Lessons in hospitality

Graphic and quote found via Google

I once heard a story about a young college student named Bill. Bill had wild hair, spiked with vivid colors, and wore a nose ring. Bill regularly wore t-shirts with holes in them, blue jeans, and no shoes. Bill, a brilliant young man, became a Christian while attending college. He attended a Christian organization on campus, but he also wanted to find a church.

Across the street from Bill’s college was a conservative, very traditional church filled with well-dressed people. One Sunday Bill decided to visit that church. He walked into the sanctuary with his nose ring, no shoes, jeans and a t-shirt, and wild hair. The service had already started, so Bill walked down the aisle looking for a seat. But the church was packed and he could not find a seat anywhere.

In an uncomfortable silence, people watched Bill make his way to the front of the church. When he realized there were no seats left, he squatted down and simply sat in the aisle next to the first pew.

Although this was perfectly acceptable behavior at his college fellowship group, this had never happened before in this church! The tension in the congregation was palpable. The preacher didn’t know what to do so he stood there in silence.

As Bill was settling down in the aisle, an elderly man, one of the old patriarchs of that church, slowly made his way toward Bill. The man was in his eighties, had silver-gray hair, and always wore a three-piece suit. He was a godly man, very elegant, dignified, traditional, and conservative. As he started walking toward the boy, people wondered what he was going to do. After all, how can you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid with a nose ring, wild hair, t-shirt and jeans and no shoes, sitting on the church floor? Was he going to whisper in Bill’s ear and ask him to leave? Was he going to squeeze Bill’s shoulder and point him to the door? Was he going to pull Bill out of the church by his nose ring??

Because the old man walked with a cane, it took a long time for him to reach the boy. The church was utterly silent except for the clicking of the old man’s cane. All eyes were focused on him.

Finally, the old man reached the boy. He paused a moment, then dropped his cane on the floor. With great difficulty, the old man lowered himself and sat down next to the boy. He shook the boy’s hand and welcomed him to the church.

::   ::   ::

I’ve read before that the Bible is the story of God’s relentless hospitality towards His creation. My kind hospitality towards others simply reflects the hospitality first extended to me by God Himself. Even if it feels like a world of differences separates me from the other person – whether it’s gender, nationality, skin color, language, or cultural differences – it’s not even close to the huge difference that separated a holy God from sinful humanity. That means the uncomfortable space I perceive between myself and someone different than me is nothing compared to the chasm God bridged in Christ to reach me. To put it a bit differently: I am probably more similar than I realize to the person to whom God is asking me to extend kindness.

The story about Bill and the elderly church member is one of
a couple stories about hospitality from
I read the other story a couple weeks ago at Trinity CRC
when I spoke
on 1 Peter 4:7-11 and hospitality.


Noticing it again for the first time

There are benefits to being new to a place. I’m not sure how much longer I can say I’m new at Trinity CRC, but that doesn’t stop me from playing that card like when a salesperson stopped by today and asked what brand of cleaning products we use around the facilities: “I don’t know. I’m new here.” Being new also helps me see things that people who have been here forever don’t notice anymore. So I ask good (some would say annoying!) questions…

  • Why aren’t there signs clearly pointing the way to the office?
  • Why are the musicians spaced so far apart when we worship?
  • Why is there a door here?
  • Why isn’t there much about the CRC in the Welcome Center?
  • Why are we using Comic Sans in our bulletin?

Sometimes there are good answers to questions like these. (Granted, there is never a good reason to use Comic Sans.) A lot of the time, though, we don’t even notice things or know why they are the way they are.

And while I might notice stuff that others just walk by, there are plenty of things that others see but I’ve missed. Last week someone noticed that the signs in our parking lot reserving spots near the building for the elderly were getting very faded. “We have spots reserved for the elderly?” I asked. So we need to help each other see things again for the first time.

This may seem trivial until you read Thom S. Rainer’s articles (here and here) about the importance of first impressions – even for churches. He admits that in the context of theological discussions,First impression graphic found via Google writing about the first impressions of new people may seem trivial. “But,” he counters, “if we could understand that a returning guest has more opportunities to hear the gospel and experience Christian love and fellowship, we might take the issue a bit more seriously.”

So what do people first notice around a church that regulars may be ignoring? Here’s Mr. Rainer’s list:

  • the ease of navigating the parking lot and finding a parking spot
  • the signs and directions
  • the attractiveness of the nursery and children’s areas
  • the cleanliness and convenience of the women’s restrooms
  • the ability to find a seat as quickly as possible (Interesting note: A worship center at 80% capacity gives the impression that it’s actually full.)

Now to take a walk around the facilities again for the first time…

Welcoming guests

Each Sunday we welcome guests who are spending time with us at Trinity CRC. I prefer saying guests rather than visitors. (And don’t get me started about referring to new people as strangers as I once heard a pastor do!) You might be tempted to say this is just semantics – that we’re talking about the same thing, so don’t make a big deal about it. I disagree.

Although similar, the definitions of guest and visitor do have Beyond the First Visit by Gary L McIntoshsome differences. Gary McIntosh explains those differences in Beyond the First Visit:

Visitors are often unwanted; guests are expected. Visitors just show up; guests are invited. Visitors are expected to leave; guests are expected to stay. Visitors come one time; guests return again.

How many jokes are out there about your mother-in-law coming for a visit? The jokes don’t work (at least not as well) if you refer to the woman as a guest. (Just for the record and in case my wife’s mom is reading: I don’t get mother-in-law jokes.)

Just for the record and in case my wife’s mom is reading: I don’t get mother-in-law jokes.

Unless you specifically indicate otherwise by prefacing it with the adjective unwelcome, a guest is typically someone you’re happy to have in your home. Even if they arrive unexpectedly, we are happy to extend hospitality to guests.

If in the newspaper or on the sign out front or on our church’s website we invite people to check out our church, should anyone be seen as showing up unexpectedly? More to the point, if a new person shows up to a Sunday worship service, are we genuinely happy to see them? If not, then I suppose it doesn’t matter whether we think of them as visitors or even strangers.

Just don’t hold your breath for them to come back.

All this reminds me of how the word guest appears in a reading I sometimes use when leading a celebration of the Lord’s Supper:

[Jesus] was always the guest.
In the homes of Peter and Jairus,
Martha and Mary,
Joanna and Susanna,
he was always the guest.
At the meal tables of the wealthy
where he pled the case of the poor,
he was always the guest.
Upsetting polite company,
befriending isolated people,
welcoming the stranger,
he was always the guest.

But here, at this table,
he is the host.

Those who wish to serve him
must first be served by him;
those who want to follow him
must first be fed by him;
those who would wash his feet
must first let him make them clean.
For this is the table
where God intends us to be nourished;
this is the time
when Christ can make us new.

So come, you who hunger and thirst
for a deeper faith,
for a better life,
for a fairer world.
Jesus Christ,
who has sat at our tables,
now invites us to be guests at his.

In our churches on Sundays, we’re a bit like Jesus: We have the privilege to graciously and humbly serve as hosts for new people who walk through the door. Yet we are all guests, appearing at God’s gracious call to worship. And if each one of us is a guest on Sunday mornings, in a lot of ways it doesn’t make a big difference whether we’re showing up for the first or thousand-and-first time.

Lord's Supper

The quote from
Beyond the First Visit appears in this insightful blog. The Lord’s Supper reading originally appeared in A Wee Worship Book by the Wild Goose Resource Group; I found it in The Worship Sourcebook by Faith Alive Christian Resources (a second edition has just been published). I found the cartoon and Lord’s Supper graphic via Google.