job it actually is, right? And in a lot of cases, there actually is someone whose job it is to welcome the newcomer. It’s not your job, it’s not my job, it’s Susie or Bob or Frank’s job.
But the chaffing reality is that the newbie and the welcome-wagon don’t always cross paths. In a lot of cases, it is set up in a passive manner. There’s a welcome booth, with a couple of cheerful volunteers happily chatting with each other. Or there’s the opposite extreme: where visitor is called upon to stand up in front of God and all creation during the service to identify themselves as the new person, so that they can be welcomed–which isn’t embarrassing at all–and of course the topper that inevitably happens, even after you out yourself to 500+ strangers, no one really bothers to acknowledge you. A polite nod, sure. This is the house of God, after all. But genuine introductions? Effort? Not all that likely.
Sometimes the initial experience is so cold that the new person doesn’t want to even try. Often, they don’t bother to come back. And we’re left with a church that is happy being cosy and insular, and we’re just fine with the fact that we’ve known everyone there for years, and that we’re rarely pushed near the limits of our comfort zone by trying to get to know someone new and different.
Well, what’s left you ask? I’m being unfair, right? Because many of us go to large churches, and it’s so hard to know if the person next to you in the pew is actually new. Well, try to get to know that person, for heaven’s sake, regardless of their membership status. We need to cultivate an atmosphere–a culture!–in our churches that is community-oriented. We need to start acknowledging the people around us; they have dignity, personhood, value, and are the image-bearers of God, no less than ourselves. Yes, so many of our churches are quite big, and you may not even run into that person again for months. By then you’ll have forgotten everything about that person including their name. Chances are that they’ll have forgotten your personal details too, and you can have a mutual laugh about it. And now we have two welcoming things at church: friendliness and laughter. And, if by any chance you do happen to encounter a visitor, I’m sure that they’ll appreciate you for taking five or ten minutes to make them feel like an honest-to-goodness three-dimensional person.
I know I would have. For me, community is an imortant part of church. So over the last three years, encountering inhospitable church after inhospitable church began to take a toll. We had a bit of a rocky start at the church my husband and I now attend (read: unwelcoming encounter), but we’ve kept trying because there is a lot about this church community that appeals to us, and we’re confident that in a church this large it is entirely possible to find some people to have community with. And our persistence seems to have paid off. Last week we were able to meet a group of people that we feel we’ll click with, and we’re looking forward to church this Sunday (perhaps the first time in a while).
When I met and married my husband, he was working toward becoming a minister, and one of my immediate thoughts was that an atmosphere of hospitality in our home would be important, and that I could have a key role in creating that atmosphere–the kind of hospitality that is fitting for the home of a pastor.
Perhaps this is why I’ve happened to have a number of experiences lately that were the antithesis of hospitality. It could be that first you have to learn the necessity of a thing before you are willing and able to learn how to do it yourself. I shudder to think that I very well could have been the inhospitable person at church. Maybe it was even a lesson I needed to learn the hard way. I believe I’ve learned it, and I hope I don’t forget.