Hospitality in the Missional Church

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By Kevin Schutte

The TV show Cheers was one of my favorites growing up and into college. I am even willing to admit, rather sheepishly, that the character “Norm” was someone I admired and wished I could be. Daydreams came easily as I pictured myself walking into a bar to the unison sound of “Keeeev” as I would strut to my normal spot at the end of the bar and immediately receive a pint of my favorite brew.

This show seemed to captivate audiences. Why? I think it presented a picture of what community and friendship can look like, or what we often wished it looked like. A neighborhood bar where “everybody knows you name”, where you can be accepted, regardless of your background or perceived social status. Isolation did not exist in the world of Cheers. Cheers was a home to laughter with friends, to tears with confidants, and a place to belong. I think back even further into my childhood and recall another TV icon, Fred Rogers, and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. It was a “wonderful day in the neighborhood” and although we might smirk about his cardigan sweaters and slippers, we also find ourselves occasionally longing for that “wonderful neighborhood” to find its way to our street or our home.

I came across the following in an editorial in Christianity Today (11/2006) which paints a picture of a country in which the wonderful neighbors and friends at the local bar or bowling alley, seem to be disappearing, it paints a picture of people living in isolation.  Earlier this year, the American Sociological Review published a disturbing study, "Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades." Researchers Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew E. Brashears reported a "remarkable drop" in the size of people's core network of confidants — those with whom they could talk about important matters. As of 2004, the average American had just two close friends, compared with three in 1985. Those reporting no confidants at all jumped from 10 percent to 25 percent. Even the share of Americans reporting a healthy circle of four or five friends had plunged from 33 percent to just over 15 percent. Increasingly, those whom we consider close friends — if we have any — are household members, not people who "bind us to community and neighborhood." Our wider social connections seem to be shriveling like a turkey left too long in the oven.

When I read something like this my heart breaks!!! Part of being a church on Mission is creating a place “where everybody knows your name,” a real community that cares for each other. A neighborhood place where laughter finds company and tears are not shed alone, a community where kinship with friends and strangers can take root and flourish. I wonder sometimes if Christians have been so distracted by the temptation to create an exciting atmosphere — a niche market which combines the best of Dr. Phil, Billboard’s top 40, and a little of Jesus — that we have missed the mark of Christian living; loving your neighbor and practicing hospitality. A willingness to get to know someone and an transparency to be known. Can we be willing to be both a host for a stranger and guest in the home of a new acquaintance? Could our churches can be that place where people could go to belong? Where you could feel everyone knew your name and smiles were what greeted you as you entered. This does and can happen in a church, not just the neighborhood bar.

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Two years ago my family moved 1 1/2 hr away from the community we had lived in for the past 22 years. We had been very involved in our church in leadership and worship for a long time to the point we were looking for a church home we could come to and worship and just "be". Following our move we attended a number of churches in a number of cities including the city we are living in. Some of these were CRC some were not. Some were well established some were church plants.
In our former congregation I was quite aware of new attendees and would make an effort to connect with them after the service. My role as a worship leader helped make the connection even before the service ended. As I attended the different churches I was struck by the sameness when it comes to the lack of hospitality shown to me and my family. Yes there was always the obligatory nod of the head in our direction when we would sit down or even a hand shake if the pastor encouraged that but beyond that there was very little interaction I would call hospitality. What I did notice was a lot of groups gathering after the service for coffee that appeared tight. I could tell they knew each other, they had a connection. There was no one watching out for the new people and making an intentioned effort to make them feel welcome. There was one exception we experienced though the person who made the effort to speak with us was a former member of our former congregation so we had that tie.
What is the answer to the dilemma of a congregation where everyone knows your name but then someone new shows up at the door. As in the TV show Cheers there was the inside group that sat around the bar or had their favourite table but if someone new or different walked into the bar, sat at their table or horrors at their bar stool they were looked on with suspicion, sometimes even run out of the bar. That of course is not the way a real missional church works but there were Sunday mornings when I felt that way, as the outsider interfering on someone else’s turf.
In my opinion this is the paradox as I have experienced it; many congregational members will share each other’s laughter and tears in a strong sense of community but have a great difficultly being ready and willing to let others be part of that community.