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Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations
By Robert Schnase
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2007 Robert Schnase
All rights reserved.
THE PRACTICE OF RADICAL HOSPITALITY
"Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." (Romans 15:7)
Vibrant, fruitful, growing congregations practice Radical Hospitality. Out of genuine love for Christ and for others, their laity and pastors take the initiative to invite, welcome, include, and support newcomers and help them grow in faith as they become part of the Body of Christ. Their members focus on those outside their congregation with as much passion as they attend to the nurture and growth of those who already belong to the family of faith, and they apply their utmost creativity, energy, and effectiveness to the task, exceeding all expectations.
The words radical and hospitality are not usually together in one phrase. To advance the church, perhaps they should be.
Christian hospitality refers to 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. It describes a genuine love for others who are not yet a part of the faith community, an outward focus, a reaching out to those not yet known, a love that motivates church members to openness and adaptability, a willingness to change behaviors in order to accommodate the needs and receive the talents of newcomers. Beyond intention, hospitality practices the gracious love of Christ, respects the dignity of others, and expresses God's invitation to others, not our own. Hospitality is a mark of Christian discipleship, a quality of Christian community, a concrete expression of commitment to grow in Christ-likeness by seeing ourselves as part of the community of faith, "not to be served but to serve" (Matthew 20:28). By practicing hospitality, we become part of God's invitation to new life, showing people that God in Christ values them and loves them.
"A Ministry That Rocks!"
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 got around, 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.
Hospitality streams through Scripture. In Deuteronomy, God reminds the people of Israel to welcome the stranger, the sojourner, the wanderer. Why? "For you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:19).
We, too, were once strangers to the faith, residing outside the community where we now find rich resources of meaning, grace, hope, friendship, and service. We belong to the Body of Christ because of someone's hospitality. Someone invited us, encouraged us, received us, and helped us feel welcome—a parent, a spouse, a friend, a pastor, or even a stranger. By someone's love, we were engrafted onto the Body of Christ. If we had not felt welcomed and supported in some measure, we would not have stayed.
Jesus says, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Matthew 25:35). "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). We would change our behaviors toward strangers if we lived as if we really believed this!
A scenario at any church might look like this: a young single mom stands awkwardly in the foyer 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.
At every turn, the disciples seem ready to draw boundaries and distinctions that keep people at a distance from Jesus. They have a thousand reasons to ignore, avoid, and sometimes thwart the approach of people, reminding Jesus that some of these people are too young, too sick, too sinful, too old, too Roman, too blind, or too Gentile to deserve his attention. Jesus teaches, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (Matthew 18:5). In every instance, Jesus radically challenges the disciples' expectations by overstepping the boundaries to invite people in. Hospitality has us seeing people as Jesus sees them and seeing Jesus in the people God brings before us.
But Jesus' hospitality extends beyond the cordial welcome we offer when someone appears at the threshold of the church and then feel good that we've completed our obligations. Jesus tells a parable about himself, saying, "Then [the king] said to his slaves ... 'Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet'" (Matthew 22:8-9). Following Jesus' example of gathering people into the Body of Christ, inviting them to the banquet of God's gracious love requires intentional focus on those outside the community of faith. Jesus' example of hospitality demands an unceasingly invitational posture that we carry with us into our world of work and leisure and into our practice of neighborliness and community service. It involves seeing ourselves as sent out by Christ and going out of our way, even at the risk of a sense of awkwardness and inconvenience, to invite people into some aspect of the church's ministry. Hospitality is prayer, work, habit, practice, and initiative for the purposes of Christ.
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. The letter of Hebrews cautions, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2). The people welcomed into a congregation may prove to be those individuals through whom God graces others' lives. As the community of faith receives and assimilates newcomers and accepts their spiritual gifts and natural talents, their life experiences and faith perspectives, the church changes and ministry expands. God uses newcomers to breathe new life into congregations.
John Wesley and the early Methodists practiced hospitality in ways so radical in their day that many traditional church leaders found their activities offensive. Wesley preached to thousands on roadsides and in open fields in order to reach coal miners, field laborers, factory workers, the underclass, and the poorest of the poor. He invited them into community and nurtured in them a strong sense of belonging as he organized societies and classes for mutual accountability, support, and care. Wesley taught of God's prevenient grace: the preceding, preparing grace that draws people to God.
According to Wesley, before people ever consciously come to faith, they have inner desires for relationship to God that are stifled, forgotten, neglected, ignored, or denied. By the grace that precedes awareness or decision, God creates readiness for faith in the individual and fosters the nascent eagerness to please God. By God's grace, people may be more ready than we realize to accept the invitation and initiative of Christ that comes through gracious hospitality. Just as God's prevenient grace enables people to choose to move closer to God, so also God's grace works through the church to offer an initiating, surrounding, inviting love. Through the practice of Radical Hospitality, the early Methodists as well as United Methodists today express the gracious welcome of God in Christ. God seeks relationship to people. God's grace activates interest and eagerness for relationship just as God's grace shapes the invitational posture of congregations to reach out in love.
I served one congregation that wanted to deepen its understanding of hospitality, growing beyond the practical steps recommended by books on evangelism, assimilation, and visitor follow-up. We had the techniques right—helpful signage, accessible parking, trained greeters, and a system of visitor follow-up. But we sought a culture of hospitality that extended into our Sunday school classes, mission teams, choirs, and youth ministry. I invited ten church leaders to commit with me to a series of lunches for in-depth study and reflection on welcoming people into the Body of Christ. These people loved the church, lived the faith, and were those whom others naturally followed. They arranged their work schedules and family responsibilities to attend for an hour and a half, once a week, for six weeks. I provided copies of a small book entitled Widening the Welcome of Your Church, (Fred Bernhard and Steve Clapp, Lifequest Publishing, 1996) and sent out a letter listing the short chapters that we would read each week and the Scriptures that would guide our conversation. Speaking about our faith journeys was the key to our time together, not the content of the book.
In our first session, we shared how each of us had come to be a part of the Body of Christ. We discussed questions such as, "Who had invited us or brought us to church? Where did we become involved, and what type of service or activity did we first attend? How did we feel about those earliest encounters with the Body of Christ? What made us feel welcome? What difficulties did we have to overcome?" We talked about people, places, services, ministries, pastors, and studies that God used to form us. Some remembered making attempts to enter into churches from which they felt resistance, obstacles, coldness. Next, we talked about what had brought each one to First Church, the congregation to which we belonged at that time. How had we first heard about the church? What was our first worship experience like with this congregation? What strengthened us and made us feel welcome, or what made it hard to connect? Many were surprised to hear how difficult it had been for some to feel warmly received or how long it had taken. Others lifted up particular people or events that had opened the door for them and helped them feel they belonged to the community of faith. It was an honest and profoundly moving conversation, intermingling the experiences of those who were long-term members with those who had joined recently.
During another session, we discussed the theological meaning of the church as the Body of Christ and delved into the "why" of invitation, welcome, and hospitality. Why do we invite and welcome people into our midst? So that our statistics look better to impress the Bishop? In order to survive as an institution or to develop a stronger financial base? We discussed the fundamental purpose for which the church exists—to draw people into relationship with God through Jesus Christ—and how this changes lives. To live in community with others is part of God's plan and intention for us. A congregation is a school for love, the place where God's Spirit forms us and the place where we learn how to give love to and receive love from friends, neighbors, and strangers. The church is the presence of Christ in the world, the means by which God knits us into community in order to transform our lives and the lives of those around us. To keep the discussion fruitful, we avoided the premature focus on techniques and strategies, and concentrated on the fundamental purpose of Christian hospitality.
"Fresh Flowers, Free Lunches, No Offering"
As a Bishop, I enjoy the privilege of seeing many diverse settings for ministry. While looking for signs of Radical Hospitality in a fast-growing suburban congregation, I was struck by a dozen little extra-effort details that helped them attract high-paced suburban families. There were clearly marked parking places for visitors, amiable and helpful greeters, professionally designed 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 immaculate bathrooms, attractive bins outside the front doors so that kids could drop off their fast-food trash on their way in the door, and several seats with arms in the worship center for seniors who need the extra push when standing up.
An open country church in a sparse rural county decided to honor and show appreciation for a special group of people one day each month. The first month, they made sack lunches, added a personal note of thanks, and delivered them to all the farmers in the fields for several miles around. Next, they served volunteer fire fighters, then school teachers, and then county workers. Over the year, more than a hundred people received these unexpected reminders of the hospitality of the church.
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. We're glad you are here."
In all three churches, the pastor and congregation are focused on welcoming those from outside and inviting them inside. And at all three churches, the pastors give a positive no-pressure invitation during the closing hymns of every worship service. "If anyone would like to enter into the membership of the church by transfer from another church or by profession of faith, you are invited to come forward. We'd love to welcome you into the ministry of our congregation. Or if you would like to talk about this with the pastor, please talk to me after the service or call me during the week, and I'd be happy to visit with you."
In one session, we talked honestly about the greatest gifts we had received through the church from our relationship with Christ. People described how First Church had helped them rear their children, and they recounted tender moments of grace that had sustained them during seasons of grief. They gave God thanks for close friendships formed in the church that had shaped their lives and given them insight for dealing with life's challenges. Moreover, we considered honestly, without boasting or any negative spirit of pride, what had been the greatest contribution each of us had ever made to building the Body of Christ. Some talked about teaching junior high Sunday school students, others about mission projects they had led, and others about financial gifts they had given for special projects. After all had shared their experiences, I suggested that we think about another contribution that we may have made or should seek to make. The greatest contribution we can make to the Body of Christ is inviting someone else or helping a newcomer feel genuinely welcome so that she or he receives what we have received.
Excerpted from Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase. Copyright © 2007 Robert Schnase. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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