I serve on my church’s hospitality team. Once a month, I do the easiest volunteer job in the whole building: I hand out worship bulletins as people walk in on Sunday mornings. It’s also one of my favorites because it wasn’t that long ago that I was the new kid desperately seeking a friendly face. And really, with only two years at this particular church under my belt, I’m still very much a newbie in a sea of people who have attended for a quarter century or longer.
Our hospitality coordinator reminds us regularly to pray for opportunities to help people feel welcome. I’ve learned that I’m not a natural when it comes to showing hospitality to visitors and newcomers, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Maybe we’re reluctant to invest in people until we know they’re around for the long haul, or maybe our own insecurities tempt us to stay in our comfort zones with our comfort people. I also suspect that many of us, myself included, have good intentions about being welcoming but if we see a newcomer being served by someone else in the church, then we think we’re off the hook. Their needs are met, so they don’t need us, right?
But we are not called to quantify or be stingy with our compassion. After all, we ourselves were once far off but have now been brought near by the blood of Christ. And now we are sojourners and exiles of a different kind, known by Christ but not by the world. Because Jesus has been and is extravagant in his love toward us, and because we know what it means to be a sojourner, we ought to be the most hospitable toward the sojourners among us.
Here are a few ways we can practice hospitality for the visitors and newcomers in our churches:
Pray for eyes to see the lonely people. Sometimes we get so accustomed to our ways and to our familiar people that we simply can’t see the new guys or the people who live on the margins, who have never felt like they fit in. Ask the Lord for eyes to see them, because he himself loves the alien and the sojourner.
Be discerning about your conversation. When you chat with a mixed group of newcomers and old-timers, what do you talk about? Are you overdoing it on inside jokes, shared history, and references to events/people that only the old-timers would get? Newcomers are probably already hyper-aware of their newness; be careful not to exacerbate that sense of alienation. It’s understandable to want to connect with your friends over “insider” stuff, but don’t make it the whole conversation when new friends are around. Ask them about themselves, share a little bit about your week, find something in common. Fold them into the conversation, not out of it.
Don’t waste the snippets. Sunday mornings can be hard times to connect well, even with your friends. You’ve got kids to drop off at the nursery or plans to tend to right after church. But don’t let the fact that you can only do a little discourage you from doing anything at all. Just like he fed thousands with only a few loaves and fishes, God can take the snippets of interaction and make them something more filling than we could imagine. Give up your regular seat to sit with someone new, or invite them to sit with you. Be diligent about saying hello to the new family or new person. I think I would have given up on my church after a few short weeks if not for a couple whose pew I accidentally crashed when I began to attend. They were sweet and faithful to say hello every week, and while our friendship hasn’t progressed much past that, I think of their faithfulness often and am grateful for the few minutes they gave me every Sunday. It was a small act, but the Lord made it a sure anchor for me in a season of uncertainty.
Clear your schedule and invite your new friends out to lunch or for coffee. And do it more than once. I know sometimes I am tempted to think that I did my good deed, so I can check it off my list and move on, but relationships are not as cut and dried as that. And people know when they’re being checked off a list. Be intentional about loving the newbies. Consider if you could keep your Sunday afternoons open for visitors or newcomers. Or set aside another day of the week or month and dedicate it to new friends. If they’re also new in town, they may feel extra vulnerable and uncertain. Take some of the edge off by designating yourself their local guide—show off your favorite coffee shops, pizza places, or ice cream parlors. Be vigilant and prayerful about connecting them with other people at church and in the community.
Be gentle. People new to your church might be new to church, period, or they may have heart-heavy reasons for leaving their last one. Remember your first day of school or at your new job? It’s probably something like that for them, but even more so, what with all the emotional and spiritual baggage that tends to accompany such a transition. Listen, ask questions, and speak Jesus to them.
Do all of this, even if you see other people doing the same for them, and even if you know they may not be staying for long. No one I know ever complained of being loved too well, and if we only reach out to people who we believe will have time to reciprocate, then perhaps we have forgotten what it means to be loved by God. Remember what love the Father has lavished on you, and go and do likewise.