By Eddie Pipkin

I have a yearly tradition with some pals in which every February we head up to Daytona for the Friday night truck race. The NASCAR superspeedway action is a blast, and we have a great time during the race itself, but the noise of 40 trucks screaming by at 200 miles an hour is not conducive to conversation. Therefore, the catching up, all the latest news of our families and our recent adventures, the all-important back and forth of bonding, that all happens at the tailgate session before the race. Every big event needs a good tailgate. Even worship!

If you’ve ever attended any large-scale sporting event, you’re familiar with the concept of the tailgate. They are most often linked in pop culture with football games, but really they are part of the celebratory landscape whenever fans gather together in a parking lot to anticipate any large happening at the local stadium, arena, or festival grounds. And they are not only for sports: Concerts and festivals get in on the fun, too. If you have never had a chance to see Parrothead Nation take over the grounds surrounding a Jimmy Buffett concert venue, you are missing out on one of the truly unique American cultural extravaganzas.

The tailgate can be simple or elaborate. It can consist of a few pre-packaged subs and some sodas enjoyed from the comfort of a couple of folding camp chairs. Or it can be the all-encompassing production hosted by my stepdad before his beloved Mercer Bears games: a tent city of grills, treat-bedecked tables, coolers filled with beverages, comfy spots to sit and relax, and fun games like Cornhole. Plus music. Plus flags and banners. Plus the most energetic welcome and attentive hospitality in the entire southeast. He gets there at 7:00 a.m. and starts with bacon and eggs for breakfast, proceeding to steaks and burgers for lunch. It’s a pre and post game party.

You read that right: post game party. Because not only do folks gather in the hours before the big game. They also linger for a last round of dessert and some final conversation after the game – this is a great solution for avoiding the traffic jam trying to leave the parking lot. Plus you get to relive every moment of the game with people who care about it just as much as you do.

All of this ritual and communal bonding builds a profound sense of community. It’s something that people look forward to and remember fondly.  It’s where connections are made that go beyond the tailgate and filter out into the real world. Relationships are formed.  (And it doesn’t really matter how good your team is or how stellar the conference performance turns out to be – although, sure, the whole experience is enhanced if those things turn out to be winners – but the community building and the celebration of fandom is in some ways separate and beyond the outcome of any individual event.)

In fact, the stadium or arena experience, itself, is enhanced by the tailgate.  The tailgate reinforces a sense of identity that makes participation in the event more intense and satisfying.  We enter the event with a deeper connection to our community, and everything that happens in the event is experienced with the knowledge that we are there with likeminded people who care about it and are experiencing it in the same way that we are.

That’s why churches need tailgates.  Or the equivalent thereof.  That’s why local congregations need a pregame party and post game party.  That’s why churches need highly welcoming, well-organized opportunities for fellowship before the worship and after the worship service.

Too many worship services in too many congregations feature people walking into worship barely on time (or a couple of minutes late), experiencing the worship service in a room filled with people with whom they never meaningfully interact, and then streaming out afterwards and heading directly to their cars.  Even if the worship is awesome, even if it is theologically sound and competently led, with professionally presented music and inspirational preaching, without a way for people to interact and share the ways they have been inspired and get to know one another better and enjoy one another’s company as fellow fans, community is not built.

There are still a shocking number of local churches who provide no organized hospitality or pre service or post service fellowship.  There are still a disappointing number of local congregations who provide a half-hearted perfunctory version of these community-building cornerstones.

Let’s do better.

I was inspired this last week to hear a report from Phil about a local church with which he has been worshiping that recently revamped their hospitality process.  They are seeing immediate and joyful results.  People are getting to know one another.  People are feeling like they are part of a community, a home where everyone is clearly welcome and interested in one another.  This type of connection is infectious (in the good way!).  It leads to people naturally wanting to engage further and get involved.  It leads to a buzz of excitement that carries over into the worship service and leads to people heading to lunch together and setting up kids’ play dates and socializing with one another away from the church property.

Here are things churches can be doing to promote their own “tailgating” atmosphere:

  • Hospitality Stations: Every church should have a designated, clearly marked, easy-to-access area with coffee and snacks.  If you want to go big, go big – personally, let me say that if you are willing to set up a weekly crepe station, I will come do a feature article on your congregation – but even a simple coffee and donut station, well-presented with love and care and warmth is just fine.
  • Friendly and Helpful People of Welcome: An unattended hospitality station is not the best hospitality station.  Well-trained, gifted-with-the-charms-of-greeting-and-answering-questions folk should be in the vicinity. It’s really important to have someone handy and highly visible who can knowledgably help those who need help and guide those who need guidance.  You have natural extroverts who love chatting people up.  Make sure they are taking this work on in this fellowship / hospitality area.
  • Designated Fellowship Area:  It might be the same area where the Hospitality Station is, or it might be adjacent.  It needs to have some room for people to gather and visit without clogging things up.  The Hospitality Station should be where people can’t help but see it – the fellowship area, optimally, will be close by and also visible, but it may be over in the designated Fellowship Hall, which was, after all, created to fulfill just such a purpose.  Have good signage. Make it easy (maybe even fun) to find.
  • Make It Nice and Comfy:  Give people some comfortable inviting places to sit and relax and talk or maybe some stand-at tables on which to set their refreshments while they visit.  Benches are good, too, if the setting is right for that.  And don’t use the dumpster furniture – be sure it’s something nice.  Have some plants.  Have some banners which welcome folks and promote upcoming congregational initiatives.  Have some praise music playing in the background.
  • Have Leadership That Recognizes this Priority:  Don’t just pawn your hospitality and fellowship initiative off as job #103 on an uninspired staff member.  Give it to the person who really has a gift and passion for this, then equip them to do it right.  They can recruit a team to make it happen, and they can bring their vision to making it fun.
  • Promote Your “Tailgating” Opportunities:  Once you’ve got it in place, promote it every chance you get in all your social media feeds and during your worship services.  Make people feel like they don’t want to miss out.  Don’t be afraid to use some stunts and special events to get it going and keep it refreshed.

How is your local church doing at setting up a “tailgating” atmosphere?  How do you empower hospitality and pre and post service fellowship?  Share some of your best ideas and biggest hurdles.