Monday, September 12, 2011

Welcome Others as Christ Has Welcomed You

Most mainline protestant churches are in decline, the churches of North Alabama are no exception. But not all. I’ve made it my business to visit our growing congregations in order to learn more about why they are thriving.

I asked a pastor of a congregation that had spectacular growth among young adults what was her most significant act of leadership that encouraged growth.

"I fired the ushers,” she replied. “Those older men were stiff and cold. All they knew how to do is to hand people a bulletin, thus making a horrible first impression on visitors. I fired them, searched for people whom God had given the gift of hospitality, and the rest has been easy.”

I’ve learned that hospitality may be the key factor in a faithfully growing church. One could argue this theologically. Paul tells us that we ought to welcome others in the same way that Christ has welcomed us. A major reason for the crucifixion of Jesus was his practice of radical hospitality, open-handed, table-time conviviality.

“We want church to begin in our parking lot,” declared one of our dynamic pastors. “We’re vetting and training teams of friendly Greeters who meet visitors in the parking lot, welcome them, hand them off to the Hosts who stay close to them in the service, then invite them to lunch afterwards."

The most notable change in church architecture in the past fifty years is the enlargement and the open atmosphere of the narthex, the hallway into a church’s worship space. A hundred years ago our churches received people in a dark, cramped entrance hall. Today churches build spacious, open, light, comfortable “Welcome Centers” as a sign that they desire and expect people who are not seasoned members.

Indeed, I have learned that the main difference between a congregation in decline and one with a future is the difference between practicing the faith for the exclusive benefit of “insiders” (the members of that congregation) or passionate concern for the “outsiders” (those who have yet to hear and to respond to the gospel).

Jesus Christ died for the whole wide world, not just for those inside the church. Therefore, a theological test for the fidelity of a church is hospitality. In our contesting of the Alabama Legislature’s ill conceived immigration law, and I’m rediscovering the radical nature of the seemingly benign Christian notion of hospitality. Our churches really resent any intrusion into their attempts to be obedient to Christ’s mandate to welcome others as we have been welcomed. An evangelical definition of a Christian: Christians are people who know how to welcome people even as Christ has welcomed us.

If your congregation has lost the art of Christian hospitality, let us know. We have learned so much about best practices that our churches have tested and found fruitful in countless congregations.

A major task of ministry in our time and place is to turn our churches inside-out, making them more hospitable and therefore more faithful.

Will Willimon


Betty Newman said...

So, these older men who were fired... does no one care about their feelings? Did they understand? Was the "firing" done with love? Is the church today only after "new" folks? How do we meet the needs of the ones who've served these churches all their lives?

w.herndon said...

@Betty I do not know the answer as to these particular older men who were "fired" or how they perceived it. My hope is it was framed in a loving statement such as "you know what you would really be great at doing..." There is a man in my church who is "older" & is greeter; I thought originally I might need to "fire" him, especially when he was essentially guilting everyone who came through the door for their lack of attendance the weeks before. I found over time his intent was to let them know we missed them; I spoke with him on how others might perceive his concern the way in which he was saying it, & now he stops at saying, "Hey! Glad you are here" or "good to see you." I also spoke with our “newer” people & they said he is a very friendly greeter, it only took a little conversation to make a big difference in him.

w.herndon said...

Regarding the church being after "only new folks," I hear this question a lot, & this is how some in my congregation perceive my intentions. It is not an either or it is a both/and. As a younger person I often feel mislabeled, & at times I have become the poster child for things I was not advocating for, such as contemporary music. My wife has her doctorate in Organ performance & sacred music; I have an investment in that style of music, it is almost laughable to say I push for contemporary for contemporary sake. I love my people, & any accusation otherwise would both hurt & anger me (in that order). I want to meet the needs of those in my congregation, & I have an expectation of "the church" those who have been there & who have served all their lives to be a part of taking care of one another as well as reaching out to those not inside our walls. The 1st ministry I began in my congregation was a ministry to the homebound, the 2nd was a food ministry, & the 3rd was for 18 to 30 somethings, a population that was vacant from my parish (& our churches everywhere). Strangely I have heard criticism from life long attenders for things like, not going on every home visit with my homebound teams, the food ministry was to much trouble for the church (it was on Saturday's & those who complained never came), I seemed to really like hanging out with the young adult groups, more than I did those in the nursing home (another place I went every week). Betty your question is a good one to be wrestled with & I would like you to know myself & others are wrestling with it. Yet, your question, & others like it, are often times smoke screens to maintain status quo, & the push back which occurs anytime something different comes along. The perception seems to be if a church changes one thing they only care about the "new," if we place parking lot greeters in our parking lot's it is a waste of time, "I have been here all my life I know how to park my car..." The question also demonstrates perhaps why the UMC & other mainline churches have been in decline for so long, it has a "what about me" focus. Selfishness is not a Christian virtue. Some say it is selfish of the “new” to change for their sake, to which I would add, the "New" I am after are typically not Christian (self-procalimed) or not churched. Therefore, I do not expect them to posses Christ like self sacrifice, no one has yet taught them this is the way of the cross. I am afraid, however, we might create in these "new folks" a belief that church is about them, & soon be with them where we are with our current life long attenders today.
Christian hospitality should not be an us vs them dichotomy. It is a what we do together in Christ name. We are not to have a inside focus to the exclusion of the outside, or vice-a-versa. As in the gospels and in Wesley’s Class meetings, Evangelism & Discipleship take place side by side. Disciples of Jesus Christ make disciples, who make disciples...who together join in prayer, study, & the breaking of bread. I love the people trusted into my care, this is why I want them to experience the joy that comes from welcoming people they way Christ has welcomed all of us, without regard to the cost or how it may inconvenience us.

William H. Willimon said...


Knowing this pastor, I'm sure that he found something more in line with the talents of these men.
My church has a median age of 59, and all of our church's leaders are my age, and most are men, so I don't know that you need to worry about our overlooking the gifts of older adults.

I also hope that, in light of the article, you share a similar concern for all those people, of all ages, who are kept away from our churches by a congregation's failure to provide a welcoming climate.


billt said...

This remark, in the context of federal discrimination laws (not applicable to churches), would be clear evidence of age bias. Age bias should be no more acceptable in the UMC than sex or race bias. Being receptive and friendly is a legitimate requirement for ushers; the presumption that "old men" cannot meet this requirement is bias.

I was a church leader for many years and did not understand the comments I heard that the church was unreceptive of -- was pushing aside -- older congregation members. I understand those comments now.

John N. Cox said...

I am a life-long Methodist and an older man who was fired from being an usher. I thought I was being welcoming. I personally escorted new members to a place of their choosing and made sure the minister spoke to them on the way out. I made sure they got the New Member package of gifts when they left. When I was raining, I stood at the curb with an umbrella to escort people in. Then I ran out into the parking lot to escort the drivers in. I never chastished anyone for missing church. The way I was fired was the minister in an e-mail told me (a) I was a cancer on the Body of Christ, (b) I was in league with Satan to drive people away from the church, and (c) I was a proponant of false theologies. The theologies that my pastor disagreed with me on were (a) what is found in Bishop Willimon's book "Who Will Be Saved," and (b) that I refused to believe that "Pray Away the Gay" is a proper Christian way of dealing with homosexuality. But I think the final breaking point that convinced my minister to demand I leave the church by accusing me of Satanic allegience was that I expressed a preference that the sound level during church events always be below the levels specified in OSHA Workplace Standards for noise exposure found in 29 CFR 1910.95(b)(2), Table G-16. I am now attending a Methodist Church that is more tolerant of persons who are not members of the Teaparty. The United Methodist Church is profoundly mistaken if it thinks turning themselves into "Non-Demoninational Lite" will be a winning strategy. People who want a Non-Demoninational church experience are always going to go down the street from a UMC Church where they can get a full strenght experience.

John N. Cox said...

In my previous post, I typed "New Members" when I meant to type "Guests."

IMRAN said...

The word ‘Hospitality’ simply means the practice of being hospitable. But when we add the prefix ‘Christian’, it transforms into something for which the people in this cruel world today thirsts for. Hospitality is one of the fundamental cornerstones of Christian faith.Christians believe in the Almighty who “loves the sojourner” (Deut 10:18). Christian faith upholds the virtue of welcoming strangers or foreigners, as Israelites were once foreigners in Egypt.
Hospitality is the fundamental expression of Christians, in response to God’s hospitality and kindness to mankind in providing his only begotten son Jesus Christ as a sacrifice on Calvary, which compels every believer in the’ body of Christ’ to follow in His footsteps.