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Associate Professor and R.J. Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership at Tyndale Seminary

April 2010

Volume 2

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Hospitality is a crucial Christian practice with a long biblical history, starting in the Old Testament where Abraham is pictured as the ideal host (Gen 18:1-8) and culminating in the New Testament exhortations to practice hospitality found in Romans 12:13 and 1 Peter 4:9. After our recent move to Toronto my wife and I, however, discovered that many, if not most, churches in the Toronto area seem unprepared and perhaps even unwilling to welcome the stranger in their midst. After our arrival we immediately began visiting congregations, exploring where we might settle and live out our Christian commitment. It was, alas, a largely dispiriting exercise. 

Being without a church home is hard for us. We have been Christians all our adult lives and know the value of being involved in congregational life. Leaving our home church contributed to the stress of relocation. We therefore hoped to settle at a church sooner rather than later to help us adjust to our new surroundings and deal with the strain of finding new friends, doctor, dentist, grocery store, veterinarian, et cetera. Instead, our transition was made more difficult by the fact that most churches did not welcome us or make us feel needed. Granted, this was only the experience of two sojourners, but as we compared notes with other new arrivals we found that it was not necessarily an anomaly. 

Even though I am often a later adopter when it comes to technology, I started our church explorations by searching the web. This was the most obvious place where I could find churches that might be worth a visit and a reasonable distance to travel. (My first choice would be to walk to church while the alternative would be a reasonable public transit ride.) In spite of careful internet research, we, more than once, arrived at a church only to find that worship was at a different time than posted on the website. Although there were usually other people around, they did not make apologies for the misinformation nor engaged us in conversation, failing to take advantage of a good opportunity to get to know some newcomers.  So we had to sit and wait, left to ourselves, for the hour or so until worship began. We usually hit the streets looking for coffee. 

When I gently pointed out to church leaders that their service started at a different time than posted, they turned the responsibility back to me: “Did you phone ahead to check?” There are two problems with this response. Firstly, the purpose of a website is to give people accurate and reliable information since it is the primary place that people look these days. Secondly, phoning did not necessarily yield better results. Often no one answered the phone and answering machine messages were not necessarily up to date. They too provided inaccurate information. 

Once one arrived at church, there were other obstacles to joining in worship. For example, how were we to know what resources were necessary for participation in the service? Recently I attended, for the first time, a church that is part of a liturgical tradition. I was not sure what materials I needed to pick up at the entrance. When I asked one of the ushers, she simply looked at me, without responding. Looking, as far as I could tell, dumbfounded at my ignorance, I was left to interpret her silence: “What are you doing here, anyway?” “Who wants to know?” “What, really, is your problem?” I asked again and still received no response. So I stood aside, watched what other congregants picked up and did likewise. 

The way worship services were conducted often reinforced our status as outsiders. Almost invariably a welcome was extended to “our visitors,” but that greeting seemed unconvincing. Announcements were cryptic, often mentioning the first names of people without explaining who they were. Denominational agencies and institutions were referred to by means of an alphabet soup of acronyms leaving newcomers bewildered and confused. The worst part came immediately after the service. People greeted each other warmly while ignoring guests. After months of visiting churches, I can recall only two or three times when someone approached us and initiated a conversation. 

At one point, I decided to attend a neighbourhood church to which I could walk, fully intending to make it my home. After the service I wove my way through the crowded and noisy foyer. I was surrounded by handshakes, hugs, and laughter. I saw people notice me out of the corner of their eyes, but no one made a move towards me. At the coat rack, I slowly donned my jacket and once more ran the fellowship gauntlet. Again no conversations were initiated. “I don’t need this,” I concluded as I walked home. I did not intend to return. 

If anyone spoke to my wife and me at all during our visits, it was usually the pastor. They are, after all, paid to notice oddballs. But even their record was not exactly impressive. One particularly depressing day, I actually initiated a conversation with a pastor. I told him that I would like to talk and gave him my business card and my phone number. I never heard from him.  

If we were not committed, highly motivated Christians we might have given up. We know how to look for churches, what we need, what a church is supposed to be and what to ask for. It takes a lot of endurance to keep going back week after week to visit churches and throw oneself on the hospitality of strangers only to be ignored or snubbed. It presents a formidable barrier to seeking communion with our fellow Christians. I wonder how less motivated newcomers cope or respond. What do we expect will happen to people whose Christian commitment is less secure or someone who has come to church reluctantly? What about a person who has never been part of a church before or one who wants to explore the Christian faith? If our experience is the norm, I expect that many people do not feel welcome to attend and that the lack of hospitality we regularly experienced may well deter them from trying. 

Even if a church is not concerned about welcoming newcomers, surely there are other reasons why we should be concerned about foreigners. It is an established fact that moving is one of life’s most stressful transitions. A simple act of Christian compassion can help people through such a change. This is particularly important in a city like Toronto since, statistics indicate, over half of its population were not born in Canada. Hospitality is not rocket science. What does it take to greet strangers? Does it cost so much to ask how someone is doing? Can we not give a little thought to helping a person unfamiliar with our tradition join in worship? 

1 Peter 4:9 says simply: “Be hospitable to one another … .” Hospitality is a crucial Christian practice that reflects our response to and welcome of God. In his teaching on the end time Jesus indicated that welcoming the stranger amounted to receiving him and would be part of the criteria used for determining our eternal destiny (Matt 25:35, 38, 43, 44). The next time I hear a church complain about declining numbers, I’ll have to bite my tongue, or I might be tempted to say: “Serves us right.” 

Bibliography

  • Arterbury, Andrew E. “Abraham’s Hospitality among Jewish and Early Christian Writers: A Tradition History of Gen 18:1-16 and its Relevance for the Study of the New Testament.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 30 (2003): 359-376.
  • Kline, Leslie. “Ethics for the End Time: an Exegesis of 1 Peter 4:7-11.” Restoration Quarterly 7 (1963): 113-123.
  • Park, J. “Hospitality as context for evangelism.” Missiology 30 (2002): 385-395.
  • Pohl, C. “Biblical Issues in Mission and Migration.” Missiology 31 (2003): 3-15.
  • Pohl, C. Making Room. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

2 Comments

  1. avatar

    Some churches err on the other side. You are feeling low and just want to slip in unnoticed and worship God and their radar hones in on you. It is apparent they do not value you as a person, but see you as a potential “score”.

    I like churches where the people are genuine, which in this context means genuinely friendly — without being smothering on the one hand or aloof on the other. I am privileged to be part of just such as church on PEI.

  2. Kevin Hall
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    There is an old saying that goes, “If you want to know what water is like don’t ask a fish.” This is the constant challenge of the church in that we live so closely withint our environs that we need an outsider to remind us of Divine hospitality as a framework for our own discipleship and mission. Thanks for this post. I sent it to all my leaders and members to peruse. Blessings.

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