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“Keep Coming Back”

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” –Paul, writing to the church at Rome

The Lutheran congregation I serve is in conversation with three other congregations about the possibility of forming a cooperative parish. As part of that conversation, we’ve started putting together values and ideals that we want to hold ourselves to as congregations and collectively as a parish. I’ve been interested to note that, as we have held town hall meetings about the draft articles of agreement, one point never fails to draw questions. It’s the section that states that each congregation will “practice active, radical hospitality, inviting others to participate in the life of the parish and welcoming guests in the name of Christ.”

What does active, radical hospitality mean? I usually answer with an example: there was a lady in the congregation I grew up in who was what I like to call a “VSM”, a visitor-seeking missile. It was impossible to visit that congregation without this lady greeting you, welcoming you and getting to know you. Because she had been a member of the congregation for over seven decades, she knew everyone, and she viewed it as her calling as a member of that congregation to welcome the newcomer, and she continued to engage that calling well into her 80s. As far as I know, she may still be doing so.

There is another example, though, that I like even better. When I was three days sober, I walked into the fellowship hall of a Presbyterian church for a meeting of the Keep It Simple group of AA. I remember vividly sitting on that plastic chair, scared, shaky, nervous, surrounded by men I didn’t know. As was their custom, at the beginning of the meeting they asked if this was anyone’s first visit to the group, and if so, would the newcomer please introduce himself (it was an all-male group) by first name. So I raised my hand and said, “my name is Bob, and I’m an alcoholic.” The entire group welcomed me, saying in unison, “Hi, Bob. Welcome. Keep coming back.” They passed around a meeting list so that those who chose to do so could write their names and phone numbers down for me. At the end of the meeting, I had a list of over twenty people, many who had put notes like “call any time, day or night” next to their names. Three men from that group went out of their way to talk to me, ask how I was doing, learn a little bit of my story and offer to help any way they could. They then invited me to come to a coffee shop with them after the meeting, just to hang out and shoot the breeze. Walking out of the meeting, at least half a dozen other guys stopped me, introduced themselves, thanked me for coming and encouraged me to come again. And the thing is, I wanted to, because in that place with those men I felt wanted.

Time and again, in that group and others (ironically, most of them meeting in basements or social halls or even sanctuaries of churches), I’ve seen the same radical welcome extended to the newcomer, and I have had the privilege of extending it to others. As I have relocated twice since then and become a newcomer again, that welcome has been extended to me multiple times in many meetings. I can honestly say that after attending hundreds of meetings in dozens of groups in half a dozen states, I’ve never yet been to a meeting where the newcomer wasn’t welcomed in much the same way. In fact, I would go so far as to say that for most recovering people, it would never occur to them to not offer that kind of welcome. It’s just what we do.

Why, then, is radical hospitality so hard for the church? I know some congregations do a phenomenal job of this, but most don’t. I myself have had the experience of visiting a church and not feeling welcome, in fact, being ignored. I used to think that it was a generational thing (it’s no secret that the median age in most mainline Protestant congregations is significantly higher than the general population), or that perhaps the problem was that so many in our congregations have belonged to their congregations for so long that they don’t remember what it is like to be a newcomer. When I worked with a young adult ministry in a congregation in Washington, DC, however, I ran into the same problem. One of my housemates (in her late 20s) visited with a friend of hers, and from the time they arrived, through the worship service and coffee hour afterwards, until they left, the only person who spoke to them was the pastor. (This on the very day that the young adults group was meeting to discuss how we could better reach out to young adults.) When I was in Minnesota, people said it was a regional or ethnic culture thing, that “we Norwegians (or Finns, or Swedes, or Germans) are just introverted.” I’ve noted, though, that congregations all over the country, made up of all kinds of ethnicities, have the same problem.

I don’t think the church’s struggles with extending hospitality are generational, or regional, or ethnic, or that they have anything to do with personality types. Part of the problem, I think, is a failure of empathy. All of the recovering alcoholics I know, even ones who have been sober longer than I have been alive, tell me they can remember what it was like to walk into their first meeting. They empathize with the fears and anxieties of newcomers, and believe that it is their responsibility to reach out with the assurance that there is hope. Too often in our churches we forget what a fearful thing it can be to walk into a strange church for the first time, to be in a place where everyone but you seems to know everyone else, to not know what the rituals are or where the bathrooms are. This is a long way from “being conformed to the mind of Christ,” the one who put himself in the place of the other routinely, even to the point of putting himself in our place on the cross.

A bigger problem, I think, is that we forget how much we need each other. Every long-recovering alcoholic I know recognizes that wisdom is not doled out solely on the basis of seniority or longevity, and that even a newcomer still shaking from his last drunk has something to offer. As my friend Al put it to me, “I never know which newcomer is going to say the thing that saves my ass one day.” Even more important, recovering people know that a key part of keeping their own sobriety is sharing it with others. “You have to give it away to keep it,” as they say. The church, on the other hand, too often sees newcomers as potential sources of income (which is good), but also as potential sources of change (which is bad). We recognize our need for the newcomer in fiscal terms, not in spiritual terms. Evangelism and hospitality are committees, not core values every member takes on as key to their own wellbeing.

This needs to change. And it needs to change not because our congregations are getting smaller, not because we’re having trouble paying the bills, not because we don’t have any young people anymore, but because radical hospitality is one of the core values of the kingdom of God. It is supposed to be one of the things we do because it’s one of the key pieces of who we are. We welcome others, Paul tells us, as Christ has welcomed us, to the glory of God.

Lord Jesus, change us. Conform our hearts and minds to yours. Make our values your values, and help us to welcome others as you have welcomed us, to the glory of God. Amen

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