At my church, the first person a guest likely has conversation with is “Tom.” Tom has Asperger Syndrome. He’s the perfect front line for hospitality. His life situation keeps him focused on the mission at hand. He’s not distracted by people he knows who are tempted to chat with each other.
His job is to look for the next person coming to worship. Do they look like they need a hand? Do they need an umbrella? As a pastor, I am so appreciative that I can trust that Tom will greet every single person who comes to our door. And he will open that door for every single person.
It’s strange how hospitality ministry has gotten lost on the church. Every congregation thinks it’s friendly. But we’ve forgotten how vulnerable a person feels as we enter an unknown church environment.
My suggestion is to think about when you have guests to your home. I don’t think of myself as having any special gift of hospitality. But when I’m expecting guests, I’m focused.
Some years ago we had a dog named, Grace. She was the friendliest dog ever – a wonderful golden retriever. Grace loved to meet people. She did have the gift of hospitality.
Grace recognized the cue for when guests were coming. The only time I had the inner front door open was when people were expected. So she would sit looking out the storm door ready to greet whoever came.
Indeed, for my part, I look for the cars that are coming. I notice a flash of light that might be a reflection from a car. My hearing targets the sound of a slamming car door. Then it’s my goal to greet the people outside before they can get to my front door.
And what do we do for guests when they get inside, especially if it’s the first time they’ve been in our house? We offer them something to drink. We may share some food delights. We put their jackets in a safe place. We show them where the restroom is. We find a comfortable place for them to sit, maybe even positioning them by people with whom they might have a likely connection in life’s interests.
Why are such obvious and simple activities of home hospitality so unusual for the House of God?
Can we take what we do from our homes and transfer it to the church?
Here are the seven basics for a profound front line ministry of hospitality:
- Parking lot attendants. It doesn’t matter what size the church. New people need a prime parking location and need to know how to find it. People with special needs such as a physical handicap or vulnerable little kids deserve favored parking. Observe (does the car have a handicapped label or three small children?), evaluate, and direct people appropriately.
- Outdoor greeter. It’s frustrating to not know what door is the “right” one. A person standing in front of one door with a big smile is a good clue. This person really needs to possess the ability to show hospitality. They look for however they may assist people (remember the umbrella?). They look people in the eye. They welcome everyone. They open the door. Many churches miss out here. But this is essential on your priority list.
- Indoor greeter. Okay, this is your very best people of hospitality. These are gregarious extroverts. You might have to remind them to stay focused on the next person coming through the door because they just love to talk. These people have to know “everything” there is to know about your church. They know how to greet people. They don’t say, “Are you new here?” This might be a member whose spouse just died and they decided to come to church for the first time in five years. No. For those they don’t know and have the “deer in the headlights look” they say something like, “I’m _____, I don’t think we’ve met.” Or “How long have you been coming to ____ Church?” These people will intuitively recognize and give the impression that if you need a restroom, nursery, or worship center, this is the person who points a guest in the right direction.
- Ushers. These folks are sort of holdovers from the past – which isn’t necessarily good. Churches often have these people. But they might have bad habits. I remember that the men of the church I grew up in wanted to be ushers because they felt empowered to skip the sermon and go talk in the basement. This isn’t a position of just stick some paper in people’s hands. These folks may not be the best at hospitality. But everyone can look a person in the eye and smile. Every person can say good morning and welcome. These people need to make sure that the guest hasn’t fallen between the cracks and missed their needs being met by the people above. Make sure the people have what they need to be ushered into the presence of God. Seat them in a place that accommodates their needs.
- Pew hosts. This is hospitality 401, for the advanced ministry. If you can pull it off, it’s great. Have people who agree to sit in specified places. That shouldn’t be hard since we seem to sit in the same locations from week to week. But they agree to look for folks they don’t know and greet them. Before worship or after. Honor these people as having a vital ministry which makes sure that a guest has a conversation with a member. This is an opportunity to go deeper. What brought the person to worship? What are they looking for? What do they do during the week? How can your ministry speak into their lives?
- Connection cards. Most churches these days use some sort of connection cards which are better than the old pew pads for getting information. An encouragement from up front should be made at every worship for every person to fill out these cards. New people won’t fill them out if they see the veterans don’t. Indeed, make these cards an expression of stewardship of life. They include vital contact information, but they also afford every person at worship to take a next step of faith and offer that to God.
- Follow up. What’s old is new. People will always want to see authentic love through practical action. After worship, have one person who collects the cards and shares pertinent information. Hear from the ushers and greeters what they learned about folks. Put together the best picture of visitors’ lives that you can. Then the preacher (or at least someone who was a visible part of leading worship in a large church) makes an unannounced doorstep only visit that afternoon. There may need to be adjustments for your setting. But statistics are shockingly clear that there’s a very good chance people will return if they receive a daylight visit within 24 hours (so Sunday afternoon before the requisite preacher’s nap). Bring a personalized devotional or a branded honey pot with fresh bread – some sort of lasting gift which has your church’s contact information on it as a reminder of your hospitality. But since you’re unannounced, don’t go inside even if invited. Say you have an appointment. Because you do, with the couch. From there, share the information you glean with those who can help connect these new folks in meaningful ways with the unique qualities of your congregation.
Every church can do these. Every church should do these. Not because it’s essential for a growing ministry (which it is) but since it’s the right thing to do to honor the precious people of God who found the nerve to enter your doors and come to worship. This is nothing less than the directive of God to show hospitality to the stranger.