the shape of leadership

Building a Culture of Hospitality

Two big ideas to help people feel welcome at your church

Jonathan Malm on April 1, 2019

I’ve been meaning to get back into church. I came by the other day but saw there were so many cars in the lot. I figured you didn’t have space for me, so I left.”

I was surprised to hear this from a former attendee. People come and go — that’s the nature of church attendance — but this one considered coming back. He’d even invited his brother, but he assumed we didn’t really want them there.

If I could have chimed in at that moment in their car, I would have explained that our staff constantly talked about how we could reach more people. We wanted our community to experience the love of God through our services. We strategized outreaches and mailers. Yet when these people actually showed up, we did something, unintentionally, to make them leave.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said He would build His Church. I’m realizing this is a divine act. The Holy Spirit is at work in hearts long before anyone arrives for services. Every Sunday, people drive by our churches and consider going inside. God is calling them to come and hear the gospel. Our responsibility starts when they show up. We can’t drop the ball.

The reason some people don’t return isn’t necessarily a lack of interest. It’s often things we unintentionally did that caused them to feel unwelcome. These are just some of the issues that can become barriers:

  • Not having enough parking spaces available.
  • Not having enough empty seats. (If a family of four can’t easily find a place to sit, it makes them feel out of place.)
  • Overcrowding in the lobby.
  • Failing to post clear signage. (Do people know where they’re supposed to go?)
  • Volunteers who seem unprepared or distracted.
  • Dirty facilities or odd smells. (This can make newcomers feel like we didn’t prepare the space for them.)

I could give you a massive list of things not to do, but these issues change over time and in different contexts. Instead, I want to give you two big ideas that will help your church create a culture of hospitality. As your church’s leadership starts doing these things for the staff, the staff can pass it on to volunteers, the volunteers to the congregants, and the regular attenders to the guests. It becomes a culture.

Our responsibility starts when people show up for church.

Focus on Feelings

As much as we may wish all decisions arose from logic, we have to acknowledge that most people follow their feelings. Guests will decide whether they feel welcome at your church based on what they feel. If they feel good, they will also feel welcome. If they feel bad, they will feel unwelcome.

A culture of hospitality starts with acknowledging bad feelings people have on your church’s property and replacing them with good feelings. It matters not only what you’re doing but how you’re doing it.

For instance, parking cars isn’t really about parking cars. It’s understanding people feel stressed and don’t know where to park. So parking lot attendants will be calm and pleasant, not rushing the drivers. They may even smile and wave at people as they walk toward the building. That replaces negative feelings of a stressful drive and confusion about where to park with the feeling that they are welcome.

Greeting people at the doors isn’t really just about greeting people. It’s being the target people can head toward so they can find the entrance. Then it’s a welcoming smile to let people know they belong (as opposed to that exasperated look they may get from busy cashiers at trendy coffee shops). Then, perhaps it’s a quick gesture toward the worship center or noticing they have kids and walking them to the check-in area.

When our teams do this for people, whether regulars or newcomers, it becomes part of the atmosphere. It becomes a culture of hospitality.

Think Scene by Scene

If you start imagining your church service like an epic story — one where the guest is the hero — you start seeing different scenes: parking lot, lobby, worship center, restrooms, nursery. These are all scenes guests experience. Like a good book, it’s important to transition between those scenes smoothly.

Conflict and decisions happen in those transitions: Do I know where the restrooms are? Will I ask the right person? Will they just point me in a general direction knowing I might get lost?

Or, How will I get my two toddlers and baby across the parking lot safely? Will someone at the front door give me something when my hands are already full?

When we can visualize our hero going from scene to scene, we can identify potential points of conflict and stress, then do our best to fix those.

The beauty of focusing on our guests’ feelings and thinking scene by scene is how we can remove distractions that form barriers around their hearts. When people feel at ease, they can fully engage in the service. We can address the physical space, and the Holy Spirit can address the spiritual space. We just have to get out of our own way, and that starts by creating a culture of hospitality in our churches.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of Influence magazine.


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