This past week I posted a short excerpt from a Thom Rainer article where he discussed the disdain that many people have for the “Stand and Greet” time that is a part of many Sunday morning worship services. He argues that churches are actually driving “guests” away from Sunday services because of the practice.
You may debate the conclusions of his research, but what I find fascinating is the apparent need that churches in the United States have for the practice to begin with. Why do we feel it necessary to create a set time for people to turn to strangers sitting around them and say good morning? Why is it important in many churches to give specific instructions for asking totally random questions of each other? But the issue is not only why does the church feel it is essential to create this artificial moment to force people to greet one another, but why do so many people in the church find this time to be awkward, and often disingenuous?
I am not interested in examining the actual practice, but instead I want to ask what are the underlying issues? What is missing in our understanding of church and each other that prompts us to think this practice is necessary? What changes need to take place in our thinking to develop a more natural, holistic, posture towards one another?
I am convinced that the need the church feels to maintain a regular “stand and greet” time is actually a symptom of much greater issues. Further, the disdain that many people have toward the practice speaks to deeper issues surrounding our understanding of humanity and the current reality of a relationally disconnected society.
There are at least three overarching issues we need to focus more time and attention on in the life of the church. I am not suggesting that these are the only issues, or that these three are a cure-all for what ails the American church. But I do believe focusing more time on the way we think about each of these three topics would go a long way in shaping the way we act towards one another, both in and outside the church, and maybe just render the “stand and greet” obsolete.
1. We need to teach and reflect more on genuine biblical community.
We must help people in the church understand the true meaning of biblical community. Unfortunately, for many churches the people gathered on Sunday morning are not really a church, but instead are simply a collection of unconnected individuals. The church must be viewed as the people of God, rather than a time or place. We cannot go to church, we are the church.
Although speaking primarily about the communities in which we live, these words from Peter Block are appropriate to our sense of community and relatedness in the body of Christ:
The need to create a structure of belonging grows out of the isolated nature of our lives, our institutions, and our communities. The absence of belonging is so widespread that we might say we are living in an age of isolation…. Ironically, we talk about how small our world has become with the shrinking effect of globalization, instant sharing of information, quick technology, workplaces that operate around the globe. Yet these do not necessarily create a sense of belonging. They provide connection, diverse information, an infinite range of opinion. But all this does not create the connection from which we can become grounded and experience the sense of safety that arises from a place where we are emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically a member.
Our isolation occurs because western culture, our individualistic narrative, the inward attention of our institutions and our professions, and the messages from our media all fragment us. We are broken into pieces.
If Block is right, and I think he is, then the church must show a better way. We should display to the world a visual and credible alternative to living isolated, relationally impoverished lives.
I would suggest a place to start might involve doing a “community audit” that asks what are we doing to cultivate real community in the body? What is prohibiting community and relational connectedness happening in the life of the church? What might we do differently, not just during, but also before and after our gatherings? Might we participate in communion differently? For some, do we engage in the Lord’s Supper more often? Perhaps we actually share a meal together on a regular basis?
I recently attended three different ethnic churches, and all three had a meal after the Sunday gathering. In each case, the majority of attenders to the worship service stayed for the meal. It was abundantly clear that vibrant, genuine community was taking place around tables of food.
However, as crucial as the connection is between relationships and food, I believe the single most important aspect of developing genuine community involves the engagement in God’s mission. I am convinced the best way to cultivate and deepen biblical community in the body is to get people in the church engaged in mission in their neighborhoods and communities. Most people who gather together on Sunday morning do not have genuine fellowship with one another because they have never engaged in mission with those sitting around them.
2. We need to teach and reflect more on biblical hospitality.
Related to the concept of community is the issue of biblical hospitality. I use the adjective biblical to help differentiate this particular form of hospitality from what usually comes to mind when people hear the word hospitality. Most often we imagine that being hospitable revolves around entertaining; inviting family and friends into our homes for a meal.
As I have already encouraged, there’s nothing wrong with sharing a meal with friends and family. In fact, it is a great thing to do. However, conventional entertaining generally focuses on the host—and in doing so it can become a pride issue. As hosts we become concerned about what others will think. How will our home reflect on us? Will our guests like us and the place we live? What if everything isn’t perfect? If the house isn’t spotless and well decorated, how can we possibly entertain guests? This sort of hospitality holds up a false ideal that’s all about making ourselves look good. This “entertaining” form of hospitality can easily be more about appearances than people.
The word hospitality might also bring to mind the hospitality industry, which includes hotels, restaurants and cruise ships that work judiciously to create an atmosphere of friendliness and welcome. Or perhaps church hospitality teams come to mind—teams that include greeters, ushers and those who set up coffee and snacks for the Sunday morning gathering.
Author Christine Pohl says in one of the best books on hospitality (aptly titled Making Room) that in either case, “most understandings of hospitality have a minimal moral component—hospitality is a nice extra if we have the time or the resources, but we rarely view it as a spiritual obligation or as a dynamic expression of vibrant Christianity.”
The fact is that over time the Christian community has lost touch with the amazing, transformative realities of true biblical hospitality.
But what exactly is biblical hospitality? A good place to start is to consider the meaning of the word in Scripture. In the New Testament, the Greek word for “hospitality” is philoxenia, which is a combination of two words: phileo (love) and xenos (stranger). It literally means “love of stranger.”
There are several implications to this definition. First, in order to love the stranger and open our homes effectively, we need to expand our view of hospitality. Jesus challenges us to extend our circle beyond friends and relatives to include those in need:
When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you (Lk 14:12-14).
Notice that the practice of genuine, biblical hospitality is distinct from entertaining because it reaches out to those who cannot reciprocate. Jesus tells us to invite those who can’t pay us back. In other words, invite those who are in need. Often when we invite friends into our homes for dinner there is an expectation that next time they will return the favor and have us over to their house. But the point of this passage is that customary “payback” hospitality is of no merit to God. As Darrell Bock puts it, “The best hospitality is that which is given, not exchanged.”
A second important aspect of biblical hospitality is the understanding that strangers are not just people we don’t know. In a strict sense, strangers are those ￼who are disconnected from basic relationships. So hospitality is not only about creating physical environments that are welcoming to others; it is also about the posture we take toward human relationships in general.
How many people do we know in our neighborhood, and even in our church family, who are living lives severed from basic relationships? Hospitality involves cultivating connections with those disconnected people. It encompasses a willingness to listen well to those who rarely have a voice. It is about turning our lives toward the other, welcoming them into a relationship with us and also inviting them into our network of relationships. Perhaps we can create appropriate space during our gatherings to facilitate this, but it most certainly should be happening at many other times. Pohl remarks on this broader understanding of hospitality:
When we offer hospitality to strangers, we welcome them into a place to which we are somehow connected—a space that has meaning and value to us. This is often our home, but it also includes church, community, nation, and various other institutions. In hospitality, the stranger is welcomed into a safe, personal, and comfortable place, a place of respect and acceptance and friendship. Even if only briefly, the stranger is included in a life-giving and life-sustaining network of relations. Such welcome involves attentive listening and mutual sharing of lives and life stories. It requires an openness of heart, a willingness to make one’s life visible to others, and a generosity of time and resources.
3. We need to teach and reflect more on the relational implications of the imago Dei.
God reveals the relational nature of the Trinity in Genesis 1:26: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.”
Inherent in the imago Dei is the dignity or worth of each individual. (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9) It should have a profound impact on how we see, relate to and treat those around us. C. S. Lewis said it well, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
Every person we come in contact with holds immeasurable value. We need to be reminded that every person, regardless of age, gender, color of skin or social economic position has a unique story and special gifts that we can learn from – that we need to learn from.
Further, when we look at other people through the lens of being bearers of the image of God, it is impossible to close our hearts to those who are suffering, poor, or marginalized. We are all broken people who will only be made whole again as we live out the good news of the kingdom in real community with other broken people.
Who better than followers of Jesus, the church, to welcome people into a network of relationships; into genuine community? We know that God has fashioned us as social, relational beings. We know that God has created us to be in a relationship with him but also to be in relationships with others.
Where do we go from here? Let me suggest a few resources that may provide some help in regards to next steps.
To help people better understand the relational impoverishment that is so prevalent in our country, I would suggest books like Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and Better Together: Restoring the American Community both by Robert Putman.
I would also recommend Michael Frost’s Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement to get a clear picture of the seriousness of the issue in today’s culture.
To help with the issues of community and hospitality I would suggest both Making Room and Living Into Community by Christine Pohl. I could not recommend more highly Peter Block’s book Community: The Structure of Belonging. I have also written a chapter on hospitality in The Missional Quest.