Henry G. Brinton
Covenant Network Baltimore/DC Regional Conference
March 9, 2013
A cab driver from Ghana took a fare to Montgomery County, Maryland, and then decided to attend a service at a Baptist church. After he walked in, the congregation phoned the police, describing him as a trespasser. He said, “No, I am a Baptist, from Ghana.” They insisted he was trespassing.
When I was on sabbatical in 2009, I attended worship at an Episcopal church in Washington, DC, an open and affirming congregation that is renowned for the welcome that it extends to the homeless of its community. But not a single person spoke to me in the coffee hour that followed the service.
These are examples of Christian inhospitality, instead of Christian hospitality. Sadly, the same thing happens at the congregation I serve, Fairfax Presbyterian. Some visitors to the church recently told me how much they enjoyed our worship service. But after the service, not a single person spoke to them in the narthex.
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah (56:7). This is the signature verse at Fairfax Presbyterian. It’s the line from Scripture that is posted in our Sanctuary, and that we focus on each week. But we don’t always live out its message of inclusion.
You might think that liberal churches would be among the most welcoming of congregations, but they are not. Members have the aspiration to be hospitable, but not the skills. Many of us worship in churches that were built before attention was given to creating bright and spacious entryways. We look for our friends after the service of worship, instead of seeking out the strangers among us. Shared meals are periodic and unpredictable in the lives of our congregations, instead of regular occurrences. And we fail to create small groups in such a way that new members can enter them easily and develop deep-spirited friendships.
These are the roots of hospitality: Welcoming sites, worship, meals and small groups. They are absolutely critical practices in open and hospitable congregations. Without them, we cannot become the reconciling, outreach-oriented, inclusive congregations that God wants us to be.
These practices are not rocket science – and I know this because my father was a rocket scientist. He worked for NASA for 40 years, at the Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA headquarters. The roots of hospitality are not complicated, but they are central to the Christian life.
I believe that all of you want to be part of a truly welcoming congregation, one that embraces all people with God’s love and grace. But if you are like me, you haven’t mastered the practices of Christian hospitality. You probably set up some barriers to inclusion without even knowing it. Perhaps your church entryways are dark or cramped. Or, when you enter church, you gravitate toward a particular seat. Or you like a certain kind of music, regardless of what your guests might enjoy. Or you fear what kind of changes an influx of immigrants or LGBT families might bring to the church.
Fundamentally, most of us go to church expecting our own needs to be met. We have the attitude of guests, rather than hosts. We want to sit in our favorite seats, enjoy our favorite music, see our friends, and have food and drink with people we already know.
But what if we shifted our attitudes and became the hosts that God wants us to be? That would mean greeting our guests at the door, offering them comfortable seats, asking what kind of music they would like, making sure they have something to eat and drink, and being willing to make changes that they would enjoy.
That’s real hospitality. An ancient but often overlooked Christian practice. And it’s a major shift in attitude that even the most liberal church members are challenged to make.
I had the opportunity to go on sabbatical and visit churches that do a particularly good job of welcoming and including people. I discovered, much to my surprise, that there are churches with these skills that run across the theological spectrum, from evangelical to progressive. So perhaps the practice of hospitality is something that can unite us as Christians, and heal some of the divisions that plague us as a church and a society.
Let me begin by introducing you to the roots of Christian hospitality: Sites, worship, meals and small groups. Then I want to explore the fruits that grow out of these roots: Reconciliation, outreach, and new perceptions of God’s inclusive love. The fruits are clearly going to be of the most interest to us today, as look for ways to live into a truly welcoming church.
If you want to dig deeper into the roots, I encourage you to get my book The Welcoming Congregation. It includes descriptions of best practices and some very practical action plans that you can put to work in your congregation.
The first of the roots is Hospitable Sites. When I visited evangelical Saddleback Church in California, I discovered that it is a church that understands the importance of physical sites in Christian hospitality. They have built a campus with numerous “threshold places” — places that link the church to the world around it.
Wide driveways welcome me, with excellent signage pointing to large and convenient parking lots. Trams are available to transport worshipers to various buildings, and a sign directs first-time visitors to a special shuttle area equipped with coffee and donuts. The landscaping and architecture remind me of a theme park, with waterfalls and large tents, making me understand why some people refer to the church as “Six Flags over Jesus.”
Saddleback was founded in 1980 by pastor Rick Warren, who started the church by going door-to-door. Saddleback is famous for its hospitality, welcoming newcomers as guests rather than as visitors. “The term ‘visitor’ implies that they’re not here to stay,” writes Rick in his book The Purpose-Driven Church. “The term ‘guest’ implies that this is someone for whom you do everything you can to make them feel comfortable.”
Across the Saddleback campus, colorful banners contain important information about the life of the church, as do flat-screen televisions flashing a steady stream of messages. There is a large Welcome Center outside the main Sanctuary, as well as a Children’s Ministry Center and a building called The Refinery, which contains snack bars and lounge areas. It is easy to find your way around Saddleback, and to discover where to get church information, drop off your children, and sit down for a snack.
But how are you doing at your church? Is it easy for a first-time visitor to find your Sanctuary? Where do they go for church information? For children’s programs? For a cup of coffee?
Think of a time when you have visited a new church and been very, very confused. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing except you. Maybe you wandered aimlessly from the parking lot, or took your children down a long, dark corridor, which led to a dead-end. Such an experience is frustrating and unnerving. In the life of the church, hospitable sites are very, very important.
Keep in mind the words of Scripture, for the letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). When we create hospitable sites, we are put in touch with something that is holy.
Now I’m not saying that you should try to copy Saddleback and build a large Welcome Center on a patio, or a separate building with snack bars and lounge areas. But you need to create threshold places that serve as bridges between the outside world and the inside of the church — sites that are inviting, accessible, and comfortable. This is because you want to be good hosts to the guests that are visiting your church every week.
Something as simple as your church sign can have a significant impact. When I was in Cleveland last weekend, doing a workshop on Christian hospitality for 17 churches there, the pastor of Faith United Church of Christ told me that one simple act had done more than anything else to bring gays and lesbians to his church. He and his church leaders added a rainbow flag to their church sign. Suddenly, the sign itself became a welcoming threshold place.
The second root of hospitality is Worship. You want to make sure that your worship bulletin is clear and inviting, not confusing and alienating. You need to take the time to provide practical instructions that are geared more toward visitors than church members. In the progressive Iona Community in Scotland, time is taken at the beginning of each worship service to talk about the flow of the worship service and to teach songs to the gathered congregation. What a gift this is to newcomers, who are often nervous about new music and unfamiliar orders of worship. Although the members of the Iona Community do not need these instructions, they are happy to tolerate them since they know how important they are to strangers.
So why do we do this? Because God does it. Our hospitality reflects the hospitality of God — the God who embraces all people with love and grace. We see this in Isaiah 56, in which the Lord reaches out to outsiders such as foreigners and eunuchs, and says, “these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (v. 7).
God always wants to expand the circle of inclusion, and to welcome people in ways that will not merely accept them, but will “make them joyful.” This is first seen in Isaiah’s servant of the Lord, who becomes “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6); then the circle widens when Jesus becomes “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19); finally, the apostle Paul goes beyond the people of Israel to share the good news of salvation with Gentiles.
God’s acceptance always leads to feelings of joy, which means that a spirit of jubilation should always be included in hospitable worship. After all, our challenge is not simply to tolerate guests, but to celebrate their presence. To show hospitality to strangers with the expectation that we are actually entertaining angels. To receive them in a service of worship, and to act as good hosts as we do everything we can to make them feel welcomed and included.
The third root of hospitality is Shared Meals. Welcoming congregations know the importance of gathering people around food and drink. It is when people share a meal that they become close to each other, and close to God. From the time of Jesus to today, the practice of hospitality has almost always involved eating meals together — think of Jesus sitting down with tax collectors and sinners, hosting the Last Supper for his disciples, and feeding the five thousand. Jesus threw a feast with just five barley loaves and two fish.
At the church I served in the 1990s, Calvary Presbyterian in Alexandria, the congregation was both culturally and racially diverse. What brought members together were international potluck dinners, in which spicy stew from Ghana was enjoyed right along with Southern fried chicken. There, I discovered that the clearest path to unity is through the stomach. It is when people sit down to eat and drink together that God’s presence will be felt, relationships will develop, community will grow, and people will be reconciled to one another. I think that this is what President Obama is trying to do with his recent dinners and lunches with Congressional Republicans.
The fourth and final root of hospitality is Small Groups. These intimate and honest small groups should be focused on friendship, community-building, Bible study, and spiritual growth. Members of the Iona Community in Scotland meet in family groups on a regular basis. They open their houses to one another, share leadership in Bible study, look at contemporary issues in light of Scripture, and conclude each gathering with a shared meal.
At Saddleback Church in California, newcomers are quickly invited into small groups where friendships can grow as people focus on spiritual topics together. At the beginning of an eight-week sermon series on healing, I heard Rick Warren stress the importance of each worshiper joining a small group. He explained that “God wired us in such a way that we only get well in community.” I think that’s true: God wired us in such a way that we only get well in community.
At Fairfax Presbyterian, our youth fellowship has weekly small group Bible studies in which Scripture is studied and concerns are shared. Our women meet in monthly Circle meetings for Bible study and conversation. Our Midlife Men on a Mission discuss Scripture after dinner every night on their trips to Honduras. And when we had a Lenten focus on hospitality a couple of years ago, we had almost 150 of our members in small groups for weekly discussions. Small groups are where personal connections can be made and God’s presence can be felt. We should always be in the business of creating and supporting such gatherings.
So these are the roots of hospitality: Sites, worship, meals, and small groups. When they are healthy and strong, we get to enjoy good fruits: Reconciliation, outreach, and new perceptions of God’s inclusive love. I want to stress that you cannot jump directly to the fruits; you always need to start with the roots.
The first of the fruits is Reconciliation. The word means dispute resolution, the reestablishment of friendship. This fruit is connected to the Christian belief that God was in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self, and giving us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16–21). This happens as we open our churches for community discussions, build bridges with outsiders, host meals for the homeless, and focus on reconciliation in small-group discussions.
I saw this very clearly when I visited Reconciliation Parish in Berlin, Germany. This congregation was divided by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. When the wall fell, they built a small chapel in the Death Strip between East and West — a chapel dedicated to making peace, to reconciliation. It is a beautiful expression of Christian hospitality, open to hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
But reconciliation is about relationships, not just buildings, so a significant part of the church’s work has been to bring former enemies into dialogue with one another. Reconciliation Parish has hosted conversations between former members of the East German Secret Police and their victims. Pastor Manfred Fischer has found that “victims are keen to forgive, and willing.” But first there needs to be an honest and open word, such as “I am sorry. I acted in a wrong way.”
Manfred knows that there can be no reconciliation — with God or with other people — without an honest and open word. Establishing new and peaceful relationships is best done through conversation, confession, and forgiveness in a safe and hospitable Christian community — one that is grounded in the reconciling work of God.
So how can we do this? At Saddleback Church in California, a series of “bridge events” called Civil Forums are offered to reach the larger community and enable members to invite friends who might not otherwise come to church. At Fairfax Presbyterian, we bridge the generations by having our youths join the senior citizens of the Golden Age Ministry for their annual afternoon of board games. Then we invite the senior citizens to attend the variety show sponsored by the youths. Along with Manfred Fisher of Reconciliation Parish in Berlin, we have discovered that “knowledge about how to live is not taught in schools, it is taught in community.” Important knowledge is shared when different generations are brought together.
When the fruit of true reconciliation ripens, people see each other in a new light. Acts of hospitality always teach us something new about ourselves, about our God, and about the people around us.
The second of the fruits of hospitality is Outreach. In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus appears before all the people of the world as a judge. He says to the righteous men and women, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (vv. 34–35).
And the righteous say, “Huh?” They are confused.
They say to Jesus, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you?” (v. 37). They simply don’t remember a time when they had the opportunity to serve Jesus in this way. Then Jesus says to them, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (v. 40).
It is when we act as hosts to other people that we come face to face with Jesus. It is when we show true Christian hospitality — welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry — that we discover that God is with us in surprising and wonderful ways. And this is true not only through our church-based programs, but in our homes as well. You can do very effective outreach by welcoming people to your homes, for small-group gatherings and shared meals. When a same-sex couple in our church became pregnant, my wife hosted a baby shower in our home. I think that sent a message of inclusion that was much stronger than anything that could have happened within the walls of the church.
When you welcome people into your home, you welcome them into your life. And this can only strengthen the church community. A pastor in Los Angeles has observed that “the front door of the home is the side door of the church.” Once you’ve invited someone to your home, it is much easier to invite them to church.
The third and final fruit of hospitality is New Perceptions. When I was pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church, I struggled with a number of older white members after I expressed excitement about the growth of the church through the incorporation of African immigrants.
I was feeling very positive about the congregation’s growing racial-ethnic diversity, while these members were experiencing a tremendous sense of loss — the church that had felt so pure and comfortable to them was rapidly changing into something that no longer felt like their spiritual home.
My hunch was that developing personal relationships would be the secret to managing this balancing act between diversity and purity. I hoped that over time some friendships would begin as people of different ages and cultures rubbed elbows during worship, international potlucks, committee meetings, and workdays.
In fact, many important bonds did develop, especially as multicultural teams worked together to host weekly coffee hours after worship. Members discovered that the church could be a home to a wide variety of people, old and new, native-born and immigrant. One day, I was deeply touched as I saw one of our elders, a retiree named Alvin Anderson, walk forward at a presbytery meeting and publicly embrace Stephen Nkansah, an African parishioner who had become a candidate for ordained ministry.
The final fruit of hospitality is a new perception of God’s inclusive love, gained through the discovery that barriers can be overcome and strangers can become friends. I believe that the Bible is a story of ever-increasing inclusiveness, beginning with God’s call for everyone to be part of “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:7).
This movement accelerates when Jesus begins his ministry of love, when Paul takes the gospel to the Gentiles, and when the Holy Spirit tells Peter to go with a group of unclean Gentiles “and not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12). At each point in biblical history, the religious tradition called for exclusion and purity, but leaders of the faith community discovered that God’s will was inclusion and diversity.
Today, divisions still exist between conservatives and liberals, blacks and whites, immigrants and native-born Americans, straights and gays. Our churches are continuing to struggle to find ways to communicate across barriers of race, culture, class, and generation. Although each of these categories has a unique set of challenges, the first step in building an inclusive Christian community is always to become more welcoming. When we do this, we discover the new groups of people that God wants us to include.
This process begins when people sit down together at the same table, share a meal, and develop new perceptions of each other. It continues as people come together in small groups for spiritual formation and the deepening of personal relationships. It bears fruit as they do the work of reconciliation and put time into shared outreach efforts. We need to experience both the roots and the fruits of Christian hospitality before we can gain these new perceptions of God’s inclusive love.
Last fall, a same-sex couple started attending Fairfax Presbyterian. They are two military women, Patricia and Amy, able to be open about their marriage only since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” They came to my office, and asked if they would be welcomed at the church, and I said, “Yes, I think you will. Let me introduce you to some people.”
I thought I should begin by introducing them to the active-duty and retired members of the military in the congregation. I thought that their shared military commitments would be a place of common ground. I also figured that it would be good to address possible resistance head-on, since military members are often among the most conservative.
The introductions went well, although one officer’s wife didn’t immediately grasp that they were a couple and asked them, “Are your husbands here?” Amy smiled and said, “We are married to each other.”
The two of them attended worship and took part in a Christian formation class on homosexuality and the church. They joined a Women’s Circle. Patricia became an ESOL tutor and Amy an usher. You can see the pattern here, can’t you? Hospitable worship, small groups, and outreach programs.
On the day they joined the church, I said to Amy, “I hope you’ll develop some strong relationships here.”
Her response: “We already have.”
Members of Fairfax Presbyterian are enjoying this couple, learning from them, and gaining new perceptions of God’s inclusive love.
Now I don’t want to conclude by sounding naïve. I’m not saying that being a welcoming congregation is going to be an instant fix for the divisions that we face in church and society. Theological debates will continue, misunderstandings between gays and straights will still vex us, and not all shared meals and small group gatherings will serve a greater good. But every time we sit down to eat and drink together, there is the possibility that community will grow, we will be reconciled to one another, and we will gain new perceptions of God’s inclusive love.
That is good news for a broken, fractured, and polarized world. And it’s a compelling reason to answer the call to Christian hospitality, as we seek to live into a truly welcoming church.