I hear this story often. “We’re very friendly. Friendliest congregation I’ve ever been a part of. I don’t understand why we aren’t growing.” I have a hunch. Congregations that think they are friendly are often very inward oriented congregations. It’s hard to break in. They’re friendly, but not hospitable.
Hospitality is the key characteristic, in my opinion, of participation in the life of God. After all, God exists as a community, Father, Son, and Spirit flowing in and through each other’s lives. God’s very life is expressed through making room for the other. And our salvation is found in the fact that he has made room for us as well.
As I have written here often, it is no small thing that the primary symbol in Christian worship is a table. An altar has been replaced by a table, a place of welcome. And each week we learn what it means to participate in God’s life as we experience the welcome of God around the Lord’s table. No longer do we experience God through sacrifices to overcome our exclusion from God. Rather, we are welcomed into God’s life through our participation in the life of Christ.
So, it makes sense that communities interested in participating in the mission of God in the world would excel in hospitality. And yet, we don’t. Shifts are necessary for us to create greater capacity in this area.
The biggest shift required is understanding that we share God’s hospitality with others, not our own. This shift carries significant implications. If we think in terms of the church’s hospitality, then we are the host. Hospitality takes place on our turf and on our terms. But God’s hospitality can take place anywhere. In fact, it’s likely that it will take place precisely in those places where we give up privilege, including home turf. In an era in which it is decreasingly likely that if we build it they will come, then learning how to both recognize and thrive apart from home court advantage will be crucial to a congregation’s vitality.
I think a test of whether or not a congregation is developing capacity here is whether or not new members come in some other way than visiting Sunday assembly. This might indicate that members are learning to recognize occasions of God’s hospitality.
Learning to participate in God’s hospitality requires two significant capacities: interrupt-ability and attentiveness. Though being friendly may help, it is not the key to hospitality. Interupt-ability and attentiveness. The enemy to these capacities is being in a rush. So, it’s hard to imagine developing capacity for hospitality without a similar commitment to simplicity. Put simply, the more simple our lives, the less we need to rush and the more room we have for others. This is deeply spiritual work.
One more note about hospitality. Some churches are good at making room for others in terms of joining the mission of God. Others, not so much. I’ve used the image before of the church as merry-go-round like the ones on playgrounds. Some churches are happy for you to jump on as long as you are willing to run alongside and grab a handle and jump on. Others, the hospitable ones, stop the merry-go-round to let you on. This is hospitable and the work of God.