Summary: Part II of the Four-Part Vision: God instructs his people to practice hospitality. What does this mean as we receive guests in our congregations? Are we ill-prepared to welcome our guests? Or do we receive them as the blessing and gift that God intended?
Congregations are families. The longer that they are together, usually the harder it is to let other people become part of the inner circle of the church. And yet, we know that – just as we are to be hospitable as families – we are also called to be hospitable as groups of believers. The writer of Hebrews puts it in really interesting terms: Be hospitable, because by doing this, there are folks that have actually hosted angels without even knowing it. I think that is so very cool. I mean, think about meeting the angels when we get to heaven. Wouldn’t it be just absolutely awesome to hear one of these heavenly beings say to us: “You know, I was in your church one Sunday. It was really nice the way that you welcomed me and made feel at home among you.”
Sofi and I have been connected to a Lutheran congregation in some way for quite a number of years. Just prior to coming to Our Redeemer, my call was to Concordia Seminary. So when Sofi and I got to Saint Louis, we went out church hunting. For the first time in quite a few years, we went out to find a church not based on our connection to the church as the pastoral family – but rather as visitors off the street. We were not looking for anything fancy, simply looking for a place where we could worship and serve. This experience of finding a church proved to be eye opening.
The first place that we visited was a nice. The worship services were ok; the preaching was ok; and the people were outwardly friendly. We visited this church a number of times. The worshipping community was not too large – 80 people or so in two worship services. Folks in that congregation had known each other for a long time. They were friendly to people who visited – and yet, it was also clear, very clear, that it would take a long time for any visitor to become a part of the inner circle of this church.
The second church that we visited had a bit larger attendance – about the size of ORLC. The services were all traditional and the preaching very dynamic. This could have been our church, but again, the impression was that this group of people had known each other for a long time. There were a few folks assigned greeter duties but beyond that, we came and went with very few people even thinking about saying hi or introducing themselves. So the impression was that the church was quite insular – not too interested in outside influences. We came and went with almost nary a greeting or goodbye.
The third church that we visited was friendly - lots of nice folks who did their best to be welcoming. The church invited people to greet each other before the start of worship – much like what happens here. The pastor was a very nice guy – a good preacher. We actually liked this congregation. So we had our membership transferred there. I spoke to the pastor a number of times and asked how we could serve. Nothing happened. After about one and one-half years, I was asked to become involved, but by then, we had settled into getting up on Sunday, going to church, spending a bit of time in fellowship – and then going home. It was hard to carve out the time to be involved after so much time of nothing! Although outwardly friendly – it was clear that even in this nice community of believers there were circles of acceptance: those that had been there for a long time who were the movers and shakers and decision makers; and those in the outer circle of fellowship who would find it hard to serve or be asked to lead an effort in the church. We probably remained there mostly because we wanted a place to worship, to bring our offerings to and hear the words of forgiveness spoken to us.
Come to find out, that is just the way that things really are in many congregations. One of the gurus that studies churches writes that there are two circles of fellowship at every congregation. There is a large outer circle that includes all people who are members of the church. Then there is an inner circle of folks – this is where most of the leaders of the congregation come from - that comprises those who are fully accepted and wired into the fellowship. In fact, one well-respected church guru believes that one-third to one-half of most church members have never felt that they have been accepted into this inner circle of fellowship. (Lyle Schaller, in Assimilating New Members)
How do you think we at ORLC fare? Do you think that one-third to one-half of the folks in this congregation really don’t feel a sense of belonging - like they aren’t connected? And now, let’s take this one step further: if among long time members up to half the congregation may feel no sense of belonging – think about guests who may come through our doors to visit. Let me make it more personal: If Sofi and I had come to this place – not as the pastoral family – but as simply people coming in to visit the congregation, how long do you think it would have taken to have put me to work within the congregation? Be realistic as you contemplate this question.