[An unedited version of this post was accidentally released earlier this morning, complete with the word “fdalb,” which is my own personal covfefe.]
Do you want to create a more hospitable environment for your church guests?
Are you trying to improve the welcoming culture when people come to your weekend services?
Don’t you think it would be nicer if people would just be…nicer?
Sure, you can tell your people to step up their game and just be friendlier. But we know that doesn’t always work. You can tell your ushers to smile more and look more approachable, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to loving care for guests.
An answer for this “just do better” dilemma might be found in James K.A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. His premise is that we are not merely cognitive beings, but habitual people. And often, our ritualistic habits lead to organic change. He illustrates that point with this story:
Don’t underestimate how cultivating loving concern for [people] can itself be a (re)formative experience. I experienced something like this several years ago when I taught an advanced seminar on phenomenology and cognitive science at 8:30 in the morning. This was incredibly challenging material to consider at such an early hour, so I made a promise to my students: I went to the local Goodwill store, bought a cheap coffee maker, and promised them that I would always have coffee ready and waiting for them by 8:25 AM each day. That way they could roll out of bed, pull on some sweatpants and a cap, and not have to worry about finding their caffeine fix before class: it would be ready and waiting for them here. Since the course was specifically focused on aspects of embodiment, this was a way of honoring their own embodiment.
But I hadn’t anticipated an unintended consequence of this seemingly banal routine. Over the course of the semester, I found that the simple practice of having to prepare the coffee ahead of time also meant that I started anticipating the students’ arrival in more intentional ways. Instead of cramming to prepare my notes I could focus on creating a space for the students to be welcomed into, fresh with the scent of brewing coffee, a kind of incense for early-morning learning. In the process, I found my own attention shifted from self-regard to concern for the students. And in the moments it took to make the coffee, I would silently pray for the students, anticipating their arrival and the challenges of that day’s material, recalling some personal struggles students had shared. The simple act of making coffee became its own little ritual of contemplation and prayer, a habit of pedagogical hospitality. What started as a promise to do something simple, tangible, and embodied became an incubator of virtue.
I love this. The preparation of a professor became the habit of hospitality. By physically showing up to make coffee, he was flipping the mental switch which allowed him to see his students as more than just seat-warmers, but actual people with actual needs, needs that he could actually meet with his own engagement.
Since this post started with a few questions, let’s end with a few. But this time, let’s ask some “What if?” questions around our own weekend preparation:
- What if we spent time each weekday praying for the guests who could potentially show up on the weekend?
- What if we gave our volunteers tangible roles well before the first guest showed up…roles that would help them prepare their hearts for hospitality?
- What if we talked to guests from the stage each weekend…whether they’re there or not?
- What if we committed to arrive a half hour before we actually need to be at church, and use that time to pick up the trash, to polish up the facility, and to prayer walk the auditorium?
- What if we realized that a little bit of preparation can lead to a lot of anticipation, which can create space for transformation?
Special thanks to Brad Hambrick, who tipped me off to this book (that I haven’t yet read) and pointed out this particular passage as an example of how a guest services team can transform a church’s hospitality culture. (The moral to this story: get you a Counseling Pastor who believes in first impressions.)
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