Surely there’s a church somewhere that practices the kind of hospitality Jesus did, right?
I wanted desperately to believe this after my family found itself unwelcome at church during the last several weeks. Since then, I’ve continued to wrestle with this question, albeit in a slightly different form: What would a church that practices the radical hospitality of Jesus look like, practically speaking?
Despite working for churches for nearly two decades, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced this. Oh sure, I (along with my colleagues) have tried to program hospitality, but in the end, programmed hospitality always falls dreadfully short of the kind of hospitality Jesus models throughout the Gospels.
So, in the height of our church grief, we wandered into a new-to-us church, desperately searching for something better. Here’s what we encountered:
- Despite the fact that we arrived at 10:29 for a 10:30 worship service, the pastor stood at the door and welcomed us. When he saw our two small children, he invited us to check out summer Sunday school and then pulled one of his deacons out of the processional line so they could show us where to go… Even though doing so meant they were late to worship.
- Upon seeing two-year-old Kendall’s interest in what was going on at Sunday School, the teacher invited her to stay… Even though she technically wasn’t the right age.
- At the start of worship, the pastor announced from the pulpit that everyone would remain masked because that’s how we currently love our neighbors… He then repeated the message during announcements (It’s worth noting that there was also a full page explanation of this policy in the church’s bulletin.)
- We were given a bulletin that had every word of the service in it (as well as the music notes). As a youth pastor, I’ve sat in my share of staff meetings in which we’ve debated the efficiency of bulletins. Do they waste too much paper? Are they a good use of staff time? And yet, let me tell you, as the new person, there’s no substitution for a bulletin. EVERYTHING was right there. I didn't need to know where to look or which book to grab because everything was right in front of me. As a result, I could fully participate in worship as soon as I sat down… And my husband could sing parts (something he’s really missed in an age of screens). That bulletin also contained detailed information about the week’s events (along with phone numbers and zoom links that make it easy for newcomers to get plugged in.)
- Throughout worship, those tuning in virtually were projected onto the wall of the sanctuary. What’s more, they participated in worship not as a separate congregation, but as people who were every bit as vital to what was going on as those “in the room”. They sang, shared the peace, and even led various parts of worship.
- When a child created a HUGE ruckus, no one - and I mean - not one single person turned around and glared. Life just continued, as though the child’s noise was as planned (and welcomed) as the bells that signaled the start of worship.
- No one seemed worried that the Scripture readings were longer than a couple of minutes… They weren’t trimmed to accommodate people’s busy schedules.
- Godly Play storytelling was included in worship, not just for a special occasion but as standard fare because they value children.
- During the sermon, the pastor came down from the pulpit and preached from between the pews. He offered a beautiful blend of scholarship and relatability that had both Doug and I listening attentively (a real compliment… We’re tough sermon critics). What’s more, the pastor actually involved the congregation in the sermon. He asked questions and expected participation (and waited awkwardly until someone did).
- Just before communion, everything stopped for announcements. Again, as someone who’s helped figure out where announcements are least disruptive, the first week, I thought this was really odd. On our second week, I thought it was less so. Instead, it felt much more akin to that moment at dinner when you thank the cook and then talk about the family’s schedules for the upcoming week. As a newcomer, I felt welcome and invited into the family business. (Also: Their finances are printed in the bulletin and their finance meetings are open to anyone who’s interested…. That’s mind blowing to me.)
- They provided info on how to give an offering so that anyone - even those who haven’t received their official envelopes - could participate in giving. (And, in a generous offer of hospitality, the pastor suggested that as the plate was passed, you touch it regardless of whether or not you put money into the plate in order to show your connectedness to the community.)
- The Sunday School children returned to the sanctuary for communion, a fact which, as parents, we really appreciated (Six-year old Hope also commented how much she liked being able to go to Sunday School and worship.)
- At communion, we walked forward, apprehensive about whether or not the pastor would offer the girls communion. Not only did he, but he called Hope by name (along with the rest of us) before kneeling down, looking Kendall in the eye, and offering her the bread, too. Moments later, he switched to Spanish to commune the family behind us. (Between those things, the Black Lives Matter sign outside and their programming for the LGBTQ community, I think this just might be a table that really, truly is open to all).
- Following worship, the community moved outside for coffee hour with individually wrapped packages of treats and Capris Suns for all. It was so simple… And yet one of those things that let anyone who wanted to participate do so. People also hung around long enough to plow through awkwardness and engage in real conversation with one another.
- During coffee hour, a woman introduced herself and commented how much she loved seeing our family - and in particular, our two girls - hold hands as we walked towards communion. A simple, kind word that let us know we - and our girls - are welcome in worship. Little did she know what a stark contract she gave us to the glares we received just a few weeks earlier.
During the last two weeks, my family experienced a church that might value hospitality above all else; A church I think intentionally and frequently wrestles with how to make their experience a welcoming one for EVERYONE who encounters it.
To be clear, the result wasn’t pretty. Worship was messy, filled with stops and starts, a fair amount of unplanned noise, and even a bit of chaos.
But that, friends, was absolutely beautiful.