By Eddie Pipkin
I previewed a new series last week in which we would consider the elements of discipleship and how, when fully realized, they fulfill the basic needs in the modern search for meaning. It’s not just about the “discipline” of following Jesus: it’s a path to what’s missing in our lives (and the lives of those seekers who wander into our ministry spaces). A Life of Hospitality – one of the critical aspects of discipleship and one of the hallmarks of a healthy, vibrant congregation – is also a life of deep, engaging, life-affirming relationships. By helping people learn to live a Life of Hospitality, we make our churches more vibrant, our communities stronger, and our connections to others more meaningful and expansive.
One of the characteristics which has historically defined God’s people – as evidenced time and again in biblical accounts – is an authentic hospitality which welcomes strangers, nomads, pilgrims, seekers, and even enemies. In the earliest pages of Genesis, this extension of welcome, safety, and grace is a recurring topic. Jesus takes it a step further, celebrating the open invitation to all people (even those considered undesirable) and demonstrating the power of intimate relationships. The bond between the disciples is a model for how people should live together, sharing good times and challenges, but it is not a call for exclusivity. It is a model that extends the opportunity to join in life’s journey to all who would claim it and desire to share in that life together.
Thus, such hospitality becomes both a guide for how our “church” should extend itself to the community and an inspiration for how we should deal with one another as individuals.
We here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching have addressed this topic extensively. It’s one of our favorite themes:
- It’s a section of the Shift book and workshops.
- It’s the entirety of the CONNECT! resource.
- It’s one of the sections of the Discipler, our interactive discipleship development workbook.
- It’s the subject of a blog called Land of the Lonely that looks at the crisis of loneliness in the world and how the church is positioned to be a big part of the solution, as well as a follow-up called Loneliness and the Church, which offers detailed, practical tips for how church leadership can help their congregations combat loneliness.
- It’s featured in a blog on Friendship (Part 1):
- And a blog on Friendship (Part 2):
All of these are interconnected subplots of the same theme. If you teach the principles of a strong Hospitality Ministry, you are solving an institutional problem, but you are also simultaneously teaching individuals thoughtful practices for establishing and maintaining relationships. (And one of the things people consistently report they wish they had more of in their lives is healthy, meaningful relationships.) Likewise, if you teach individuals thoughtful practices for establishing and maintaining relationships, you are helping them fulfill a personal goal, but you are also simultaneously boosting the Hospitality Ministry of your local church. (And one of the things churches consistently report they wish they had more of is healthy, meaningful relationships in their churches – both the connections between individuals and the institution of the local church, as well as stronger bonds between individual church members.)
Good discipleship (as expressed through Hospitality)
Stronger interpersonal relationships (which lead to a more satisfying life).
The connection is real and powerful. A careful reading of the New Testament shows how this reciprocal benefit powers the growth of the early church. It also undergirds the growth of the current church in the paces where congregations are growing. The disconnect – for those churches which are not growing – is sometimes our stubbornness in embracing the idea that hospitality is a thing that can be taught. It feels that such a habit should be intuitive, or at least a natural outgrowth of love and Christ-centered living. But just because our hearts are receptive to a concept as seemingly cheery-sounding as Hospitality, it doesn’t mean we don’t struggle with defining it or doing the things that bring it to life.
- Sure, we are people of Hospitality, but to whom exactly?
- What does it mean to express Hospitality?
- What does Christ-inspired Hospitality require of us?
- What opportunities for Hospitality are we leaving unexplored?
Because some people are natural extroverts who love putting themselves out there, greeting people with a giant smile, welcoming them with a hearty handshake, we tend to think of this as a natural talent – you either have it or you don’t. And while obviously, some people are blessed with the gene of “effervescence,” true Hospitality is an attitude of the heart. It is a skill set that can be honed as the result of training. Hospitality requires us to develop these sensibilities:
- Intentionality: We need to get comfortable taking the initiative in starting conversations and making invitations to people we don’t know (and doing it again with people we know just a little bit – one of the big challenges is getting over the hump from “acquaintance” to “friend.”
- Accessibility: We need to put ourselves in position to come into proximity to others, so that relationship-oriented interactions are a possibility. We need to accept invitations ourselves when offered, we need to be where people congregate or cross paths, and we need to use technology to connect.
- Vulnerability: We need to be willing to open up to others, to risk intimacy in stages (because even introducing ourselves to someone we don’t know is a kind of vulnerability), to understand what it means to be in a relationship and the commitment to other people that is required.
- Flexibility: While it is true that we are always looking for people who “click with us” when we are thinking of making a new friend (share our explicit likes and dislikes, hobbies, interests, etc.), there are many varieties of friendship (peers, mentor-mentee, adventure buddies, confidants, hobby partners, people we serve with to accomplish projects, people we can give a helping hand, and people who can help us with their wisdom or experience). We should be open to all of these varieties of relationships and celebrate each one for its unique value.
- Accountability: We should build accountability systems that ask us regularly not just if we’ve read our Bibles or spent time in service but if we’ve worked during the week to build and maintain healthy relationships.
Very few local churches even teach the concepts of Hospitality to their Hospitality Teams – most just have welcomers or greeters or ushers, etc. It is exceedingly rare for a local church to train the entire congregation in Hospitality, although it would make a fine sermon series, supplemented with workshops and training sessions and practical demonstrations.
Do we train folks in these skills?
- How to start a conversation? Duh, we think, people know how to talk. But starting up a conversation with a stranger is really scary for many people.
- How to be a good listener? Many of us confuse with making noise with our mouths with meaningful conversation. For someone you’re trying to establish a relationship with, listening is key.
- How to become a part of a group? First, we highlight the importance of being a part of groups (and why that’s good for our souls, the church, and the wider world, as opposed to just plopping on the couch and streaming Netflix with our free time). Then, we highlight how we decide what groups to join! That part matters if we are to enjoy it, grow, and be useful to the group and the people in it.
- How to be a BRIDGE? Just because we engage in conversation with someone does not mean we are obligating ourselves to be bosom buddies for life and vacation together! We need to understand our role as a bridge from them to others in our faith community or to resources we can’t offer but that are available within our church. We need to educate ourselves beyond our circle of affinities and interests to know enough to help others navigate their way to the relationships they need.
Imagine a church in which everybody in the seats thought of themselves – with joy and anticipation – as part of the Hospitality Team. A church in which the culture was about building relationships, forming bonds with people who are different from us in some way, and carrying that vision beyond the walls of the church into our communities so that are intentional about building relationships with our neighbors and the people we encounter in our daily travels – maybe we would even alter our familiar daily routines to encounter some new and interesting folks.
What is your church doing to actively promote the formation of healthy and meaningful relationships? Do you invite your entire congregation to be part of your Hospitality Team, not just by encouraging them to “be friendly” and having a 30-second “Passing the Peace,” but by giving them practical Hospitality skills and regularly promoting intentionality in connecting with others?
We here at Excellence in Coaching have several excellent resources to help. And we always welcome your questions and comments. Don’t be shy.