Believe it or not, church hospitality can make or break your ministry.
Your preaching, worship, and small groups might be phenomenal, but without taking steps to ensure newcomers feel welcome, they’ll be nothing more than noise in the background.
Having a plan for church hospitality isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s essential.
In this post, we’ll look at the two types of visitors who show up to your church on a Sunday morning and the biblical reasons why loving them well is so important. Then we’ll consider a few practical tips to take your hospitality efforts to the next level.
But first, do you remember the last time you went to a new church?
Can you imagine what it would have been like if there had been no hospitality plan in place?
The worst welcome
There are no reserved parking spaces for guests, so you drive up and down each row until you discover that the main lot is full and you’ll need to park in the satellite lot across the street and wait for the shuttle.
Once you’ve maneuvered that, you step inside the building to find you’re now late; the service has already begun. No one is there to greet you, so you open what you believe to be the back door to the sanctuary. It’s actually a side entrance at the front of the room. Several heads turn in your direction as the worship band plays.
For a few minutes, you scan the rows for a seat in vain. Finally, you spot one, but it’s near the very front, in the second row—in the middle. You say “Excuse me” more times than you can count as you twist and turn and bump your way around strangers to make it to the empty chair.
Once there, you breathe a temporary sigh of relief. It’s then you notice you’ve never heard the song everyone is singing, and there are no words on the screen to help you. You mouth the chorus as best you can—something about waves and water—hoping the next song will be one you know.
The pastor, or an elder—someone in a suit, anyway—steps up to the stage to make church announcements. You hear something about small groups and an outreach in the community, but the news is crafted for those already in the know. And then, he says the words you dread hearing: “If you’re a guest with us this morning, would you please stand?”
Mortified, you rise to your feet. A few other people in the back stand as well, but it feels like every eyeball is on you. The room applauds politely, as if you’ve just won a prestigious award for your ability to stand. It’s awkward to say the least.
Then, without saying another word about visitors or offering a next step to you and the other poor souls on display, the man in the suit makes his next announcement: the nursery needs more volunteers. You slink back into your seat, red as a beet.
The pastor’s message is a blur. All you can think about is making your exit, and when it’s time, there’s nothing to stop you. No first-time guest table. No meet-and-greet. Nothing. And at this point, you’re glad. You’ve already decided this first visit will be your last.
The two guests who come to your church
That scenario may be extreme, but it serves to highlight how your church’s hospitality plan (or lack of one) affects every aspect of ministry. And it’s important visitors feel welcome, because every visitor is one of two types of guests.
The first type of guest is a true stranger, a non-Christian who’s been brought, sometimes dragged, to church by a friend or family member. Occasionally, he or she may be on their own, responding to the gentle tug of the Holy Spirit in their life.
Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” (John 6:44). A non-Christian’s visit to your church may be a step toward Jesus, initiated by the Father. Your hospitality plan helps ensure nothing causes them to stumble on their way to the King.
Remember: Jesus was often ridiculed by the religious leaders of His day for spending too much time with tax collectors and sinners. He befriended the lost, ate in their homes, and loved them well. He was outrageously hospitable—meaning it actually outraged the uptight, religious hypocrites in Jerusalem. We are called to be just as hospitable.
When Jesus called His first disciples, He told them He would send them out “to fish for people” (Matt. 4:19), but when lost people show up at your church door, it’s like the fish have jumped right into your boat. It’s important to make them feel welcome!
The other kind of guest is a brother or sister in Christ, a fellow Christian who, for whatever reason, is looking for a new church home. This should be easier, right? Even if they haven’t been to your church before, they should understand the basics. Maybe so. But it’s still just as important to be generous with your welcome.
Before Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified, He told His disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). The apostle John put it this way: “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4:21). You may not be able to see all the baggage a fellow believer has brought with them when they step through your door, but you have an opportunity to bring them comfort and peace, and to remind them of God’s unfailing love.
Keep in mind Jesus equated our love for one another with our love for Him. He said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). How we show hospitality in our churches is just one way we can love our brothers and sisters in Christ.
4 ways you can upgrade your hospitality game
So how do you make sure no one feels looked over, uncomfortable, or unimportant when they visit your church for the first time? Every church is different, but here are a few suggestions:
1. Hospitality starts before Sunday morning
Most people will Google a church before visiting for the first time, so make sure your church’s website is updated, clean, and easy to navigate. Help future guests feel comfortable before they arrive.
- Make sure your church’s street address is prominent and easy to find so visitors can enter it into their GPS.
- Include several recent sermon videos to give visitors a preview of what they can expect.
- Have a page specifically for newcomers, answering frequent questions about parking, dress, children’s ministry, and other things they might want to know about.
- Incorporate a contact form or include an email address—one that’s monitored!—so that any unanswered questions can be asked.
- Allow visitors to check in online ahead of time. They may not feel like total strangers if they’re expected.
2. Consider a secret shopper
Many churches have found it helpful to incorporate a secret shopper into their planning. Inviting a trusted friend or a professional consultant who does not attend your church to visit and take note of everything that went well—and everything that didn’t—can offer real insight into how an outsider experiences a service.
- If you go this route, be sure to use the positive feedback to encourage everyone who has a hand in welcoming newcomers.
3. Have a hospitality team
You may have heard of the bystander effect. It’s when many people witness an emergency or a crime and no one takes action because everyone assumes someone else will. There’s such a thing as the bystander effect in churches—everyone assumes someone else will hold the door, greet an unfamiliar face, or walk a newcomer down to the Sunday school classrooms.
- You may be surprised at how many members of your church would love to be a point person for hospitality. It’s a great way for outgoing people to serve and make new friends while using the gifts God has given them.
- At the same time, everyone at church should be “on the hospitality team,” so to speak. Welcoming newcomers is not optional, so it’s important to communicate your church’s vision regularly, so everyone can be on board and looking for ways to help and encourage others.
- Follow up with training for everyone involved. It’s important that everyone has the same goals in mind.
4. Have a hospitality plan
You know your church programs. You know your building. You know your Sunday service. Hospitality should connect to everything you do.
Start by putting yourself in the shoes of a visitor and go from there. The feedback of a secret shopper (see above) may be invaluable for this step.
- Have a written hospitality plan for every service and every area of ministry, including who’s primarily responsible for each component. If it’s not written down, it probably won’t happen.
- Revisit, review, revise. Consider your plan for hospitality a living document. Take feedback to heart, and adjust as needed. There’s always room for improvement.
Over to you
Jesus said it best when He said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). That’s really the key to successful church hospitality.
Just remember how you felt the last time you visited a new church and ask yourself, What would have made it the best possible experience? Think on that for a while, then take it from there.