September 29, 2013

By Phil Maynard

Have you ever tried to teach a child to tie their shoes? It’s something most of us do so naturally and automatically that breaking down the process into teachable steps is a challenge. According to a number of pastors I’ve spoken to recently, teaching people to extend Christ’s radical hospitality to first time guests is no less a challenge.

Previously, I posted a blog focusing on the superlative ways in which the Ritz-Carlton encourages their “ladies and gentlemen” to be radically hospitable to their guests. One of the things that they do is regularly train their staff to be friendly and to deliver over-the-top service. Following the blog, I had a number of conversations with pastors and lay leaders about how to train a congregation to embody Christ’s welcome to the strangers who worship with them.

If you want people to do something different than they normally do, you have to give them a clear target they can hit. Numerous conversations later, I’d like to share five specific ways of bringing the radical hospitality target into better focus for our members.

1.    The 3 minute rule: suggested by the ReThink Church material, this encourages people to spend the three minutes just before and just after the worship service greeting those they do not know. So often people visit with those they know at church and believe that they have a friendly congregation. Yet when visitors come, their experience too often is that, other than ushers and greeters, no one speaks to them. So the “3 minute rule” reminds people to be intentional about greeting and getting to know someone they don’t know during these two times.

2.    The 10 foot rule: also suggested by ReThink Church material, encourages persons to greet anyone they don’t know within 10 feet of them. No one wants the entire congregation converging on them when they visit. Instead, those who are closest to worship guests take responsibility for introducing themselves and engaging them in friendly conversation.

3.    It’s all about them: this comes from a conversation I had with someone who moved a year ago and their family church shopped for a season trying to discern the right congregation for them. She said that during some of their visits, when people did speak to them – and they often didn’t – “we felt like fresh meat in a lion’s den.” She said people descended upon them wanting her to teach Sunday School and her husband to be on this or that committee. “We weren’t looking for a job, we were looking for a church family.” She went on to say that at one church a man started telling her all about their financial struggles and did everything but give her a pledge card. “I think people forget that visitors aren’t visiting because they want to fill some position or bail the church out financially.” “It’s all about them,” means that first time visitors should never be treated as the answer to the congregation’s needs. Rather, we need to explore with them how the congregation can be the answer to their needs. So, instead of trying to get our guests to help our church, tell them something you love about the church, try to get to know them a bit, ask what they are looking for in a church home and explore with them how the congregation can assist them in their journey.

4.    Help them make connections: This has two parts. As you begin to get to know a guest and learn what they are looking for in a congregation, help them make connections with others who are like them and who can assist them in finding whatever they are searching for. If they have youth, introduce them to another family with youth or with the youth pastor. If they are retired from Michigan, introduce them to someone else who is retired from Michigan. If they are interested in missions, connect them with persons who are involved in missions in your congregation. You get the point. And the second part of “Help them make connections” involves receiving hand-offs well when people get introduced to you. Help them feel welcomed and make the connections for which they are looking. In other words, don’t just say, “Oh, hi,” and then turn back to your friends and ignore them like they are an interruption. Instead, be intentional about receiving them and helping them make the connections for which they are searching.

5.    Remember their names and use them: It’s such a simple thing, but so powerful. I joined Gold’s Gym recently and there are two staff members that remember my name and greet me using it every time I go. I find myself looking for them when I go work out. Just that simple thing – which I’m sure they are trained to do – makes me feel more like I belong when I walk in the door. People are people, whether they are new at the gym or new at the church.

So there you have it. Five strategies for bringing Radical Hospitality into focus:

  • The 3 minute rule
  • The 10 foot rule
  • It’s all about them.
  • Help them make connections
  • Remember their names and use them.


Now how could you creatively share these with your congregation and remind them regularly about them? And how could you celebrate stories of people who aim at these and hit the radical hospitality bull’s eye? One congregation I worked with recently produced a brochure teaching about these 5 strategies and sent trainers to meet with every group in the church to provide training and seek support in being a hospitable church.  What’s your next step?