There is a fundamental flaw in the church of the early 21st century.  We have identified it quite clearly, but talk is inadequate.  As the old GI Joe commercial went, knowing is half the battle.  That’s great, but there’s another half to go.

What’s the issue?  Commercialization of the Church.  How did we go from a sense that a worship service was service to God to a place where stewardship is making sure that my donations are utilized in a manner which meet my “needs” and preferences.  All church leaders are fully familiar with the customer mentality of church.

I think we got here, in part, because this is how we are in the other aspects of our lives.  When we departed from an agrarian mentality where everyone did all about the same thing, we moved to a mindset of compartmentalizing our lives.

I may be a baker.  You may be a car mechanic.  You come to me for donuts.  I come to you for an oil change.  Especially as our society got far more technological and complex, no one can do everything.  Most of us don’t have a clue how computers and cars work, but we are pleased that someone does.

So we applied that thought process to the church.  It’s only natural.  I give my money so that the church staff will do ministry on my behalf.  It’s just a short step to a customer mentality from here.  We move from how can I serve in the name of Jesus to is the pastor doing a good job.  And I, as one who provides the funds, get to decide.  Indeed, the more I give, the more influence I expect.

I remember years ago when a person who was the “biggest giver” came to me.  You see, I made it clear that everyone got an equal voice.  The guy wasn’t angry.  He was just confused and curious.  Why didn’t I give him special treatment because he was my “best customer.”  We actually went on to have a good relationship when we went through a time of conversation concerning this issue.

Some years ago my congregation traversed the exact consultation process with The Effective Church Group which I now provide as a partner in the firm.  I decided we were going to follow as much of the recommendations as we possibly could.  Why not?

The hardest part for me to accept was a primary emphasis on Biblical comments regarding the behavior of those who follow Jesus.  I quietly and innocently asked why we would need such focus on this when the longterm members we were targeting for this knew well what the Bible has to say.  Love one another.  Forgive one another.

The point was that knowing is very different from actively living out what we say we believe.  Every congregation says it’s friendly.  For most, that’s simply not true.  Most of our members believe that they have earned greater influence by their years of belonging.  We are happy to have new members as long as they look and act just like us with a recognition that they have to earn the privilege of an opinion which is regarded as worthy.

Bottom line: You have to change the culture of the congregation.  This is the essence of the issue with the vast majority of our churches.  There are a variety of ways to speak about it.  It’s the foundation for the whole missional movement.  It’s ultimately very basic and of ultimate importance.  We need to change the culture from the customer model to the following.

As a member of a congregation, for the sake of the great commission, my preferences and even needs are less important than those of the first time guest.  Make no mistake.  This is a risky and incredibly difficult transition.  People could leave.  Conflict may break out.  A pastor just might get fired.

But if you’re willing to give it a go for the sake of Jesus and in answer to the call to take up your cross, here are five steps for changing congregational culture to one that is truly representative of the Biblical sense of hospitality to the stranger.

  1. Develop a congregational covenant which takes the “one anothers” of the Bible and practically states on one side of a piece of paper who is really welcome in your church and how people are to behave as those who follow Jesus.  Would a poor person feel welcome?  Is a person convicted of sexual crimes against children be welcome?  If so, are there parameters?  People often triangulate when it comes to conflict.  Are you going to follow Matthew 18 faithfully, even and especially with those who have held your ministry hostage for years?
  2. Develop a vision which makes it clear that your congregation is focused on the great commission.  As such, you will meet unchurched people where they are.  You will establish entry level ministries where they can interact with church people in a nonthreatening environment.  It will be fully apparent that the needs and preferences of the unchurched stranger trump those of the already church member.
  3. Develop a mentality of personal faith development.  We all know that people have terrible Biblical awareness in our culture.  That’s a big reason why there’s an open door to a consumer mentality.  So install for people the discipleship questions where every week people should be able to respond to: A) what intrigued them from reading the Bible; B) what they heard from God in prayer: C) how they shared their faith; D) how they were a Christian witness in daily life; and E) how they have encouraged others in the journey of Jesus.
  4. Develop ongoing training.  Consider formal sessions for people with resources, video and otherwise, which point out the necessity and method for being a hospitable congregation.  People need to be in mutual conversation.  It’s not just leaders telling them what to do.  In my congregation, one of the best moments was when a longtime member got up and said to many of his peers that the most important thing for him on a Sunday morning was meeting a person he didn’t know.
  5. Develop a broad level of communication.  Supposedly, people forget a vision if they haven’t heard it referenced in the last 27 days.  And if they haven’t been to church in the past three weeks… So you need to communicate the vision and vitality of hospitality ministry in as many ways as you can as much as you can.  Celebrate it on social media, emails, announcements, videos, testimonials, and – not the least of which – sermons.

We live in a time when church is accosted for being hypocritical and irrelevant.  Making the transformation from a culture that is inward to one that is hospitable is the crucial piece for becoming a ministry which is effective and expresses a faith with integrity.