Most mainline protestant churches are in decline, the churches of North Alabama are no exception. But not all. I've made it my business to visit our growing congregations in order to learn more about why they are thriving.
I asked a pastor of a congregation that had spectacular growth among young adults what was her most significant act of leadership that encouraged growth.
"I fired the ushers," she replied. "Those older men were stiff and cold. All they knew how to do is to hand people a bulletin, thus making a horrible first impression on visitors. I fired them, searched for people whom God had given the gift of hospitality, and the rest has been easy."
I've learned that hospitality may be the key factor in a faithfully growing church. One could argue this theologically. Paul tells us that we ought to welcome others in the same way that Christ has welcomed us. A major reason for the crucifixion of Jesus was his practice of radical hospitality, open-handed, table-time conviviality.
"We want church to begin in our parking lot," declared one of our dynamic pastors. "We're vetting and training teams of friendly Greeters who meet visitors in the parking lot, welcome them, hand them off to the Hosts who stay close to them in the service, then invite them to lunch afterwards."
The most notable change in church architecture in the past fifty years is the enlargement and the open atmosphere of the narthex, the hallway into a church's worship space. A hundred years ago our churches received people in a dark, cramped entrance hall. Today churches build spacious, open, light, comfortable "Welcome Centers" as a sign that they desire and expect people who are not seasoned members.
Indeed, I have learned that the main difference between a congregation in decline and one with a future is the difference between practicing the faith for the exclusive benefit of "insiders" (the members of that congregation) or passionate concern for the "outsiders" (those who have yet to hear and to respond to the gospel).
Jesus Christ died for the whole wide world, not just for those inside the church. Therefore, a theological test for the fidelity of a church is hospitality. In our contesting of the Alabama Legislature's ill conceived immigration law, and I'm rediscovering the radical nature of the seemingly benign Christian notion of hospitality. Our churches really resent any intrusion into their attempts to be obedient to Christ's mandate to welcome others as we have been welcomed. An evangelical definition of a Christian: Christians are people who know how to welcome people even as Christ has welcomed us.
If your congregation has lost the art of Christian hospitality, let us know. We have learned so much about best practices that our churches have tested and found fruitful in countless congregations.
A major task of ministry in our time and place is to turn our churches inside-out, making them more hospitable and therefore more faithful.
[Taken with permission from the Bishop's Blog, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, originally posted 9/12/11]