October 27, 2019

Acts 10:1-33
Romans 15:1-13

“Hospitality in the Neighbourhood”

There is a story about a pastor who felt that their church was a bit stuffy and could use a bit of friendliness. So, one Sunday he announced that the following Sunday they were going to start a custom of shaking hands and greeting each other. At the close of the service, a man turned around to the woman behind him and said, “Good morning,” and she looked at him with shock at his boldness and said, “I beg your pardon! That friendliness business doesn’t start until next Sunday!”

There was an article in a church newsletter about a man who visited 18 different churches on successive Sundays. He was trying to find out what the churches were really like. He said, “I sat near the front. After the service, I walked slowly to the rear, then returned to the front and back to the foyer using another aisle. I smiled, dressed neatly. I asked one person to direct me to a specific place: a fellowship hall, pastor’s study, etc. I remained for coffee if it was served.” He writes, “I used a scale to rate the reception I received. I awarded points on the following basis:

10 points for a smile from a worshipper

10 for a greeting from someone sitting nearby

100 for an exchange of names

200 for an invitation to have coffee

200 for an invitation to return

1000 for an introduction to another worshipper

2000 for an invitation to meet the pastor

On this scale, 11 of the 18 churches earned fewer than 100 points. Five actually received fewer than 20.

The conclusion? The faith teaching may be biblical, the singing inspirational, the sermon uplifting, but when visitors find nobody who cares whether they’re here, they are not likely to come back.

I’ve visited a few churches over the years that wouldn’t have done very well on that point system. Several years ago, I remember worshipping in a congregation where only one person spoke to me. She turned around after the final hymn in the service and said, “You should sing in the choir.” I think it was supposed to be a compliment, but she said it kind of grumpily, as if she didn’t appreciate me singing in the congregation when I should have been in the choir. And then she turned away from me, without waiting for a response. No one else said anything, despite the fact that I walked slowly and made eye contact. The minister shook my hand at the door, but kept having a conversation with someone else while he did so, and he didn’t notice that I was new.

I’m pretty sure that First Church’s score on the test would be quite good. I’ve seen many of you doing the very things that he was looking for when visitors or newcomers come through our doors. I would say that Hospitality is something that you’re pretty good at here. But I also think we have room for improvement. We do hospitality quite well, but do we offer “Radical Hospitality”?

The story about the visitor and point system for hospitality comes from Robert Schnase’s book on the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. When Robert Schnase wrote his book he made Hospitality the first of his Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. You see, wonderful Christian Churches may have amazing worship, excellent programs, and meaningful mission projects, but if they don’t welcome the people who come into their buildings on Sunday mornings, they won’t be very successful.

But he doesn’t just suggest that we be a little more friendly and welcoming to newcomers. He invites us to consider the call to offer “Radical Hospitality.” He says that vibrant, fruitful, growing Christian churches practice Radical Hospitality. They go above and beyond just being friendly and offering coffee and cookies. Their members focus on the people outside of their congregation with as much gusto as they have for those who are on the inside, and they use their utmost creativity, energy, and resources to welcome the stranger, exceeding all expectations… no matter what the cost!!!

Robert Schnase invites us to consider the difference that being part of the Christian community has made in our lives, to remember how we came to this church (whether recently or many years ago), to think about how we were welcomed, included, and given the opportunity to participate, serve, and share our gifts with others.

He invites us to think about what OUR lives might be like if we DIDN’T have this church family to which we belong. And out of gratitude and joy, he suggests that we will want to make that opportunity possible for others as well.

Sometimes, when we are feeling discouraged about a lack of church growth, we might be inclined to think that most people wouldn’t be interested in joining a church. Most people would find it boring, or old-fashioned, or irrelevant. But I like Robert Schnase’s list of reasons why people need our church. These are the same kinds of reasons that WE need our church.

  • To know that God loves us,
  • To live a life that matters, and belong to a community that makes a difference,
  • To know we are not alone,
  • To know the peace that runs deeper than conflict, and to experience hope and belonging,
  • To learn how to accept and offer forgiveness,
  • To learn how to serve and be served,
  • To learn how to love and be loved,
  • To know that life is having something to live for, giving of oneself, and having a sense of purpose.

Most people do not know how hungry they are for genuine community until they experience it. They do not know they need the connection to God that worship fosters until they regularly practice it. They do not sense something missing from their lives until they immerse themselves in service to others.

Those are the kinds of things that many of us have experienced, and practiced, and immersed ourselves in within this church community. “Radical Hospitality” means going above and beyond to invite others into genuine community with us and with the God whom we worship and serve in Jesus Christ.

“Radical” means “drastically different from ordinary practice, outside the normal,” and so it provokes practices that exceed expectations, that go the second mile, that take welcoming the stranger to surprising new levels. By “radical” we don’t mean wild-eyed, out of control, or in your face. We mean people offering the absolute utmost of themselves, their creativity, their abilities, and their energy to offer the gracious embrace of Christ to others. Here’s one example:

Many churches offer vacation Bible school during the summer. If we asked some churches, “What’s the purpose of this program?” we might receive the answer, “For our children to have a fun experience while school is out.” If the purpose of the summer ministry is simply for children to have fun, then why not load them into a van, take them to the movies, and let them spend time with their friends? Such a purpose cannot sustain a children’s ministry with integrity.

Other congregations answer, “The purpose is so that our children and grandchildren hear about God and learn the stories of the faith through songs, crafts, drama, and other enjoyable activities.” The ministry now serves a higher purpose. Clearly stating this purpose guides the leaders in selecting people to serve as teachers, choosing curriculum, and planning communications. If someone brings a friend, leaders view it as an added delight, a good opportunity to warmly welcome a guest. This attitude is basic Christian attractional hospitality.

Now imagine a church that takes this further: “The purpose of our summer children’s ministry is so that our children and grandchildren and the children of the neighbourhood hear about God and learn the stories of the faith so that more families experience Christ’s love through a genuine faith community.”

Radical Hospitality makes an obvious difference. To focus programs, not just on the children of those who already belong but also upon those who have never attended church, guides planners to use other forms of communication about the event – not just putting an announcement in the bulletin, but finding ways to get the word out in the neighbourhood.

The desire to reach children of families who do not already belong to the congregation might mean that the planners invite leadership differently, particularly choosing teachers and musicians who have a gift for making newcomers feel at home. It might mean offering aspects of the ministry in another language.

An outward focus inspires planners to gather information on each child who participates so that leaders can follow up with families. Planners would evaluate success not just by how many of their own children participate in the ministry, but by how many new families the church forms relationships with and how many people move towards greater involvement.

The Scriptures are full of encouragement to God’s people to offer hospitality to neighbours and strangers. In fact, it is one of the most important duties of the Jewish People to welcome strangers and care for their needs. But Robert Schnase admits that the first edition of his book about “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations” was based on a primarily attractional model of Christian hospitality. Congregations were encouraged to think about how we welcome people when they come to our churches, and how we might do it better.

But what about the people who will never come? There was a time when a church could just set up somewhere, look like a church, and folks would come. They might decide to stay or go, depending on what they experienced in worship, whether they agreed with the theology, or what the fellowship or service opportunities included… But that’s not really the case anymore, is it? It hasn’t been the case for a while now.

In the latest edition of Robert Schnase’s book, he talks about churches that invite people to “Come and See” what’s happening here, versus churches that “Go and Do” something in the neighbourhood to connect with what is happening there.

If we’re going to reach people today with the good news of the gospel and the love of God in Jesus Christ, I think we’re going to have to go out to do it. That’s why we decided to have that prayer walk around the neighbourhood… to begin thinking about who are our neighbours… the ones that we might invite to “Come and See” and join us at worship or a church program or a potluck supper, and also the ones who would never respond to such an invitation – the ones that we need to go and meet where they are.

The Apostle Paul gives us a good example of how to do this. You see, Paul didn’t set up a church and then just invite people to come to it. He went out and met people in the places where they lived. He did not disguise who he really was. But he was willing to adapt himself to varying contexts to listen, learn, and appreciate those who were different from him. In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all people, that I might be all means save some.” He allowed himself to be shaped and formed by the communities he reached with God’s grace.

Our passage from Acts 10 today shows the Apostle Peter doing something similar. It’s the story of the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius and his household. But it’s also the story of the conversion of Peter – when Peter opens himself to possibilities that he never before imagined.

Peter steps into Cornelius’ house, full of strangers that religious law restricts Peter from mixing with, and he eats with them, converses with them, and listens to their dreams. Peter sees his hosts differently, and this mutual hospitality, offered and received, changes the course of Christianity.

I love the way that God prepared both Peter and Cornelius for this encounter, guiding them to consider the possibility of relationship. God showed Peter that he would have to adjust a little bit, let go of some of his religious rules and assumptions, and become a bit more like his neighbours. It wasn’t an easy thing for him to do, but it was the key to the success of his mission.

Peter was able to go and receive from their hospitality, their gifts and offerings, and he was able to share what he had with them also – the good news about Jesus Christ. And that was the beginning of the church’s expansion and growth into all the world. The church changed as it grew. Every new ministry did not look like a copy of the first one. But the gospel was incarnated in new cultures and communities.

Robert Schase tells about churches reaching out in new and creative ways in their communities, meeting their neighbours, becoming more fruitful, but not necessarily in the standard ways of the past. Here’s one example:

“Why don’t those people come to church?” This often-repeated question expresses the frustration that a small congregation felt about the people who lived in the trailer park next door. Church members made several efforts to invite and welcome, but nothing worked.

Then a few members took Crock-Pots of food to the trailer park and started to share meals with the residents. This led to deeper conversations. The folks from the church listened and learned and came to know the people. As time went on, they added time for prayers and singing. They learned about the conditions that their low-income neighbours lived with, and this inspired the church to build restrooms for the residents. The church eventually built a small amphitheatre and offered worship in the trailer park. More than seventy people regularly attend.

I wonder what God is calling First Church to do next. Who are the neighbours to whom we are called to go? How might we share mutual hospitality, receiving their gifts and offering ours as well? These are decisions that we need God’s guidance and help in discerning. And we need the people of the church gathered together to listen for God’s guidance as well. I hope you’ll decide to be a part of the conversation when we gather for our “Radical Hospitality” workshop on Saturday, November 9th. Please join us as we listen together for how God is calling us to engage in Radical Hospitality in the neighbourhood.