A few weeks ago I arrived early for a worship service and took my seat in the near-empty sanctuary to reflect, pray, and prepare for the service. No one sat within five or six pews of me as I quietly listened to the musicians rehearse, but I do not feel alone or unwelcome. Then an older woman started up the aisle looking toward me, and I suspected that maybe sheíd found me out and was going to welcome the bishop or welcome me as a visitor. Instead, she came up to me and without any sort of smile or humor said, ìI guess itís OK since he isnít here yet, but the person who always sits there is going to be pretty upset that you have his seat.î And then she walked away.
Actually thatís the second time that has happened to me in six months. Earlier I had nestled into a seat in a modestly full sanctuary only to be told by a member that I had her pew. I awkwardly sought a good-humored response, but when I saw how serious she was, I stood up and left for another pew.
I know that in many churches there are good-humored jokes among friends and long-time members about ìYouíve got my seat!î But I can report from personal experience that this is seldom received with good humor by visitors and strangers. In both these occasions I had to fight the internal emotional temptation to walk on out the door. The subscript underneath the words was, ìThis is our church and that is my place, and youíll have to find your own.î
I realize these are extreme experiences, and I hope these do not characterize very many of our people in very many of our churches. But these occasions have reminded me how the cultural shift toward the practice of the Radical Hospitality of Christ must move beyond the pastor, the staff, the worship leaders and church officers, the ushers and greeters and into the awareness of all our members and guests and friends. The powerful and provocative language of Radical Hospitality must run deep and wide and shape the behaviors and responses of as many as possible for the church to fulfill its mission.
Recently I listened to the tape of a pastor of another denomination teaching about systems, and how systems trump mission statements. Mission statements may adorn the wall, but itís the behavior down the hall that shapes the churchís mission. This particular pastor 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? What are you unintentionally doing systematically to reward the opposite behavior from whatyou would like to see widely practiced?
Imagine a church staff and/or a staff/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 that everyone greets someone in a friendly, upbuilding way on every occasion of worship. Imagine if every adult class, youth ministry, mission team, and discipleship training taught, exemplified, roll-played, and practiced the basic principals of making a stranger feel at home in our church.
A friend of mine told of her experience while she was out of town on Easter Sunday. She and her friend visited a United Methodist Church. When a couple realized they were visitors from out of town on Easter, the couple asked if they had plans for lunch after the service. ìYou just shouldnít be eating in some restaurant by yourselves on a day like this. Come join our family for lunch. Weíd love to have you.î Wow!
This friend has repeated this story over and over again of this remarkable church and the wonderful hospitality that pervades the congregation, a hospitality that is so gracious, unexpected, and radical that sheíll remember it forever.
What are two or three behaviors you want to see practiced across the depth and
breadth of your congregation? The practice of prayer? The consistent offering of welcome? The inviting of guests? The growth of generosity? What are you systematically doing to motivate, teach, model, deepen, stimulate, recognize, and reward that behavior
Yours in Christ,
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