Welcome Those Who Fled the Church

If most people currently avoid church (they do), how might the church change to be more welcoming to these exiles?

This was a critical question as my wife Joani and I set out to research the culture before we wrote our new book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. We landed on four things that people today would like to find in a church.

In my last post I identified four reasons that people avoid church. The flipside of these things form what, in the book, we call the “Four Acts of Love.” These are the things that we find people craving, what they wish the church, the Body of Christ, would provide:

Radical Hospitality

Fearless Conversation

Genuine Humility

Divine Anticipation

In coming posts here I’ll preview each of these Acts of Love. Today I’ll start with Radical Hospitality. In our research for the book we found that most congregations believe their churches are friendly and hospitable. But they tend to make that critique based on cosmetic things that most people don’t equate with a true welcome.

We describe how Radical Hospitality is NOT:

  • greeters at the door
  • meet-and-greet time in the service
  • an espresso bar
  • parking lot attendants
  • awarding prizes for bringing visitors

Instead, Radical Hospitality begins with extending the kind of genuine welcome that Jesus demonstrated. He exemplified an unconditional love for the misfits, the outcasts, the weak, the young, the broken, the prostitutes.

We tell the story of a remarkable night when an unusual guest showed up at a Lifetree Cafe program titled “Temptation: Why Good Men Go Bad.” The hour featured a filmed interview with Ted Haggard, the megachurch pastor who started a new church after his sizzling sex scandal with a male prostitute.

Who showed up for this Lifetree episode? Mike Jones–the male prostitute whom Ted Haggard hired. He outed himself at the beginning of the hour. The tension at that moment was palpable. But one by one, the Christians in the room began to envelope Jones with Radical Hospitality. An hour of open, honest, loving conversation followed. The group tackled the issue of temptation and grappled with Jesus’ words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.”

At the conclusion of the program, Jones stuck around and talked for another hour with Christ’s followers. He shared how he expected this crowd to react with judgmentalism toward him. He was surprised to encounter a refreshing splash of Radical Hospitality.

Radical Hospitality finds ways to welcome, to include, to love, without the snarl of judgmentalism, exclusivism, or elitism. As Jesus demonstrated, this doesn’t mean we condone a prostitute’s behavior. But we can fully accept the person. Acceptance does not require endorsement.

Jones thanked the people for welcoming him, accepting him, and listening to him. As he turned to leave, he said he wished such a place, with this kind of hospitality, existed near his home. “I have some friends I’d like to experience this.”

For the love of Christ.

28 Responses to “Welcome Those Who Fled the Church”

  1. Wow! This is powerful! Love it!

  2. “Acceptance doesn’t require endorsement”. I am going to think hard on this today!

  3. We always think we are a welcoming church because we have greeters at the door and share the peace during service. We need to greet and meet people as they come in the door. We need to take a few moments to get to know them and not just say hello. I loved this article. The love and acceptance of Ted is what we should be doing as the body of Christ. We should always remember to do this.

  4. “Acceptance does not require endorsement.” Excellent.

  5. Thanks Thom for reminding us of the vast difference between programmed “hospitality” and the real thing. Hospitality, stranger-love, is one of the key missing pieces in the organized American church today. In many megachurches, the reality we have created (despite our self-assessment) is a large crowd of strangers, no one really knows anyone nor is anyone known. This is a far cry from and completely antithetical to the life of the body of Christ portrayed in the pages of the New Testament. Life is knowing God (Jn. 17) and knowing others in a life-changing way. True relationships of love and acceptance, radical hospitality as you name it, are life-changing. Phony, program-driven, marketing-based “hospitality” done to try to close deals with prospects is not. It’s not that hard. If we would only begin to conform more and more to the pattern of Jesus as these Christ-followers you describe did, lives all around us would be given a compelling vision of Him. Jesus is the answer and the pattern for us to follow. Thanks for sharing this story!

  6. We’ve experienced this at our church when people living openly non-biblical lifestyles were welcomed into our congregation to come and learn more about Jesus. I think this kind of love needs to start from the pulpit in order to preempt our natural tendency to avoid/shun/gossip about those who have gone down paths we’ve never gotten near.

  7. All good things that churches need to hear. But, it sounds like a commercial for your book. I don’t like that in this venue.

  8. As always, Thom, you are right on the money! I’ll share this, and some of your other posts, with the church where I just started serving as interim Pastor. A few of these new friends (from my new church) will be visiting our Lifetree Cafe branch soon and I’m hoping that will help them see first-hand what real welcoming and Christian fellowship is all about. I’m also looking forward to reading your new book. Thanks.

  9. A few thoughts:

    I’m interested in how you have described what hospitality is not. The items mentioned in your “NOT” hospitality list are not in and of themselves makers of hospitality. However, could they (with the exception of the prizes) still provide valuable avenues for individuals to express genuine hospitality or at least start to create a welcoming setting? The way I read this article, it sounds like you are saying to scrap the idea of having people intentionally identified to greet people. I would tend to think we still need those people, but we can’t expect that to be enough. The church (each individual of the church) must realize that it is a beginning, not an end; and avenue to genuine hospitality, not hospitality itself.

    So many of us “feel” like we are endorsing the behavior when we embrace people who have made poor choices to be involved in certain sins. Part of that may be bad teaching and modeling we have received during our childhood years. Part of it may be our misinterpretation of good and well-intentioned teaching and behavior. Part of it may be the constant tension we live in between loving acceptance and accountability and trying to protect ourselves from falling into sin knowing our own insecurities and frailty. It is a learning process. I also wonder how different personality types approach or handle these issues differently.

    I’ve observed a person be fully embraced by a church, but then there is that one person that makes a comment (well intentioned or not) that creates a feeling of isolation or exclusion in the other. Also, there are times when we shy away from difficult questions. At times it is timing and other times it is fear.

    • Russ, I hope you don’t assume I’m saying something I did not say. I did not write about a “NOT hospitality list.” I wrote about a “Radical Hospitality is NOT” list–emphasis on Radical. And that’s the point. There’s a difference between typical “hospitality” and “Radical Hospitality.” Sure, greeting people at the door is a nice thing to do. I’m certainly not suggesting to “scrap” the idea of assigned greeting. But it will take more than that to convince the strangers that we truly love and accept them.

      Thanks, Russ, for your insights.

      • Thom, been reading your recent posts with great interest. There are differences between Christianity in Britain and America. In America it seems more acceptable for many kinds of people to go to church and far more people in general. In the UK the church is now seen as less relevant and at times denominations like the Church of England are seen as part of the establishment, the ‘spiritual’ wing of those who rule if you like. Not that appealing to many people. In Ireland the Catholic church had an iron grip over many people and the priests and nuns were in some cases like little tin gods in their own right. Church here was far more about control and something people do because it’s expected of them and far less about people genuinely seeking meaning or real Christian fellowship. In England as well it has very Middle class connotations too, people in suits, rather well to do and suburban, those who are already deemed good anyway. I feel it would be rare to see regular Working class people in many churches, partially because they might not feel welcome and partially because many of the CoE vicars were and are very well educated and well spoken Middle class males. The issue of class in the UK has the same connotation race has in America sadly, as in often never the twain shall meet.

        Consequently, many people from all walks of life, especially from poorer and more Working class backgrounds feel that Christianity is not for them. This is changing now. Also, many people feel that traditional Christianity and worship is missing the point.

        A while back, a church group started to meet in pubs, where people were welcome to even have a drink if they wanted, but where the emphasis was to allow any type of person to come if they wanted and where people didn’t have to dress in suits or Sunday best. Why not meet in coffee bars or pubs or other places? Why does it have to be denominational or under the control of some vast impersonal organisation or be particularly Catholic or Protestant or whatever? Just some thoughts anyway.

  10. Thanks so much Thom! Right on! Greeters etc. are a program. What we really need is a mindset – a genuine understanding of God’s grace and where we “all” are without it.

  11. Another home run, Thom! At my church I am a “connection coach” and my primary responsibility is to connect with people, reveal to them their “next step” and eventually coach them into active participatory service. Technically, I’m a “pastor of stickiness” and seek to help people connect to Christ, each other and their mission.

    A couple months ago, I decided to leave the atrium space (where people gather prior to and between services) and moved to the main door as a greeter. I just wasn’t meeting enough people! And we had greeters but, in general, all they did was hand a bulletin to people and answer any questions (few had them). I decided to own the front door and open it for every person with an energetic, personal and intentional “meeting.” I also decided to train others in how to do this. It’s been a huge hit and both positive and productive.

    One key is to REMEMBER names of visitors and to look for newbies, leaving after service, and call’em by name again. Each week I also want to meet and remember the name of ONE regular (we have over a 1000 attend). I also pray, share stories, give/get hugs, give high fives to children and generally have a ball. It’s the BEST job and, yes, it’s “radical hospitality” that matters.

    Now we have door openers at other entrances and last weekend even the teens are stepping up and out to greet. It’s fun and it makes a difference.

  12. Love the posts… My wife and I have been in ministry for 15 years and are starting a new phase… We are endeavoring to plant or start a new work and we love the Lifetree cafe model… Would love some guidance.

    Dave Webb

    Sent from my iPhone

  13. Here is a good example for us. One church that I know of has a policy with newcomers. Someone always sits with them in the meeting and engages them in conversation. After the meeting, they get to know a bit more about them.

    They then offer to pick them up and take them to any other meetings they would like to go to. If they have children or teenagers, they offer to pick them up and take them to any midweek meetings.

    They are given the contacts phone number for any questions they might have and the contact offers to transport them to Sunday meetings for the next six weeks.

    After six weeks they are invited to give an appraisal of their experience and where they would like to go from there.

    Does it work? You bet.

  14. “… we found that most congregations believe their churches are friendly and hospitable. But they tend to make that critique based on cosmetic things that most people don’t equate with a true welcome.”

    I think many that are part of cliques fail to think what it’s like not to be part of a clique and so in their mind, how could someone not love their church? But the insularity of one’s clique does not translate into a welcoming church. In fact, cliques are often a death knell in churches.

  15. Insightful and inspirational…thanks for consistantly impacting the Kingdom! -Reep

  16. Confession #1: Sunday mornings I am usually rushed, surrounded by people, yet often feel alone. I try to start friendly conversations that aren’t intrusive. It’s not that easy even though I’m an extrovert. (There’s no way I’d expect the introverts to do so, though many of them are caring listeners.)
    Confession #2: I start every Sunday with the intention to (a) seek people whose names I don’t know, (b) seek prople whose names I learned recently, and (c) introduce these people to others. Then almost every Sunday I get “sidetracked” with a wandering grandchild or with a friend I haven’t seen in awhile.

  17. Thom…this radical hospitality is what has become my call and my passion! I left full-time paid youth ministry December 31st to enter a new phase…a ministry entitled “Pass The Salt’ which will engage with unchurched youth; unchurched fringe people and families; people that all of the normal “church” folks walk right by but whom Jesus would have ran to; we are also doing an outdoor worship service at 7:30 a.m. every Sunday on top of the mountain at an outdoor altar area; some weeks we have 6 some weeks we have 26; but we are welcoming, loving, casual, no offering plate and no questions asked kinda Christians…who want to love on people and show what GRACE can look like; thanks so much for seeing that we need a new kind of “church” so we don’t continue to lose lots more people!!!

  18. This is a really good series. Looking at your last post, along with this one, what it really comes down to is that, what Christ told us to do, and what people are longing for are in perfect agreement; LOVE! Jesus gave us one command; to love one another. Unfortunately, instead of love, people are feeling judgement and rejection by the ones who “represent” Christ to the world. It’s quite sad that, in recent years, as so many people are leaving the church in search of love, and to love, the establishment so often doubles down on its focus on “biblical accuracy” and “solid doctrine” and “biblical living.” All the while, not being truly biblically accurate, doctrinally sound, or living “biblically;” whatever that’s supposed to mean. To truly be the fulfillment all of these things requires just one thing; to love one another!

  19. Wow, that’s a great story! I’m reminded that hospitality is literally “love of strangers.” That can be difficult because naturally we are more comfortable with those who are more similar to ourselves. I think hospitality is the willingness to be uncomfortable so that another can be comfortable.

    • If people just learned to accept others without judging, there would be less racism, less class distinctions, less nationalism and less us and them; isn’t loving your neighbour all about that? Acceptance, tolerance and practical love with no angle or expectation of reward?

  20. Good post. We struggle to move the mindset of our congregation from hospitable (in our own minds) to radical hospitality. Looking forward to the upcoming posts!

  21. Our “fleeing” resulted from: changes in music style and emphasis, lack of sermons, shut down of Sunday school; but the real impetus was from the preceeding 15 years of empty relationships, lack of any follow-up care, and no desire to practice sharing of one’s faith. A seemingly better church I attended on a trip to Detroit many a year ago asked what I did at my home church (although I was in another ‘fled’ state then)…sang in the choir, I said. They put me in a choir robe, handed me music, and just like that, I was singing with them. After church, they asked about people they might know from where I was from, although 500 miles from there. I finally gave a family name they recognized, and the next thing I know I’m being taken to dinner by a family who knew of that family. That’s just a beginning though. A typical church is usually only open for a rushed 2 hour event, that needs to be a 24/7 multi-faceted event center that is always open for every need imaginable: from prayer to praying for; from preparing food to serving and delivering it; from working for others, to finding work others can do that are unemployed say; from teaching about GOD and jobs skills and ways to help each other, to becoming students and workers and helpers. But I’m speaking out of order, since the real Deal-maker is Jesus, and first one has to have the opportunity to hear GOD’s Word, be convicted of their sin and repent from their ways, and then be shown all the above. So, has the church helped ‘grow’ the evangelist or preacher, like the one I heard almost 50 years ago, who by his preaching and GOD’s Word, caused me to get out of my seat and come to Christ? Today, i think the music doesn’t matter so much; it could just be a house of prayer and a place people can come to get out of the ‘rain’ of their world of problems, and find others who are like them, but have come to rely on Jesus Christ and want to help them do the same. Thank you for all your work, for your web site, and allowing me to express myself.

  22. Here’s a thought…how radical would hospitality be if it was sought outside of the religious box where we keep the idea of Jesus locked away? Where the hospitality sought was shared, focusing on peace and healing, without agenda or baggage, such as self interest (church maintenance, increased membership, survival)? Want to connect with the nones, re-connect with the dones? Free yourself from the sinking ship of plop, pray and pay.


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