In his thoughtful book The Company of Strangers, Quaker educator Parker Palmer launches a critique of what he calls our culture’s “ideology of intimacy”—a nest of attitudes that together posit that the main purpose of human life is the development of autonomous, individual personalities and that this development takes place only within the context of warm, intimate, interior-directed relationships. 1 In Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism, theologian Patrick Keifert builds on Palmer’s critique and calls upon the church in its thinking about worship to replace the theologically insufficient category of “intimacy” with the biblical category of “hospitality to the stranger.” He states, “Hospitality to the stranger implies wisdom, love, and justice—rather than intimacy, warmth, and familiarity—in our dealings with others in public.” 2
To put this issue of hospitality to the stranger into practical terms, imagine that you are one of the greeters at the door of the church welcoming people to worship. A couple you do not recognize—visitors, strangers—comes to the door. How are you to view these people and what is your responsibility toward them? Should you imagine that the most important thing you can know about these visitors is that they bring needs for intimacy that you and the congregation are to meet? To do so would be presumptuous and theologically naive. It would assume that these visitors are really just like you, that there are no real differences between you and them, and that the highest goal possible is that you and the other members of your congregation will become intimate friends with them and invite them into the private spaces of your life.
The reality, however, is that these people are not exactly like you; indeed, they may not be much like you at all. They are the other, strangers, different. Because they are the other, they bring the promise of gifts and wisdom the congregation does not yet have. Because they are different, they also bring challenges and potential dangers. They may be hard to accept, disruptive, or even violent, or they may have needs, financial or otherwise, beyond the capacities of your congregation to meet. Regardless of their promise or their danger, the church is called to be hospitable to these strangers, and you are on the front line of this ministry. This hospitality goes far beyond the narrow bounds of modern notions of intimacy and self-fulfilling friendship. Like Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre, we are commanded to show hospitality when strangers appear at the flap of the tent, to open our house and table and God’s house and table to these strangers so that they will find safe lodging, nourishment, cool water for the face, the oil of blessing, and rest for the soul.
So when you stand there in the entrance of your church, offering hospitality to these visitors, you are doing far more than simply being a nice person issuing a cheery welcome. You are showing the hospitality of God. As church historian Christine Pohl states in her fine book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, “A life of hospitality begins in worship, with a recognition of God’s grace and generosity. Hospitality is not first a duty and responsibility; it is first a response of love and gratitude for God’s love and welcome to us.” 3
A third-century church manual, the Didascalia, points to the importance of this hospitality when it faces the very practical question of what the church should do if the arrival of a stranger poses an inconvenience:
If a destitute man or woman, either a local person or a traveler, arrives unexpectedly, especially one of older years, and there is no place, you, bishop, make such a place with all your heart, even if you yourself should sit on the ground, that you may not show favoritism among human beings, but that your ministry may be pleasing before God. 4
What kind of institution is this? The leader, the bishop, the top person should sit on the ground if necessary to show hospitality to an old and destitute stranger? Why? What is at stake? First of all, justice is at stake. These Sunday morning visitors may look as though they are “church shopping,” but the truth is, like all of us, they are on a wearying and perilous journey through life, and hospitality along the road is a matter of life and death. To greet them with generosity and welcome in the name of Christ, to make a place for them in God’s house, is not just friendliness—it is a saving grace.
But even more is at stake than justice for the stranger. We show hospitality to strangers not merely because they need it, but because we need it, too. The stranger at the door is the living symbol and memory that we are all strangers here. This is not our house, our table, our food, our lodging; this is God’s house and table and food and lodging. We were pilgrims and wanderers, aliens and strangers, even enemies of God, but we, too, were welcomed into this place. To show hospitality to the stranger is, as Gordon Lathrop has observed, to say, “We are beggars here together. Grace will surprise us both.” 5
Finally, there is the promise that by showing hospitality to others, we receive the very presence of God. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus taught his disciples (Matt. 18:5). “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” encourages the Epistle to the Hebrews, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2). The Egyptian monk Brother Jeremiah once said, “We always treat guests as angels just in case.” 6 As Keifert states, “When . . . biblical characters encounter the stranger face-to-face, they encounter not only another person who cannot be reduced, without remainder, to analogies of themselves, but they encounter the ultimate Stranger, the irreducible Other, God. ‘Lord, we were just standing at the door of the church with a handful of worship programs. When did we see you?’ ‘I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.’”
When the notion of hospitality to the stranger is understood theologically and freed from shallower notions of intimacy, we discover that welcoming people to worship is far more complex than simply being “a friendly church.” To be sure, people need to be treated with kindness and generosity, but that is not all they need. They need to be welcomed into the house and graciously invited to the table, but that is not all they need. What do people most deeply need? Viewed theologically, people need to be welcomed into God’s house, recognized and known by name, and joined with others in offering their lives to God in acts of mission. We can divide this broad need into its three constituent parts.
People want to be welcomed into God’s house. Welcoming people into God’s house is first of all a matter of architecture, and the building itself either beckons the visitor or throws up a barrier. Many church buildings are puzzles and labyrinths whose secrets are known only to insiders. Good signage, help
ful greeters, even well-designed changes in traffic patterns or, in rare cases, a rebuilding project can all make the building more a place of welcome.
As for the inside of the building, the goal is to communicate that this is a space in which holy and significant events take place, but it is a place in which you are welcome. As liturgical scholar Robert Hovda stated, “People need to be made to feel at home … without surrendering the worship character of the assembly. It is not merely another gathering, and the space must speak of transcendence as well as welcome.” 7
The physical space of worship is important, but even more important is the attitude of the congregation and its leadership toward visitors and strangers. If we feel that the church is really our church, or that the church is really a clergy-dominated institution, or that this church is really only for folk like us and that other people have their own churches, then this attitude shows in the way we do or do not open up the life of the congregation to the outsider, the visitor.
People want to be known by name. Not only do people want to be welcomed into the place of worship, they also want to be recognized personally. This is, first of all, a matter of being known and called by name, but it runs much deeper. To be called by one’s name is a sign of being known, of coming into a community eager to discover one’s story, values, and talents. The front line of hospitality is a corps of gifted greeters. Almost every congregation has ushers, but there is a difference between an usher assigned to a duty post and someone with the holy gift of hospitality. There are people with the rare blend of memory, personality, generosity, alertness to the needs of others, and kindness who have the ability to recognize the stranger (some people shy away from greeting visitors because they are unsure who is a visitor and who is a member), to discern the proper level of greeting (some people want to be greeted with vigor while others need a quieter, unintrusive reception), and to make the stranger feel welcomed and at home. These are the people who should be given the assignment to serve as greeters; it is a ministry for which they are equipped and to which they are called. In his book Dynamic Worship, Kennon Callahan, an authority on church management, describes such people: “You are not looking for the backslapper or the quick-talker,” he states. “You are looking for people with a quiet sense of warmth, a deep spirit of joy, and a hopeful, encouraging confidence.” 8
People want to be joined with others in offering themselves to God in ways that truly matter. If people needed only to be warmly welcomed into church and to be recognized by name, then our goal would be simple: be a friendly church. But people need more than friendliness, more than a warm welcome and a cheerful smile. People want their lives to count for something, and they come to church to make an offering. People want to join with others in giving and serving, in doing something of value for God and for the world. Symbolically, we want to place ourselves in the offering plate.
Hospitable congregations allow people to offer themselves in worship by recognizing and receiving the gifts that people bring. In the case of one congregation, this meant making the “tithes and offerings” element of the service itself a dramatic and powerful event. As the ushers came forward with the offering plates, the congregation followed their movements with their own bodies, turning gradually toward the altar. As the prayer of dedication was given, the plates were held high above the ushers’ heads; some in the congregation raised their hands as well—a symbol of the offering of self that both included and transcended the offering of money.
However, hospitable congregations do not restrict the receiving of gifts to the offering plates. The talents and abilities of the congregation are employed throughout worship. This practice includes more than people singing in the choir or an occasional lay reader for the Scripture. At every point in the service the leadership of worship is shared. People in the pews sing and pray and read and testify and bless. The energy of worship is not concentrated in the chancel but fills the whole sanctuary.
The pastor of one of these congregations said, “Things did not turn around here in worship until I learned that the most important word I could speak was yes. People would come saying, ‘I have a song I would like to sing in worship’ or ‘I am an artist and would like to draw something for the bulletin’ or ‘I have done some ceramics. Is there a way they could be used in worship?’ Yes, yes, yes. My job as pastor was to find a way to say the simple word yes.”
Another way to think about this matter is to consider the “offering” and the “benediction” or “blessing.” The offering and the benediction are elements in many services of worship, but far more than elements in the order of service, they are themes in Christian worship. People come to worship ready to make an offering, hungering to be known as persons so that they can join with others in offering themselves to God. Vital worship can happen when leaders have the wisdom to pass the plates and to receive what people have come to offer, and then to raise their hands over these offerings and to say God’s word of blessing, “Yes, yes, yes.”
1 Parker Palmer, The Company of Strangers (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 17-35.
2 Patrick R. Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 16-26.
3 Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 172.
4 Didiscalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum 2.58.6, edited by F. X. Funk (Paderborn: Scheoningh, 1905), vol. 1, 168, as quoted in Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).
5 Lathrop, Holy Things, 121.
6 Brother Jeremiah, quoted in Alan Jones, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), 13.
7 Robert Hovda, The Amen Corner, John F. Baldovin, ed. (Collegeville, MN: Pueblo, 1994), 140.
8 Kennon L. Callahan, Dynamic Worship: Mission, Grace, Praise, and Power (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994), 16.
Adapted from Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vita
l and Faithful Worship, copyright © 2001 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go towww.alban.org/permissions.asp.
Photo by Old Shoe Woman
Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship by Thomas G. Long
How can a congregation remain true to historic Christian worship while also forming worship that is responsive to the present cultural environment and hospitable to those outside the church? Tom Long went in search of worship experiences that do just that. This book profiles ten such churches and identifies nine contributing factors that have nothing to do with size, location, or music. Rather, worship at these churches speaks to today’s culture, honors historic, even centuries-old practices, and invites the people to experience the mystery of God in communion with others.
From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking
From Nomads to Pilgrims tells the stories of congregations that have found a new sense of purpose through Christian practices that they have made their own. Each in its own way has discovered a renewed sense of identity and mission on the pilgrimage to vitality. The contributors are innovators, representing some of the most dynamic leadership voices among today’s clergy. Their experiences challenge conventional thinking and inspire creative experimentation.