Hospitality in Worship: A Reflection of God's Gracious Character

I did not become passionate about hospitality until I realized that it had to be rooted in grace. Not until my desire to reflect God’s hospitality to me, in no longer calling me a stranger, but in calling me a friend, did the hospitality I extend to others become linked to grace. When that happened, then hospitality became more than technique and more than a task.

Cindy Holtrop

I did not become passionate about hospitality until I realized that it had to be rooted in grace. Not until my desire to reflect God’s hospitality to me, in no longer calling me a stranger, but in calling me a friend, did the hospitality I extend to others become linked to grace. When that happened, then hospitality became more than technique and more than a task.

Martha Stewart did not first invent hospitality. And she does not have the final word on it. Hospitality first of all flows from grace and is the believer’s grateful response to the gift of grace. Christine Pohl, the author of Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, says, "Hospitality is not so much a task as a way of living our lives and of sharing ourselves."

What does the ministry of hospitality look like in our congregations and in our worship services? The ministry of Christian hospitality has received more serious attention in recent years because denominational lines have become more permeable, denominational loyalty has waned, and the church has become more determined to seek the lost. When people who are strangers to the church and to grace come to worship, seeking the grace of God and gracious people, churches begin to ask: Why do people return? What do we do to welcome them? Hospitable acts like someone shaking your hand at the door, acknowledging your presence, offering to show you where the restrooms are, or where the nursery is for your children, make a difference in people’s sense of welcome and belonging. Hospitality often makes the difference in wanting to return to a place you’ve never been before.

A lack of hospitality is like a cold draft in a room on a gray day. It leaves you chilled, not warmed, empty rather than nurtured, hungry rather than nourished. Hospitality in and around worship begins in the church parking lot with parking spaces reserved for visitors. Hospitality continues with appropriate signage in the building, so people know where they are going and can find what they need. If you are not expecting guests, then these kinds of things are not important. In one small church, the greeter was handing out children’s bulletins. A visiting family with three young children arrived. Startled, the greeter said, "Oh, I’m sorry. We made only enough bulletins for our children." If you are expecting guests, then you look for ways you can anticipate them and their needs.

Generous, authentic and warm hospitality is life-giving to all who worship with you. And though the gestures are often small, they are still important because they give a significant message to people: You are valued. You are a person of God and we welcome you in the name of Christ. We want to do everything we can to make you feel at home, so that you will be at home with God, and experience the presence of Christ here. Henry Nouwen says "hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place."

Congregations practice hospitality and commit to it. They are intentional about it, until it becomes the norm for the way in which they live as the people of God, and the way in which they do ministry. To do something inhospitable would be unthinkable to them. Where hospitality is a virtue in a congregation, you will find other virtues such as mercy, love, compassion and forgiveness. These then become woven into a congregation’s life, and part of their grateful, lived-out response to God’s grace.

Let’s look at a few practical examples of how a church might practice hospitality in worship:

1.   One church did not have an immediate need for an elevator in their building. They also knew that if someone had a need for it, they would not be able to use their building. So in anticipation of welcoming and in preparation of someone coming who might need an elevator, they remodeled their building.
2.   Several deacons who regularly came forward to receive the offering of the people, dressed more casually so that someone who might not wear a suit, either male or female, would feel comfortable in this church.
3.   One church decided to examine all of its assumptions about Christian community. How did their worship help them to "be church" as Marva Dawn says. What factors might make them appear to be a friendly church, and yet not be warm and embracing. Perhaps a stranger might attend for a year, become known to some people, and still remain friendless, without being intentionally drawn into the body. What did they need to do to extend deeper hospitality so that it was more closely linked to grace, and so that it was not a technique or a task.
4.   One church made a practice of welcoming new members with the children present in the front of the church. The children, along with the rest of the congregation, learned the new members’ names and the pastor prayed for the new members. The children and everyone else learned that each person is important in this faith community. They are known by name and they are prayed for.
5.   Anxious about how to seat latecomers, one church shut the glass doors to the sanctuary before the service began. They realized they needed to make their practice of seating latecomers more gracious and hospitable.
6.   People who had different views and interests in worship came to the worship committee with their concerns: The worship committee prayed together for the Spirit’s wisdom and discernment in their discussion as a committee and with the members of the congregation. The committee committed to withholding judgment as they met with these people. They realized that prejudging would pre-empt understanding. They could still listen with discernment. Hospitality means suspending judgment so that you can hear and understand another perspective.

When there is a river of grace and restoration that flows through a congregation, the hospitable congregation is committed to the needs of people, especially those who are vulnerable and in need of hospitality. Israel was committed to and commanded by God to offer hospitality first of all to those who were widowed, the poor, the orphans, and the stranger. There are many others that we could add to this list. In the New Testament we are commanded to practice hospitality to each other.

The hospitable congregation is willing to go beyond its comfort zones. A white congregation and an African American congregation have built a relationship with each other. The two pastors are deeply committed to it and regularly meet together. Their hospitality to each other spills over into the life of their congregations. When the two choirs practice and sing together, they do something deliberately and intentionally hospitable that may seem artificial and uncomfortable at first. When their choirs sing together, they sit, one white person, one black person, one white person, one black person so that they would intentionally talk to each other. It may seem artificial, but it may help them open up to deeper hospitality to one another. Hospitality reduces the strangeness between people.

Probably the place where we need to practice hospitality most within our respective roles is in how we talk about worship and how we talk with each other about worship. Listen for cues about that this weekend. What are the gracious words we can say to each other, and sometimes about each other and about different styles of worship.

When we extend hospitality to one another, the temperature of strangeness, loneliness and alienation between people is lowered. We were once aliens. We were strangers to grace. And now we have been brought close to God through Christ and he now calls us friends. For that reason, we offer hospitality to each other, and we create a welcome space for guests so they meet God and God in us. The hospitality we show is a reflection of God’s gracious character.

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