Hospitality Matters: In the Church and Out

For those of us who live deep in the bubble of EvangelicaLand, it’s easy to forget the sacred trust that takes place every weekend when a guest arrives at our churches for the first time. They’ve mustered the courage to drive to a strange place, attempt to meet new people and figure their way around a new environment with its own set of societal codes and cues.

When they arrive, they may be met with a gauntlet of hand shaking by well-meaning but ultimately creepy people who don’t understand the need for personal space, or worse—they’ll be largely ignored by a room full of people who eye them with suspicion. It’s enough to make even the most extroverted person run back to their car in terror, fleeing the relational freakshow that is the evangelical church.

What happens inside our four walls on the weekend is of utmost importance. Every car we park, every door we open, every smile we share points the way to something much bigger. In the closing lines of his letter to the Hebrews, the writer tells us to “let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” That hospitality was a defining mark of the early church, and it’s what often set them apart from unbelievers within their community.

We say it all the time on our First Impressions Team: The Gospel is offensive, but nothing else should be. Think about that: If you are a part of a church that presents the full Gospel, then you are not presenting an “I’m OK, you’re OK” message. You’re presenting an “I’m a wicked sinner who was rescued by Jesus, and unless he rescues you you’ll split hell wide open” message.

That’s not very touchy-feely. As a matter of fact, it’s downright offensive. Paul noted that offense in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

That’s why we say that though the Gospel offends, nothing else should. By the time a guest gets to the seat and listens to the message being preached, we should have done everything possible to pave the way with rose petals and puppy fur. In other words, we should take a biblical virtue (hospitality) and put it together at an institutional level.

For us, that means a parking team that attempts to place people in the same zip code as the service they’re attending. It means a First Time Guest tent that’s staffed with our very best greeters to act as advocates for the guest. It means a team that is trained to anticipate, design and respond to every part of the guest experience. In some venues it means a hot cup of coffee and a Nutri-Grain bar. It means an eye-catching, warm and friendly kids area so parents don’t feel like they’re dropping their kids off to gray cinderblock walls and flannelgraphs.

Some would argue this caters to (or worse—creates!) consumers. But move it from a corporate to a personal level, and you’ll see this argument doesn’t wash. God is not glorified in your personal hospitality when you invite someone to your home, but give them poor directions, a cold fast-food meal and a half-hearted conversation. You would never treat a guest in your home that way. Why on earth would you treat a guest at your church that way?

The hospitality of a church can adorn the Gospel and encourage faith. And on the flip side, a cold, unfriendly church contradicts the Gospel message.

Pastors, continue to preach the unfiltered Gospel. Run the risk of offending people with their sin and shocking them with the unending love of Jesus. But equip your people to set the table in such a way that nothing else offends them. Seek to create the kind of environment where your guests will say, “I don’t necessarily agree with what I heard, but I can’t argue with how I was treated.” That environment of hospitality will eventually turn cold hearts warm and lead people to the Gospel.

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J.D. Greear
J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastors the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Tagged by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America, the Summit has grown in the past 8 years from 400 to over 5,000 each weekend. The Summit Church is deeply involved in global church planting, having undertaken the mission to plant 1000 churches in the next 40 years. J.D. has authored Breaking the Islam Code and the upcoming Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.