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Five Weeks of Prayer and Practice for Congregations
By Robert Schnase
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2008 Robert Schnase
All rights reserved.
The Practice of
Christian hospitality is the active desire to invite, welcome, receive, and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ.
Radical describes that which is drastically different from ordinary practices, outside the normal, that which exceeds expectations and goes the second mile.
Practicing Radical Hospitality means we offer the absolute utmost of ourselves, our creativity, and our abilities to offer the gracious invitation and welcome of Christ to others. We pray, plan, and work to invite others and help them feel welcome and to support them in their spiritual journeys.
Jesus said, "I was a stranger and
you welcomed me.... Just as you did it to one of the
least of these who are members of my family,
you did it to me." (Matthew 25:35, 40)
A young single mom stands awkwardly in the entryway with her toddler, looking around at all the people she does not know on her first visit to a church. An acquaintance at work casually mentioned how she loved the music at her church and invited her to visit, but now she is not so sure this was a good idea. She is wondering about child care, self-conscious about the fussiness of her little one, unsure where the bathroom is, too timid to ask directions, doubting whether this is the right worship service for her, or whether this is even the right church. Where is she to sit, what is it going to feel like to sit alone with her child, and what if her little one makes too much noise? She feels the need for prayer; for some connection to others; and for something to lift her above the daily grind of her job, the unending bills, the conflicts with her ex-husband, and her worries for her child.
Now, imagine what would happen if people took Jesus' words seriously. They would look at this woman and the whole bundle of hopes and anxieties, desires, and discomforts that she carries
and think, "This is a member of Jesus' family, and Jesus wants us to treat her as we would treat Jesus himself if he were here." With this in mind, what would be the quality of the welcome, the efforts to ease the awkwardness? What would be the enthusiasm to help, to serve, to graciously receive and support and encourage? Taking Jesus seriously changes congregational behavior.
Do you remember walking into your congregation for the very first time? What was it like? Who reached out to you?
Gracious God, give me a heart that
remembers the strangers who may be in my
path today. Help me share your
all encompassing love with them, just as
you have shown love to me.
Challenge: If there are particular persons who helped you feel welcomed into your congregation, express your thanks to them personally or with a note. If that is no longer possible, give thanks for them by name to God.
"You shall also love the stranger, for you
were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Recently I heard about a woman who was going through a rough time in her personal and professional life; and in her search for connections, hope, and direction, she began to visit a few churches. After her first two worship experiences to which she came alone, sat alone, and left alone without anyone speaking to her or greeting her, her prayer for her next visit to another church service was simply, "I only pray that someone speaks to me today."
What an indictment! Could that really happen to visitors in our congregation? The truth is, I've had that experience, even as a bishop! When I arrive at a church and start looking for the office, sometimes I pass by forty or fifty people with no one offering to help me find my way, despite my obviously being lost and my active searching for signs. At a few churches, I've had greeters offer perfunctory handshakes without even looking me in the eye, handing me a bullet sin and pushing me along without any personal engagement or warmth. As my friend, Bishop Sally Dyck, reminded me, for the visitor or the person who is searching for spiritual help, "This Sunday is the only Sunday that counts."
In the same way stores sometimes employ agencies to provide "secret shoppers" to test the responsiveness of their employees, perhaps churches should consider working with a few conscientious members of another congregation, asking them to show up for worship and provide a "secret visitor" analysis. How are we doing at genuinely and authentically welcoming people? At helping people find their way? At providing worship leadership, bulletins, or other cues to help people who are unfamiliar with us to feel at home?
If a "secret visitor" came to your church, what would be the analysis? If this is the "only Sunday that counts," how do you respond to newcomers each week?
Dear God, open my heart so that I can see
people as Jesus sees them, and see Jesus in
the people you bring into our community.
Make me attentive to others, especially help
me support the newcomer taking tentative
steps toward you.
Challenge: Commit yourself to offering a simple and gracious word of greeting in worship to one person whom you do not know each week.
"... so that they may take hold of the life
that really is life." (1 Timothy 6:19)
Sometimes members forget that churches offer something people need. What do people need that congregations offer? Theologically, the answer may be "a relationship to God through Jesus Christ." This is too abstract for most, and for many it feels heavy laden with negative experiences of intrusive and aggressive evangelistic styles. But the question persists. How do we express with integrity and clarity what we hope others receive? What do people need from the church?
People need to know God loves them, that they are of supreme value, and that their life has significance. People need to know that they are not alone; that when they face life's difficulties, they are surrounded by a community of grace; and that they do not have to figure out entirely for themselves how to cope with family tensions, self-doubts, periods of despair, economic reversal, and the temptations that hurt themselves or others. People need to know the peace that runs deeper than an absence of conflict, the hope that sustains them even through the most painful periods of grief, the sense of belonging that blesses them and stretches them and lifts them out of their own preoccupations. People need to learn how to offer and accept forgiveness and how to serve and be served. As a school for love, the church becomes a congregation where people learn from one another how to love. People need to know that life is not having something to live on but something to live for, that life comes not from taking for oneself but by giving of oneself. People need a sustaining sense of purpose.
How is your life enriched by being a follower of Jesus Christ? What have you received by being part of a community of faith?
"Grant, O Lord,
that what has been said with our lips we may
believe in our hearts, and that what we believe
in our hearts we may practice in our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
—John Hunter, The United Methodist Book of Worship
(The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992)
Challenge: With a family member or friend, share your thoughts about these questions: "Why do people need Christ? Why do people need the church? Why do people need your particular congregation?" (Adam Hamilton, Leading Beyond the Walls [Abingdon Press, 2002]; p. 21).
"Then [the king] said to his slaves,
'... Go therefore into the main streets, and
invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.'"
When I worked in a clergy-training program at a hospital, I was called to the emergency room to support an older man whose wife had been brought to the hospital by ambulance. Shortly after I arrived in the small consultation room with the husband, a doctor approached him to announce that his wife had died. The doctor handed me an envelope that contained her wedding ring and eyeglasses to give to him. Needless to say, the man was stunned with grief. After a few minutes together, I offered to call his pastor. He did not have a pastor because they attended no church. I asked about any family members, and he told me his family was scattered across the country. I helped him with the paperwork, offered a prayer, handed him the envelope that contained the ring and glasses, escorted him to the exit, and watched him walk away alone to cope with the shocking news of his wife's death all on his own.
Life is not meant to be that way. God intends for people to live their lives interlaced by the grace of God with others, to know the gift and task of community from birth to death, to have faith to sustain them through times of joy and periods of desperate agony. Yet in most communities, forty to sixty percent of people have no church relationship. Many of our neighbors do not know a pastor to call when they face an unexpected grief. Most of our coworkers do not know the sustaining grace that a church offers.
Practicing hospitality is not inviting people to join a club in order to enhance revenue through dues. We invite people into that mysteriously sustaining community that finds its purpose in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Have you ever invited someone who is not a part of a congregation to a service, ministry, or activity of your church? If so, how did it feel? If not, what has restrained you?
Give me the courage, Lord, to offer your
invitation and welcome. Give me the spirit,
the grace, the right timing, the right tone, the right words.
Give me the voice to fulfill the task you give me
among the people with whom I live and work.
Challenge: Write down the names of three persons—neighbors, acquaintances, coworkers—who do not have a church home. Pray for them daily. Pray also for a time ripe to invite them to a ministry of your church.
"Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has
welcomed you, for the glory of God." (Romans 15:7)
One fast-growing suburban congregation practiced a dozen little extra-effort details that helped them attract high-paced suburban families. There were parking places for visitors, amiable and helpful greeters, brochures about a variety of ministries, an information station, special electronics for the hearing impaired, a well supplied "cry room" for babies, and pagers for parents with children in the nursery. There were also fresh-cut flowers in the bathrooms and several seats with arms in the worship center for seniors who need the extra push when standing up.
An urban African-American congregation announces before receiving the offering that visitors shouldn't feel like they have to give anything. "You're our guests, and we want you simply to receive the blessings of this worship."
An open country church in a sparse rural county decided to honor and show appreciation for a different special group of people one day each month. First, they made sack lunches, added a personal note of thanks, and delivered them to all the farmers for several miles around. Next, they served volunteer fire fighters, and then teachers. Over the year, more than a hundred people received these unexpected reminders of the hospitality of the church.
In all three churches, the pastor and congregation are focused on welcoming those from outside and inviting them inside. Paul implores the followers of Christ to practice an active hospitality. "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Romans 15:7). The grace received in Christ places upon Christians the joyful gift and challenging task of offering others the same welcome they themselves have received.
What does your congregation do to engage, invite, and welcome the unchurched? How do you personally help?
Dear Lord, you have embraced me with your
unmerited, gracious, and everlasting love.
Help me help my congregation to offer that same
love to others. Widen our vision and deepen
our commitment to serving you by serving others.
Challenge: Think about three specific ways your congregation reaches out to invite people and welcome newcomers. Think of three ideas about how you could help your congregation do better.
Jesus says, "Whoever welcomes one such child
in my name, welcomes me." (Matthew 18:5)
IT IS easier to create a culture of hospitality in a building that itself communicates welcome. When Ann Mowery began her pastorate in a small, rural congregation in Missouri, attendance ran about 100 with a mix of ages, most of them older adults. After seven years, the attendance now regularly reaches 150 or more, and the congregation has built a new dining area and has renovated the youth room. The secret has been an active hospitality that has become contagious throughout the congregation.
For instance, when a visiting mom felt self-conscious whenever her baby started to fuss during worship, Ann met with congregational leaders and they decided that they valued having young people so highly that they had to do something to ease the discomfort. To show support for the young mom, they bought a comfortable, well-padded rocking chair and placed it just behind the last pew of the small sanctuary. Word spread to other young families, and soon they had to have two more rocking chairs to accommodate the moms who found this congregation to be the friendliest around! Rocking chairs for moms, a cool-looking youth room for young people, a new extension that makes the building handicapped accessible—the pastor and the congregation use these to help communicate the priority they place on welcoming more and younger people.
To become a vibrant, fruitful, growing congregation requires a change of attitudes, practices, and values. Good intentions are not enough. Too many churches want more young people as long as they act like old people, more newcomers as long as they act like old-timers. It takes practicing Radical Hospitality, and all the redirecting of energy and resources that comes with this. Churches can't keep doing things the way they have always done them. Little changes have big effects.
How willing are you to change your own attitudes and expectations so that your worship services and ministries could attract younger people?
Strengthen me, Lord, for the hard work of
hospitality with excellence and passion.
Challenge: Think of one simple idea to help your congregation make young people feel more welcome.
"For the love of Christ urges us on....
so we are ambassadors for Christ, since
God is making his appeal through us."
(2 Corinthians 5:14, 20)
RECENTLY I listened to the tape of Andy Stanley teaching about systems, and how systems trump mission statements. Mission statements may adorn the wall, but it's the behavior down the hall that shapes the church's mission. Stanley suggested that pastors and lay leadership consider a few simple, but challenging questions: What are three behaviors that you would want everyone in your church to practice—pastors, staff, volunteers, musicians, worship leaders, teachers, class members, church members, even visitors and guests? What are you doing systematically to motivate, teach, model, recognize, and reward that behavior?
Imagine a church staff or a lay leadership team that identified a few simple behaviors that they wanted everyone to practice, and then worked to shape the attitudes, values, and behaviors in a systematic, long-term way. Imagine a church that decided to focus on the guest/visitor experience and to cultivate the behavior so that everyone greets someone in a friendly, up-building way on every occasion of worship. Imagine if every adult class, youth ministry, mission team, and discipleship training taught, exemplified, and practiced the basic principles of making a stranger feel at home in our church.
The practice of the Radical Hospitality of Christ must move beyond the pastor, the worship leaders, the ushers and greeters and into the awareness of all our members and guests. The power of Radical Hospitality must run deep and wide and shape all our behaviors and responses for the church to fulfill its mission.
Excerpted from Cultivating Fruitfulness by Robert Schnase. Copyright © 2008 Robert Schnase. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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