Church Culture and Hospitality
A decade ago Group Publishing asked 10,000 teenagers what they valued most in a church, and #1 on the list was “a welcoming atmosphere where you can be yourself.”
Recently the Fuller Youth Institute asked 500 high school seniors what they wished they had experienced more of in their church, and their #1 response was “more time for deep conversations.”
Bob and Laura Keeley explored what qualities are foundational for growing in faith, and they discovered that the #1 quality is to be part of a community where you know deep down in your bones that you belong.
All three of these discoveries point to the same reality: teens (and, I would argue, all of us) long for congregations that embody a hospitable church culture. Deep conversations happen in places where you can be yourself, and such places are hospitable places, places where we know we belong.
Being hospitable feels simple, but it is quite difficult. Jesus was condemned by religious leaders for the company he kept:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15: 1-2). When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2: 16-17)
Jesus was condemned by the religious leaders for being hospitable.
A couple thoughts on hospitality:
- Hospitality is THE central value that flows from the gospel. Grace means that I am welcomed home by Jesus even though I had been in enmity with Him! (“While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son,” Rom. 5:10). I am now defined by that grace; God’s goodness transformed hostility into hospitality. Both these words come from the same Latin root, declaring that “natural hostility” is transformed into “grace shaped hospitality.” If you need an Advent spiritual discipline, read through one of the gospels and linger over each example of Jesus’ hospitality. The list is astounding! As the church of whom Christ is the head, we too are called to be shaped by his kind of hospitality.
- Hospitality is very different than friendliness. Friendliness at its simplest is being nice to others. It is one-directional: I am nice to you. Interestingly, the word “nice” occurs exactly zero times in all reputable English translations of the Bible. “Niceness” is not a Christian value. Friendliness is a Christian value when it goes beyond niceness and leads to something deeper. In being hospitable, I welcome the guest in such a way that I am changed by the process of fashioning a home in which the guest belongs and becomes family. Hospitality is two-directional: as I welcome you, I am changed by you.
Ponder these thoughts:
- I’m embarrassed to admit that I somehow missed learning before our wedding day that our marriage would inevitably change me. As a result, our first year of marriage was very difficult. I had no clue what marital hospitality looked like.
- A (non-CRC) denominational leader in young adult ministry told me, “Many churches communicate this message to young adults, ‘we’re glad you’re here, we want to be friendly and welcome you, and when you become just like us, you’ll fit in just fine.’”
- A recently widowed friend told me, “The next time someone quotes Rom. 8.28 in order to comfort me, I’m afraid I will punch them in the nose. Too often they want to make me feel good so they don’t have to share my grief, and that beautiful verse becomes their weapon.”
You can see the common thread here: each situation was one-directional.
What happens as congregations practice two-directional hospitality?
Two-directional hospitality creates more room for Jesus to live in our congregations. Here are just a few of the ways I’ve seen it become real:
- A congregation committed to loving children and teens intentionally expands its worship practices so that all elements of worship communicate “you are at home here” to the younger generations.
- A congregation committed to embracing its oldest members provides multiple opportunities and support systems so these folks can bless others of all ages with their life and faith stories.
- A congregation in a racially diversifying neighborhood takes care that all of its leadership structures reflect the diversity present in the neighborhood.
- A congregation located in an area with high rates of mental illness provides “worship-buddies” to guide those so afflicted into experiencing the riches of the liturgy.
I’m sure as you read these, many more such examples came to mind. Every congregation I know that practices such hospitality will talk about “being stretched out of our comfort zones” and “our church became a more messy place.” Yes, it’s a bit scary.
But it sounds like amazing Advent gospel to me.