Many of us sit in the church sanctuary on Sunday mornings with an eye turned toward the door, hoping that new visitors will enter. This might not happen as frequently as we’d like.
“To really be hospitable to our neighbors who aren’t connected to the church, and probably never will be in its current form, we need to figure out how to create pockets of hospitality to be more inclusive and connect with more people,” says The Rev. Michael Beck, pastor, professor, author, consultant and Director of Fresh Expressions at Discipleship Ministries.
Beck shares time-tested tips that all United Methodists should consider when learning how to be more welcoming.
Make a personal connection
Ministry to and ministry for others is not hospitality – make sure your church is practicing ministry with the community. Beck encourages, “Sit beside people. Ask them how they are. Learn their story. Ask questions. I think the deeper thing that the Lord really wants is for us to build these relationships and really know our neighbors.”
Don’t be aggressive. Overwhelming a guest with too much information can be off-putting. Handing someone a bulletin and telling them about all of the church’s upcoming activities isn’t as meaningful as creating a connection with them. Beck says, “Make it a time to learn about them rather than a time to try to get them to come to all of the activities.”
Learn to be a guest
“The idea that people are going to come to our church naturally and we have to be good welcomers is probably part of a mental model that’s shifted,” Beck says. “To be hospitable today means asking different questions: Who do I hang out with every week? What are the things we do together? What are the places where I spend a lot of time outside of church?
“Start to think about those relationships and those practices as becoming a form of church. It is its own way of hospitality, creating a little community in every nook and cranny of life.
“I like to frame this in Luke 10:1-9. Jesus sends us out two by two, travel light, go out, find the person of peace, stay at their table, do life with them, eat with them, and then heal and proclaim the kingdom. There are all of these relational aspects in going to them first. You are not the host in that space, you are the guest. So how do we learn to be the guest, to ask questions, to be in spaces and sense what the Holy Spirit is up to?”
Find spaces to build relationships
It might seem unlikely that every church member can take an active role in hospitality in the community, but it’s attainable when the practice is woven into the hobbies and activities that each of us already enjoy.
“Early Methodism plugged into this empowerment of everyday believers and laity who were leading classes, bands and preaching,” Beck reminds. “I don’t want lay people to feel they cannot be a part of this. Anybody can do this. That’s the way Jesus designed the church.”
Beck shares that the United Women in Faith at Wildwood United Methodist Church in Florida enjoy quilting, crafting and creating sea glass jewelry. They recently started meeting in a community center and invited the community to join them for their Arts of Love gathering. Now, families are attending and relationships are forming.
Beck says, “Most of the women are 70 or 80 years old, and they started a little faith community that connected with people around something that they were really good at and had all of this wisdom and passion around.”
Evaluate your life, interests and where you find yourself in the community on a regular basis. Whether it’s a frisbee golf course, a coffee shop or a book club, be mindful, listen and ask curious questions. Beck suggests, “Have soft eyes. Don’t think you already know the community or the people you are talking to. Come in as a learner… that’s what a disciple means: a learner of people, a learner of our community. Let the place teach you, let the people teach you.”
Finding the courage to invite someone to church can be challenging for some of us, and when we invite people to church and they don’t come, it can be frustrating.
Beck suggests, “That’s not actually evangelism at all. Listen, love and serve people, find out how to do things together, build relationships slowly over time. When those little spiritual openings show up in conversations, you can share about your faith in Jesus. You can offer to pray for people. You can bring your own spirituality to the conversation. Then you can start to think of that as its own little type of church springing up around your own normal stuff in your life and relationships.”
You don’t have to do it alone. Ask a friend to join you to make observations, pray and meet people. Relationships take time, so be patient and consistent.
“Create friendships in the community with people who don’t go to church. That’s an act of hospitality. It’s not just how we welcome people when they come to our church,” Beck says. “There is a lot of opportunity in that. When we build those relationships in a strong way, in an authentic way, we can invite people to church and they’ll probably come.”
Laura Buchanan works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email.
This story was published on August 4, 2023.