Church hospitality: Creating a more welcoming environment

This sermon on church hospitality is based on Luke 14:12-14.

Everyone has a goal of making friends and family members comfortable when they come over. We fluff pillows, clean off the couch and do our best to make everyone welcome. At parties, we take pains to introduce guests to one another and encourage conversation. Terms like “make yourself at home” or “don’t be shy” are tossed around. When we extend hospitality we want our relatives and guests to be comfortable. We want them to enjoy our time that is spent together.

During Biblical times the giving and receiving of hospitality was expected. Certainly a banquet or party was a time of fun and congeniality but hospitality to travelers could be a matter of life or death. The gift of water or food could be the very act of kindness that staved off dehydration or hunger.

Then, as now, people entertained with the idea that at some point, they too would be entertained. How often have we heard people talk about spending time at a son or daughter’s home and then turn around and say “When they come here they always stay at my home.”?

We do offer this hospitality for two main reasons. One reason is that we genuinely want to be hospitable and the other is that some form of reciprocity is expected.

Things haven’t changed much in the past several years. Jesus begins this passage with the acknowledging that people were hospitable with the expectation of getting something in return. Then, he says "Don’t do that".

Instead Jesus tells us to invite poor, crippled, lame and blind. He says to invite not just the people who cannot repay but specifically mentions the groups who are the most outcast from society.

Really, Jesus? We ask. Surely you don't mean for us to be hospitable to "those people". Are we to welcome strangers who come to church looking for money or "that" family with "the kids that tear everything up"?

Yes, Jesus says.

His message of hospitality is just as important today, as it was 2,000 years ago. The core message applies to strangers, friends - and even family members.

Birthdays, wedding receptions and other family gatherings can be interesting some times. Have you ever been to a gathering and just sat back to watch how people interacted? You can learn a lot by being a fly on the wall.

Every family has that one person that they tiptoe around at family gatherings. Some families have more than one. It could be that the person never learned how to function around others. It could be the person may have a mental illness or a physical impairment that makes others uncomfortable.

The rest of the people at the family gathering will give this person a wide berth. Instead of making the person feel at home, they’ll do anything they can to minimize contact with the “black sheep” as some families call it.

Have you ever seen that happen? If we’re honest, then I would say that most of us have witnessed this scenario at least once in our lives.

The thing is that this type of behavior doesn’t just happen at family gatherings. It can happen here, at church.

To understand this better we need to first look at the definition of hospitality. I looked to an online search engine for the answer. Bing sums it up like this:

1. kindness to visitors: friendly, welcoming, and generous treatment offered to guests or strangers

Churches often do a good job of extending kindness to others when they come in the doors. How many times have love offerings been gathered or a member help someone in need? Large or small, the actions are generous.

Hospitality also means creating a welcoming environment. Our perception as a church can differ from what visitors perceive. Both opinions are valid and both have their purposes.

What most churches strive for is to be welcoming to visitors. So how do we do that? What might that look like?

Visitors enter into a church with a lot of anxiety. They don’t know how they will be received. They may be poor in spirit and seeking. It is our job to be open and as friendly as possible. How does the church want you to dress? Will the music be contemporary or traditional? What if I sit in someone’s pew?

They are taking a leap of faith before entering into the building. These are some of the stumbling blocks that visitors have before coming into the door. Our task is to decide how best to honor the grace that brought them here and how to put our best foot forward.

Visitors begin forming an opinion of how welcoming a church is before they pull into the parking lot. They usually drive past a church frequently before coming into the door. Are entrances clearly marked? If someone has a disability then access to the building is extremely important. It goes more than being ADA compliant.

Having the right equipment in place creates a welcoming environment that makes the visitor feel more at home. If you have ever been on a walker or had a family member who used one, then you already know how important this is.

Thinking like a visitor we can ask ourselves how the parking lot and grounds look. Are they nice and tidy? Is the roadside trash picked up? Our church does a great job with both of these.

The front few minutes when they walk in is important. It is important to genuinely greet them. This is more than just saying hello. Everyone wants to feel like a person – not a pew warmer.

Just as we would introduce guests to each other in our home we need to do the same at church. Ask the visitor’s name and introduce the person to someone else. Offer to show someone where the bathroom are and where the nursery is.

Taking a parent to their child's Sunday School classroom is extremely important. Parents often feel insecure about going into a new place and immediately being separated from their children. Don't rush it if parents or children hesitate about going to the room. This is a new place and it may take some time for a child or parent to feel comfortable.

Putting a face with a name is important. That’s why the person who is doing the morning greeting will say “Hi. My name is… “ Extending hospitality to visitors in this simple way helps create a welcoming atmosphere.

Did you know that something as simple as standing up if you have an announcement to make can help make the church more inviting? This helps visitors connect faces with names and it reminds our "experienced hands" who to contact. I realize that not everyone is physically able to stand to make his or her announcement and that's okay. You comfort is a big part of what works to help people feel right at home.

Here are a few more resources:

Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to Your Church

Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend

How to Wow Your Church Guests