By Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed
Recently my family moved from one town to another, which meant my son changed schools. A couple of weeks into the semester, the school hosted a Back-to-School Bash on a Friday night. What a great idea! The students would have an opportunity simply to have fun together without the constraints of the classroom.
The event itself was unstructured. The only agenda was to eat pizza and dance (or run around, which was more the speed of these third- and fourth-graders) to the music played by a DJ. This worked well for the kids who already had friend groups. It was harder for my son, who had only started to meet his new classmates. He wasn’t sure what to do. There weren’t any activities through which he could interact with other people in a low-risk way. Though he is an outgoing guy, it wasn’t easy for him to walk up and join conversations and even when he tried, the other kids usually seemed wrapped up in what they were already doing. By the end of the night, he was near tears.
The Back-to-School Bash was similar to what many well-intentioned churches do: extend a “y’all come” and then largely depend on visitors to find their own place in strange surroundings and make their own connections in congregations full of people who already know one another, then wonder why those newcomers eventually fade away. But hospitality is multi-layered, and throwing the doors open is only one level. Here are the gradations, from the easiest to the hardest:
Make your space accessible. This is the easiest layer in some respects. Make sure there is adequate signage, for example. People need to know where the event is and how to find the restrooms. This becomes harder when you (familiar with the physical plant) need to assess what signage a guest (totally unfamiliar with the physical plant) might need. It becomes more complicated still – but no less important – when you consider accommodations that people with mobility, hearing or sight impairments or with sensory sensitivities need.
Give a detailed invitation. What is happening? When and where? Who should come? What should they wear? What should they bring? How else should they prepare? If there will be food, will there be options for people with specific dietary needs? One of the best ways to be hospitable is to give those considering your invitation as much information as possible so that they can say a confident yes and feel more ready to show up as their full selves.
Provide structured activities. When people walk into a room full of strangers, they need something to do. Otherwise, they will feel awkward and start inching backwards toward the door. Activities give everyone an opportunity to engage in parallel play (or worship, or service), and that play can then be fodder for conversation and connection.
See, hear and value new people. Ask to hear their stories. Listen deeply and be gently curious when they honor you by telling them to you. Make it safe for them to express their narratives by not putting them on the spot or making them feel you are assessing their fitness for your congregation.
Make connections. When you know a bit about your new acquaintances, help them meet others around them who share an interest or a circumstance. This thickens the communal ties rather than making newcomers feel like random threads that can be easily snipped.
Go to people. Step out of a space that is familiar to you in order to learn about other people and places, cultures and concerns, gifts and graces. Give them an opportunity to extend hospitality to you, and cultivate an openness to the ways you might be changed in the process.
Offer newcomers a role. If you have faithfully extended welcome, eventually those who join you will not just want to be observers. They will be eager to become active participants, to contribute to a shared purpose, to use their strengths in service to the community, to provide the same invitations to others that you gave to them. Help them find that right-fit role based on what you know about their stories, and respond positively when they take the initiative to ask for responsibility.
Share power with newer people. Hospitality, done well, means a growing community. Growing community means that more people will want not just a role, but also a say. This is a sign that they feel a sense of belonging in your congregation and that they want to be part of you for the long haul. Well done! At this stage, welcome means making room in our churches for the new range of voices and in our hearts for different possibilities and well-intended feedback.
In short, hospitality means more than we typically understand. It is not just being friendly. It is not just feeding or entertaining guests. It is hard, holy work that opens us up to change. In Genesis 18, the Lord appears in the form of three men who show up on Abraham and Sarah’s front step. Abraham asks them to sit for a spell. He wonders if he can bring them water and bread. He talks with them while they rest from their travels. And the three men say that Sarah is about to embark on a (very) geriatric pregnancy, speaking to a tender place in her story. Though she guffaws from the kitchen, she nonetheless hopes. And those strangers, angels in disguise, powerfully change the narrative Abraham and Sarah have been living and their (and by extension, our) trajectory for the future, all because they open their homes and their lives.
May we all make the effort to be hospitable, and through so doing, both bless others and be blessed ourselves.
Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama