Most faith communities want to be welcoming and hospitable. But what does church hospitality really mean? The word “hospitality” can conjure up the idea of dinner parties in spotless houses that are Instagram worthy (both the food and the location). It can call to mind impossible standards and best behavior—and that couldn’t be more wrong.
“Hospitality is an offer to identify with outsiders and to treat them like insiders,” says Scott Cormode in this article on biblical hospitality. “Hospitality is extending privilege across difference.”
The Bible is full of stories of hospitality, including the big story of God’s incredible welcome of broken people into God’s family. The Bible tells stories about hospitality at different price points: from the costly hospitality of King Solomon’s court when the Queen of Sheba visits, for instance, to the care that the impoverished widow of Zarephath provides to Elijah.
Real hospitality, with its authenticity and offer of belonging, mirrors God’s hospitality to us. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. When money is tight, here are some ways to improve hospitality at church.
Listen to your community.
Listening to the community involves a posture of learning and empathy. It’s the practice of simply sitting with people as they share their hopes, dreams, and struggles so we can come alongside them in engaging and meaningful ways. Without listening, we make assumptions about what their needs are, we don’t build mutual relationships, and we miss out on opportunities to minister. Make an effort to listen to your neighbors, and consider building on what you hear with a community demographic tool like Mission InSite, which can add invaluable insights. Request a subsidized Mission InSite report here. As you get to know your neighbors and their needs better, respond to what you’ve heard in worship, Bible study, and prayer time.
Make your communion table open to people with food allergies.
From gluten intolerance to nut allergies, dietary restrictions are common these days. Sadly, they can interfere with someone’s participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. A fully gluten-free communion is the gold standard for hospitality, though individual service or service alongside are other options. Figure out what’s right for your church with these guidelines for gluten-free communion.
Use hospitable language.
In worship, maximize your hospitality by using expansive language for God and inclusive language for God’s people. This guide from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) introduces well chosen words.
Churches frequently talk about God as father; after all, that’s how the Lord’s Prayer addresses God. However, the Bible uses countless names and metaphors to describe God, which shows us we can talk about God in diverse ways, too. For people who have a difficult relationship with their fathers, for instance, this can allow them to participate in worship more fully, without unintended hurt.
Speak to everyone present, not just “brothers” but “brothers and sisters,” “siblings in Christ,” or “family of God.”
Using person-first language helps the congregation move beyond stereotypes, see people for who they are, and offer true welcome. I’ve learned that making a small switch (say, from “the disabled” to “people with disabilities”) can make a big difference. Rather than identifying people with their disability, person-first language conveys respect by emphasizing the person first, created in the image of God. Use person-first language when speaking about people with disabilities during worship, and in conversation with them. (These disability etiquette tips go deeper into how to interact with people with disabilities in a respectful way.)
Brush up your congregation’s welcome to visitors.
There are many ways to create a welcoming environment so that your neighbors, family, friends, and other visitors can experience the love of Christ when they join you for worship or a church event. This seasonal reflection on welcoming newcomers during the Advent and Christmas season has helpful advice for year-round welcome, too.
Reach across generations.
Intergenerational relationships are not necessarily the norm, but they are powerful, and one way to build them is through mentoring. Mentoring means walking alongside those who are wondering, wrestling together through life questions that mean the world to teens and emerging adults. It also makes space for the younger voices in your church to be heard, valued, and honored. A mentoring mindset will enable your church to welcome and enfold young people who come through your doors. That incorporation and sense of belonging sets them on a road of connectivity to faith and the body of Christ, likely for the remainder of their lives.
Consider the needs of people with disabilities.
People with disabilities experience many barriers, some of which discourage them from participating in the life of a church. This church accessibility audit can be used as a starting point for measuring your church’s accessibility to people who have disabilities; the sections on attitude and communication have numerous no-cost ideas for greater hospitality to and inclusion of people with disabilities.
Study what the Bible has to say about women and men in leadership.
God calls both men and women to serve in the church. Building God’s Church Together is a Bible study designed to help congregations and leaders create thriving ministry environments where both women and men are encouraged to embrace their gifts and develop healthy, flourishing ministry partnerships.
Look for ways to extend welcome across cultures and generations.
Equity-based hospitality is embracing the biblical practice of welcoming both friends and strangers in generous, kind, respectful, flexible, barrier-free ways. It takes people’s needs into account so that they can find space to truly belong, live into their God-given gifts and callings, and contribute to the body of Christ in unique, strengthening ways. Explore nine scriptural values of equity-based hospitality.