Refocusing the Christmas Lens
With most pastors and congregations thinking about upcoming worship services and other ministry opportunities that seize so much of our attention this time of year, I want to help us think broadly about what the priorities are, what they aren’t, and how this time of year can be instructive for the rest of the ministry calendar.
Refocusing the Christmas Lens Part 3: Don’t Impress, Invite: What Christmas Might Suggest About Our Espoused Values and Behaviors
All organizations face the challenge of keeping espoused values and behavior closely aligned. As the gap between the two widens, the ability of the organization to function effectively and with integrity diminishes. This an especially important dynamic in congregations because the witness of the gospel is at stake. The season leading up to Christmas can serve as a litmus test for this alignment in our congregations by inherently posing a series of questions such as, what is the Incarnation really about? How is this part of our value system? And in the way that we celebrate, witness, and point to the Incarnation, how are we giving practical expression to these values?
The Incarnation is largely about hospitality, welcome, and invitation, both in terms of biblical narrative and broader theological themes: the lack of hospitality extended to Joseph and Mary, the angels invitation to the shepherds, the welcome that the magi extend to the newborn Jesus, and ultimately the triune hospitality God extends to all creation through the person of Jesus Christ. As I’ve written previously, by coming into the world, God makes room for the world in God’s life. The event of Jesus Christ is God’s supreme act of hospitality, welcome, and invitation.
One axis upon which we might assess the life of our congregations this time of year is the Impress/Invite axis. Many of us will (almost unconsciously) spend a lot of bandwidth trying to figure out how to “impress” people in these weeks leading up to Christmas. But this time of year can’t be about being impressive, because it isn’t about anything impressive. Jesus isn’t born during half time at the Super Bowl; he’s born in obscurity. Throughout his life, Jesus often flees circumstances in which he’s being pressured to impress others. Instead, he extends simple invitation through intimate conversation, the sharing of meals, the power of touch and embrace, and literally inviting himself into other’s homes.
Most congregations I’ve visited over the past few years are severely lacking when it comes to hospitality, welcome, and invitation. Bulletin or sanctuary announcements that begin with, “If anyone is interested…” are incredibly ineffective and don’t count as invitation; personally inviting someone to participate in something specific, and being able to say, “will you join me?” is invitation. A greeter who is standing by the front door but mostly talking to the other greeters while you awkwardly make eye contact with them from 20 ft away is not hospitality; A greeter who walks or gestures toward you with an outstretched hand, asking how you’re doing and making sure you know each other’s names, is hospitality (the nonprofit, Fearless Dialogues, has mastered this). An usher handing out bulletins is not hospitality; an usher handing you a bulletin and then taking you to a pew or seat (like they do at historic Ebeneezer Baptist in Atlanta) is hospitality. Adding a visitor’s email address to your weekly church announcements and then barraging them with weekly emails for the next decade without following up with them in any other way is not a welcome; delivering a gift or sending a short hand-written note with further invitation to something specific is welcome. The list goes on, and these are all things for which we can provide training as we seek to nurture a culture of hospitality, welcome, and invitation in our congregations.
Let’s take a look at the various activities and elements that make up the life of our congregations and ask about each of them, is this more about making an impression or extending an invitation? Sure, it may seem particularly important this time of year as we welcome an increasing number of visitors from the community, but let’s also reflect more deeply on what the Incarnation suggests about aligning our values and behaviors throughout the rest of the year.
More resources on hospitality:
https://vimeo.com/153004512 (password: hospitality)