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Hospitality: Not Just a Handshake

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. – Romans 15:7

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about hospitality, about how we present our church to visitors/newcomers and how we re-present Christ in our community. We usually think of hospitality as the friendly greeting someone gets when they walk in the door, but hospitality does, and should, go much deeper than that.

When I attend worship as a visitor, I’m always keenly aware of what makes me feel welcomed. Although I’ve never encountered a church that does not proclaim to be “friendly and welcoming,” my actual experiences have run the gamut from good to bad.

When I visited the “Church for All People,” the only person who spoke to me throughout the entire service was the woman who handed me the bulletin. And on the flipside was the Cape Cod church that put a white-hot spotlight on visitors. I was asked to wear a nametag that said “visitor” and then in the middle of the service was urged to stand and introduce myself. (I declined both invitations.) As I left the service, the pastor came running out of the building after me to make sure I felt welcomed. Needless to say, I haven’t been back to either place.

Certainly there is a middle ground between complete disregard and “declining-church desperation.” Especially if we are modeling the hospitality of Christ. For the visitor or the person seeking spiritual help, this Sunday is the only Sunday that counts.

Several years ago, Bishop Robert Schnase’s book, “Five Practices of Fruitful Congegations,” was a must-read for pastors and congregations. The first of the five practices was “radical hospitality.” Those two words don’t really seem to fit together, but Schnase explains it this way:

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 so it provokes practices that exceed expectations, that go the second mile, that take welcoming the stranger to the max.

Churches characterized by radical hospitality . . . exhibit a restlessness because they realize so many people do not have a faith relationship to a faith community.

Jesus practiced a hospitality that was radical – busting through cultural and religious boundaries to invite people in, to care for and love them. He did it with great love and intentionality. Radical hospitality will have us seeing people as Jesus sees them and seeing Jesus in the people God brings to us.

People are searching for faith communities that make them feel welcomed and loved, needed, accepted and supported. We may never know the courage it takes for the older man to walk into the doors of our church. We may never understand the fears and pain a young woman is carrying in her heart. We may never realize that the young couple is desperately looking for a church that will accept their “less-than-quiet” children. We may never know the joy of someone suffering from an autoimmune illness like celiac disease when they discover that all the communion bread is gluten-free. We can be the soft place to land in difficult times.

Radical hospitality also extends to the condition and care of our physical spaces. Try this simple exercise the next time you come to church: Walk into the church as if for the very first time. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? Are there signs helping to navigate the building? Are the spaces fresh and inviting? Are the spaces – both inside and out – safe?

Practicing radical hospitality means always striving to improve, applying your utmost creativity and energy to the task, and adapting to the changing needs of your community. Showing radical hospitality can require a change of attitudes, practices and values if we allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us to share the love of Christ.

As we enter into the Lenten season, may you find the time to ponder and reflect upon what it means to offer radical hospitality, both personally and as a member of this community of faith.

Some questions to ponder:

1. What three new things can the church do to model the radical hospitality we see in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus?

2. What am I willing to change about myself to make this happen?

3. Who are three people that I can pray for and then invite to join me at church for worship, an activity or mission project?

In God’s care and service,

Pastor Joanne

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