A congregation that believes, teaches, and confesses sound doctrine is a place of divine outreach. When people are brought to that place, God himself is the one at work. There is a certain extent to which, once people are in the door, we simply get out of the way and let Jesus do everything. However, the people who have come in the congregation’s doors are still human beings. People may feel nervous, out of their element, like foreigners surrounded by natives.
The devil will try to use discomfort to drive people away from the congregation. He’ll say, “See how weird it feels to be here. That’s a bad feeling, because this is a bad place. Don’t ever come back.” Or even if a visitor doesn’t feel out of place, nevertheless the devil will try to distract him, “Wait, what’s happening? What page are we on? Why is everyone sitting down? Oh, now we’re standing up. Ok, I was tracking through the order of service, but where are the hymns?” Thus, the devil does his work of snatching the seed before it can even take root, just as Jesus warned that he would in the parable of the sower (Lk. 8:12).
Now it is a great testimony to the power of Christ’s Gospel that visitors can feel out of place and have no idea what’s going on, and yet keep coming back anyway because the Holy Spirit has worked through the Word. As noted in the previous chapter, there’s nothing we can do to make Jesus’ Word more effective. But there are some things we can do to make the devil’s work more difficult, and we can file them under the category of hospitality.
When we think of hospitality within a congregation we might think of having coffee on hand, or offering donuts. While these are fine things, there’s more to the word hospitality, especially as it appears in the New Testament. Paul writes in Romans 12:13, “Pursue hospitality.” The word for “hospitality” in Greek is φιλοξενία (philoxenia), which literally means “love of strangers.” Certainly this “love of strangers” is meant to happen in our homes. But there are strangers to love at church as well.
Here’s what strangers don’t need. Strangers to our congregations don’t need pandering. They don’t need people fawning over them or courting their favor. In short, people don’t need a desperate church. Nor do strangers need to be left alone. Perhaps they think they want to be left alone, figure things out for themselves, get their own bearings. But the church is a community of saints, and we care about each other. If visitors come, we’re going to care about them too, and we’re not just going to leave them alone. People need community, and the Church is the best and the only true community on earth.
So, we don’t pander, we don’t ignore. We practice hospitality. First, this means greeting visitors. Sometimes this happens in a superficial way by having assigned greeters. Having assigned greeters often comes across as saying, “Hi, I’m supposed to greet you. I would be talking with my friends around the coffee pot, but I did that the last three weeks, and now it’s my turn to greet so that they can socialize without feeling obligated to greet anyone. Next week someone else will be here and I’ll be back where I’d rather be.”
What’s much better is to have a culture of noticing guests. Many eyes should see that there’s someone new, and everyone should be willing to break from their conversations in order to make the guest feel welcome. This doesn’t mean there needs to be a mad rush at someone, or staring, nor should all conversation cease at the arrival of a visitor. In fact, the little pockets of conversation that happen on Sunday morning are a good thing. We talk because we care about each other as members of the same body. The fact is we aren’t just waiting anxiously for visitors. We already have everything we need in our congregations, whether anyone else visits or not. It’s good for guests to see this. It’s refreshing for them that we’re not advertising to them or catering to them or acting like we exist merely for their sake.
Note that even this beginning of hospitality assumes that you are at church yourself. If you absent yourself from your own congregation, then not only are you playing with hellfire by avoiding the Gospel, but you’re also forsaking visitors who stand in need of Christian hospitality and teaching them that there’s nothing worth coming for. Infrequent church attendance is a great detriment to faith, and it is also an enemy of congregational outreach.
As I was saying, Sunday morning conversation groups (which naturally occur anyway) allow a guest to be brought in, and included, and introduced to a few people without being overwhelmed. Bringing the stranger into a conversation and community is much better than simply saying, “Hi, please sign the guestbook,” and then leaving him to wander off.
The conversation will naturally lead into the service as people check watches and begin taking their seats in the sanctuary. This is a good opportunity to invite the visitor, with whom you’ve been conversing, to sit with you. That invitation will (hopefully) bring the visitor closer to the front where he can be drawn into the service rather than spectating from the back. That invitation will also give the visitor someone as a guide through the service.
This is very important. The single most hospitable thing you can do for a visitor is make sure he knows how to find his way around the hymnal before the service starts. Sit together, show him the bulletin, show him the order of service in the hymnal, help him find his place, and then if you see him fumbling during the service, help him get back on track.
All of this together is simple hospitality: love of the stranger. It brings him into the community of the church, shows him Christian care, and, most importantly, prevents him from being distracted from the Word.
Some visitors come in late, sometimes purposefully because they don’t want to feel awkward before the service. What do we do for them? It’s helpful to have someone with an eye on the door, or standing by the entrance to the sanctuary, during the first few minutes of the service. That person can quietly greet a visitor and invite him along to find a place to sit together.
Some visitors don’t want hospitality. Their loss; don’t push it. But I’ve found that many guests are glad to have someone with whom to sit, and (more than that) are relieved to have someone walk them through the order of service beforehand.
Note that congregants are better suited to practice hospitality on Sunday morning than the pastor is. Our congregations practice closed communion—and with good reason—and so when a pastor sees a guest there is one thing that he must ascertain, and that is: do you belong to our confession or not? Once he has that answer, he goes about the duty that Christ has given him, which is not “woo the guests,” but “feed my sheep.” Therefore, let members of the congregation take it upon themselves to practice hospitality, and let no one say, “Pastor will do it.”
I’ll also mention that the practice of closed communion has very seldom offended guests at the congregation I serve. Most respect that practice, and those visitors who have gone through catechesis and become members have a very high view of the Sacrament. Closed communion is not the antithesis of hospitality but an integral part of it. If someone partakes of the body and blood of Christ without recognizing what it is, he does so to his own harm, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30. And given that we desire visitors to become members, it’s important that we begin catechizing about the Sacrament correctly by not having a loose practice.
To sum up, hospitality means “love of strangers,” and the greatest way we can love a stranger at church is to remove any distractions that would prevent him from receiving the Word of Christ.
Steadfast Lutherans will soon be publishing a book titled “Be at Leisure: A Lutheran Approach to Outreach.” The book will be available as a free PDF and in print for the cost of printing at Lulu.com. The chapters of the book will be published over the next several weeks as posts here on the blog. This post is chapter 4 of the book: Hospitality.