Sunday, February 14, 2010

User-Friendly Worship

Hospitality, as properly understood in the Christian sense, is a radical virtue. It’s not just welcoming friends into our homes. It’s the warm embrace for the stranger, the one who is different and therefore “strange,” the alien, foreigner, unbeliever, even sinner. It’s the hospitality Jesus showed to just about everybody.

When we gather in his name on his day, we aspire, it is hoped, to display something recognizable as being akin to Jesus’ hospitality. It will take some effort.

The idea is for us to make the Lord’s Day worship service as welcoming and user-friendly as possible to anyone who might wander in, not knowing a single member, but looking for something or someone to bring some meaning and purpose to life.

Here are a few thoughts:

Every church member should obey this absolute commandment: “Thou shalt not leave anyone standing alone before service or afterward.” Go introduce yourself and welcome the person. “But what if he or she is a member too? I’ll feel silly.” Then laugh and say, “It’s about time I met you.” Ignoring a visitor is a rejection unworthy of Jesus’ people. Ignoring a solitary fellow member is just as bad.

A couple of years ago, I was to participate in one of our grandchildren’s baptism. My wife and I arrived at the church, me with my robe and stole draped over my arm. We stood alone in the small vestibule as people walked back and forth past us without a word. It was an intolerable length of time before the pastor’s wife happened by and rescued us. It is not a good feeling.

And simply thrusting a paper order of service/bulletin into the visitor’s waiting hand with a cheery “Good morning” falls short. There’s more to be done.

Here’s a bit of good news. I visited a city church a while back solo, got my bulletin and took a seat in the middle of the room. I hadn’t been there a minute when a lady sat down next to me, introduced herself, said that I looked to be new to the congregation—which I acknowledged. Then she went one step further. She offered to sit with me to help me find what I needed to participate in the hymnal and worship book as the service went along. While I managed well enough on my own most of the time, there were a couple of places I’d have been lost without her tutelage. She made the experience user-friendly.

It’s a lot to ask, I know, to have a cadre of companions to guide newcomers through worship step-by-step. But it is possible, at least, to welcome the person, invite him or her to join you in a pew, and make introductions all around afterward.

It’s also a hospitable thing for instructions to be concisely and strategically placed in the bulletin so everyone knows when to stand or sit, when to sing and where to find the song, how communion will be served, names of worship leaders, and so forth. Without some basic information, the newcomer is left to the device of imitating some other worshipper.

Hospitality is particularly important at Communion time. The liturgy is broadly embracing:
“This is the Lord's table.
Our Savior invites those who trust him
to share the feast which he has prepared.”

Yet many assume that it is really only for folks in the church or denomination. They make that assumption because it so in many churches and denominations. So perhaps we should be more specific with a few words in the bulletin, stating that all are welcome regardless of church affiliation. It is the Lord’s Table, not the church’s, and it’s an open invitation.

The risk of neglecting hospitality is that the congregation ceases to be the community of God’s people and becomes a club. Christian hospitality is generous in the extreme. It must go beyond being merely polite and courteous. Anyone can do that. The disciple of Jesus knows without thinking to receive strangers as brothers or sisters and to rejoice in their presence.

This hospitality will be genuine—if it’s not, the stranger will spot it as fake right away. The Christian virtue of hospitality is uncalculating and without guile. But it can be learned. With constant practice, it becomes a natural talent, like riding a bike. You don’t have to think about it, you just do it.

How does hospitality play out at your church? What might you do to improve it?


  1. This needs to start at the parking lot - is your entrance clearly marked? Are greeters making sure people know where to go? Are the paths to the nursery and children's areas clearly marked? Is there information about adult classes readily available? Can you tell where the sanctuary is from the parking lot entrance? (I went to a church for a while where it was through a little door off in a corner and down a long dark hall, not somewhere I'd explore on my own). These concerns seems petty and mundane, but can make all the difference in how welcomed a visitor feels. Also, is it REALLY necessary to ask everyone who's a visitor to stand up (or stay seated while everyone else stands)? I hate being singled out like that, and have avoided worshipping somewhere unfamiliar when I just wanted a quiet, thoughtful worship experience. A heartfelt greeting or two (or three or four) is fine, but to be put in the spotlight is uncomfortable for me. I'm just sayin'...

  2. You make a lot of very fine points, Don. I especially appreciate the reminder about reaching out to the member who stands alone too. And Jenn, I agree that being able to find an open door and the entrance to the sanctuary are critical! I've heard it said that in one way or another, regarding logistics and hospitality, people have to fight their way into churches. It shouldn't be so!

    I think all of us- pastors included- have to resist talking just with the people we naturally gravitate toward- particularly during coffee hour. It does take work to reach out to visitors and members alone, but it matters greatly. Because my ecumenical position necessitates that I visit churches connected with TAUM, I know how it can be, to have to work your way into the coffee hour.

    Also, the church I serve has a new family wishing to join. They said it was significant to them that during the peace, members of our congregation shared the peace with their 4 year old son. We have to remember to extend hospitality to children!

    I'm thinking of the Celtic rune of hospitality:
    Often, often, often goes the Christ in the stranger's guise.


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