There is a lot I could write about this week. The amazing Falcons win over Green Bay. The Mayors’ Day Conference I attended along with several of our City Councilmen. The inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. However, for the second year in a row, I want to borrow from a sermon I heard this past Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta.
Mary Lou and I started attending this old downtown church when we are in that part of town on the weekend. While its facilities are traditional, with beautiful windows and a huge pipe organ, we attend for another reason. At 8:00 a.m., each Sunday they hold a communion service in their chapel. It follows a warm breakfast that often serves some of the homeless of Atlanta. Rev. Dr. Tony Sundermeier, the Senior Pastor, has led the services that we have attended.
For those of you who have traveled in Europe, you may remember the difference in the way their elevators indicate the floors. Instead of a Lobby or First floor, the elevator button would have the number “0”. A basement would be “-1”. The first floor above the lobby would have the number “1” and so on.
Dr. Sundermeier used the European elevators to illustrate how we often provide hospitality to those visiting our churches. How do we welcome those who visit for the first time? Do these visitors have something going on in their lives that has brought them to our church at this point in time?
The basement or Level -1 is really no welcome at all. The stranger is largely ignored, particularly if they are “different” from the congregation. They come in and leave, with only the most perfunctory acknowledgement of their visit. Can you ever remember seeing that happen?
Level 0 is the ground floor. The visitor is welcomed, perhaps even warmly. Common phrases might be “It is good to have you here” or “Please come back”. It is really the minimum expectation of what a church should do. We have welcomed the visitor into our space, or the church building.
Level 1 or the next floor up, is when we welcome them into our lives. This is called hospitality and could be an invitation to lunch, a follow up phone call, or something that shows that you, the individual, are genuinely interested in the person that came through the church’s door.
Level 1 is definitely an improvement. A lot of churches are at this level, genuinely reaching out to the visitor. The question then becomes, is this enough?
Dr. Sudermeier is challenging his own congregation to offer what he calls Radical Hospitality or Level 2. That is when you invite them into a relationship with God. It is fine to welcome them into your space and then into your life. Ultimately, our call is to invite that person into the type of spiritual relationship that fills the void in their life and offers them the joy that comes with the certainty of eternal life.
Dr. Sudermeier gave a real life example of a person he knew.
A lady, let’s call her Joan, was divorcing her husband, a prominent member of the community. Joan was told by some of the leadership of the church that she should reconsider, despite her husband’s significant betrayal. The implication was that Joan would not be welcome if she followed through with the divorce. Consequently, Joan left both her husband and the church.
Many years later, alone during the Christmas season, Joan decided to attend a church service. Joan was worried, even frightened that she would be rejected, made to feel unwelcome. She went anyway.
An older lady, noticing the visitor’s beautiful voice, spoke to Joan and welcomed her to the church. Sensing there was something troubling the visitor, she asked if Joan would like to have lunch. She invited Joan into her life.
During that lunch, she told Joan that she had a beautiful voice and should consider joining the choir. The older lady told Joan that her voice was a gift from God and she needed to share that gift.
While Joan declined, she came back to the church and within a year, her voice could be heard from the choir loft, singing God’s praises and lifting Him up to others.
Through the action of one older lady, Joan was welcomed into the church, welcomed into the older lady’s life, and ultimately welcomed back into a meaningful, ongoing relationship with the God that never left her.
As you visit your place of worship next week, honestly reflect on what type of welcome and hospitality you are offering the person that visits your church. The results just may be radical.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org