One of the essential ministries of any church is hospitality. Making people feel welcome, whether they've been there for years or are first time visitors, needs to be a focus of every congregation. If people are not feeling as though we want them to be there when they come in, they are much less likely to see Jesus when they come in our doors.
As we prepare for the church to start, a decision to be intentional in our hospitality and creating a warm, inviting atmosphere so that anyone who comes through the door will immediately find something of the love of Jesus to hold on to before the service begins. Some of what we feel lead to do should be obvious to anyone who cares about the mission of the church but not all of it. Our hospitality takes a long term approach to not only welcome visitors but help them build relationships that will help them grow in Christ and remain with us.
Relationships, more than anything else, keeps people attending church or drives them from it. One of the most common complaints I hear from people coming through our doors is that they've been in a church for weeks/months/years and don't feel like they have any friends or relationship connection to the congregation. While some may take the responsibility on themselves to integrate themselves into a congregation, most people do not have the personality or networking skills to do that effectively. It's not comfortable for the majority of people to come into a new social situation and make themselves part of a group. It's our job to recognize that and take deliberate steps to help them make the transition and find relationships.
Hospitality starts the minute people pull into the lot. If parking lot attendants are in use, they need to be the most upbeat, positive people available for the job. A smiling face directing traffic is important. Also, they are the first line of greeters anyone will see on a Sunday morning. Cheerful "Good Mornings" as people walk from their cars to the building can start to break down the walls visitors may have erected before arriving.
In the doors, carefully picked greeters are the front line in the "love offensive" we are going to undertake. Mature Christians who ooze the love of Christ are the best choices. Most churches start new people on the door, but this can be a mistake. Willingness is fantastic, but usher and other behind the scenes ministries are better opportunities for new converts and new members. Greeting is too essential a ministry and needs to be considered a position of honor. Elders, deacons, pastors, and ministry leaders are actually great people to fill these roles. People will feel important if the leaders of the church are the ones to welcome them when they walk in. It also keeps the leaders humble and helps connect them to the congregation they lead.
Of course, everyone is greeted exactly the same no matter what. Appearance, clothing style, and even foul language cannot shock or offend the greeters. Love is the rule of the day every service, every time. People in suits need to be treated with the same respect as someone with piercings, tattoos, and outlandish clothes. Avoiding favoritism toward any group is a Scriptural mandate. God is no respecter of persons. Everyone, and that means everyone, is a unique creation of God that He longs to bring into a relationship with His only Son, Christ Jesus. Talk to people on their level, but treat them all with respect and love. Let the Holy Spirit do the changing if you disapprove of their lifestyle. It might be you who He changes.
One important statement that cannot be expressed strongly enough. There will be NO hand sanitizer at the doors. PERIOD. Germiphobes do not need to be at the door. Old fashioned, common sense like washing hands before and after greeting people is enough for anyone. We lived for centuries without trying to kill every germ we might encounter as soon as it might have hit our hands.
The reason that it's banned is very simple: it will offend people if you shake their hands and immediately reach for the sanitizer. It sends a clear message that "I'm telling that we're happy to have you here as long as I don't have to touch you." We might as well be shouting "UNCLEAN!" every time we hit that pump. I get offended when someone does it to me and I'm willing to bet that I'm not alone. It really is offensive and anything that might create a barrier between someone and coming to Jesus needs to be removed. Let's not give the enemy a foothold right at the beginning. If you're a hand sanitizer devotee, remember, Jesus and the early church touched lepers and lived. They didn't even have an antibiotic wipe. Love and common sense trump all. However, if they pull out the sanitizer, we can't be offended. We're there to serve and love them, not the other way around.
I also like the idea of a free coffee bar. Coffee, tea, hot cocoa, and other similar beverages along with lemonade, water, and other cold drinks available when people come in is a great way to help them feel welcome. It is essential that most of what's available is free. There are churches out there that have Starbucks or a similar coffee chain in their foyers or their own in-house version that charge for their drinks. I understand the thinking behind it, but I don't share it. Everyone deserves the opportunity to have a drink whether they can afford it or not. A lot of people, especially as the economy continues to turn south, simply do not have the money for a cup of coffee. There is also something to be said for the smell of fresh brewed coffee in creating an open, welcome atmosphere. Only baking cookies or bacon are better.
Our intent goes beyond that just the welcome at the door. Building relationships is absolutely essential for the ministry. The book of Acts is full of examples of thriving communities of believers. They were marked by their love for one another and their generosity towards their brethren. The fact that they were able to help those in need meant that they knew who was in need. That meant relationship.
Small group leaders are the best people to accomplish intentional relationships. However, inviting people to a small group is not the first step. For some, that would be a fairly intimidating situation. If the visitors do not know anyone, the leader can invite them to sit with them or, if there are no openings, introduce them to someone they can sit with. Even a brief conversation on the first couple of visits can make someone feel a connection to the congregation. Again, love is the rule of the day.
After service is over, that leader touches base with them again. Don't trap them, but have a conversation. Offer them a phone number. Being willing to share contact information even if they never call shows a level of trust not common in this modern age. Put that first contact in their hands. If they continue to come, the leaders can begin to introduce them to other people and start a relationship with them.
Getting to know new people and visitors and helping them know us is so basic that we should do it automatically. But, just as it can be difficult for a visitor to open up and meet people on their own, it isn't really natural for us to reach out in the ways I intend to do. Most people either pounce and scare visitors off or offer an awkward handshake or head nod. Prayer for wisdom and for the ability to love people not only with the depth of Christ but with His wonderful ability to talk to anyone. The Holy Spirit is there for us if we allow Him to be.
In all of it, love trumps all. We need to remember that Jesus delights in us even when we are in out sin and His delight only grows as He cleanses us from all unrighteousness. When someone enters Hell, He weeps. Hospitality in our churches will help open hearts to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and pave the way for eternal life. It's a seed that we can plant and water. If we are privileged to harvest, then the Lord has once again provided the increase. It's His church and kingdom and He will build it. We just get to be a part of what He is doing.