Hospitality and Church

hospitality

Let brotherly love continue.  Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it. 

~Hebrews 13:1-2

Have you ever thought about why Walmart has a greeter at the front of most of their stores?  Is the management committed to developing a culture of Biblical hospitality?  Or have they learned along the way that people who feel welcome come back and spend more money at the store?

And what does this have to do with church?  Well, not surprisingly, people who feel welcome at a church are also more likely to come back.  It has been determined that about 5-8% of a worshipping community each week will self-identify as a guest.  Over the course of a year your parish church is likely to be hosting a large number of guests.  Perhaps they are with a family member who has been encouraging them for years to come back to Mass.  Maybe they are going through a life situation that is making them more responsive to seeking God: moving to a new area, recovering from a serious illness, going through a divorce, having a baby, grieving the loss of a spouse.  These are the people who are like fish swimming out to the boat, ready to be caught, so to speak.  They are ready to be evangelized, to hear the Good News.

They are seeking a welcoming community of faith and they will quickly size us up in terms of our hospitality.  Do we consider hospitality to be confined to serving lunch after a funeral or to an occasional reception held in the social hall?  Does it require hiring someone to oversee a new ministry or spending money to purchase brochures and signs promoting that “all are welcome here”?

I think the short version answer to these questions is no.  Although these are wonderful ministries to have in a parish, hospitality cannot be restricted to a relatively few people.  Biblical hospitality is something that must permeate a parish.   It is hospitality that makes a parish into a welcoming community, a place where people feel they belong.

How do we encourage the Biblical mandate to be hospitable?  Well, the good news is that it is not expensive and it is not complicated.  It begins with simple actions such as having greeters at the doors.  Hospitality is witnessed by community members who smile at the people who sit next to them (and graciously move over to allow them to sit next to them!).  It is communicated in the way parishioners enjoy being with each other before and after Mass.  At my parish, it is powerfully shown in how we treat each other as we navigate a parking lot that sometimes requires a good deal of patience!

I am a member of St. John Neumann Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  A couple of years ago we began having greeters stand by the doors of the church before and after Mass.   Along with saying hello we keep an eye out for anyone who may require some assistance with getting from their car into the church building.  At the most visible level, it is really a very simple ministry.  It doesn’t require in-depth training or skills.  There isn’t a large investment of time required and it is virtually free to run as a ministry.

And  yet, it has had a very positive effect on our community.  The presence of  a greeter helps relieve the anxiety of someone new by having an identifiable person who they can ask for help such as locating a rest room.  Having someone hold the door open for you and saying “Good morning” are visible and powerful expressions that we welcome you to our community and that we are glad you are here!

I feel blessed to have gotten to know some wonderful people in my parish during my time as a greeter.  Yes, there was a bit of a paradigm shift required at the beginning as people wondered why I was outside holding the door for them.   Occasionally, especially when it is very hot or cold, people will still gently scold me and tell me “to get inside”, but mostly I sense that there is an appreciation for this simple act of kindness offered to them.  I have had a few elderly parishioners tell me, “You’re the first person who has talked to me today” or “Wow, this is service”!

The pleasure is mine.