Friday, September 11, 2009

a theology of hospitality or stuck in an attractional moment: back to church Sunday

We as a church are participating in Back to Church Sunday. We’ve simply marked a normal, everyday, run of the mill Sunday and encouraged our folk to consider inviting someone they know. Not someone who hates church or goes to another church, but someone who has dropped out of church. We’ve made it clear that the service will be ordinary, just like very other week, because we don’t want this to be switch and bait, false advertising.

For us it started about 3 months ago, with a brainstorming with our ministry leaders. We made a list of all the things we would could improve in relation to our welcome. We eventually came up with 10 “tips” and we’ve simply began presenting them a tip a week, over 10 weeks. For us at Opawa it was things like
– better street signage
– leaving the back rows free
– ensuring those up-front introduce themselves
– finding ways to communicate sustainably our mission to those new among us
– making sure our information was current and easily found
– improving our “oh, well, i’ve been here for years actually!” responses.
We’ve poked a bit of fun at ourselves and quietly chipped away at all those things that often get overlooked.

In surfing this week, I noticed this comment about Back to Church Sunday.

I still think it’s working on a silly model of mission. All that happens with these seeker friendly services (IME) is that all the congregation get annoyed at having to change what they would otherwise be doing, the sermon is either diluted or made overtly evangelistic, and the people who come smile sweetly as they leave and resolve never to come back again (usually because of some birthday song travesty!). We all know this by now surely. Mission is about what we do in the work place (or the post office in your case Dave) or down the pub or even in formal mission events. A weekly service in your local church should be primarily for those who go to it.

I’ve been turning the comment over in my mind, working with their model of mission.

Say you do mission in the workplace. Say over time, your salt and light is attractive and a workmate wants to join your God conversation. Being true to your ethos, you do that at your workplace. Which is fun and exciting. And then 6 months later, another person expresses interest.

Now at this point, the two of you have some decisions to make. Will you provide an extra seat in case this other person comes? Will you say hi and be courteous and introduce yourself when they arrive? Will the two of you continue telling each other in-house jokes that make no sense to the person new among you? Will you share stories from bygone days, conducting a conversation the new person can’t join?

Hopefully the answer is of course not. Because you want to be hospitable.

Which it seems to me is what Back to Church Sunday is all about. It’s about us looking in the mirror.

It’s also about the fact that for some people, it’s far less threatening to check out “gathered church” by slipping in the back of a crowd than by joining two others at a workplace. It’s about both/and, not either/or, in terms of mission.

I wouldn’t have done Back to Church Sunday when we arrived at Opawa, because the imagination was attractional. But six years down the track, with a multi-congregational approach and something like 15 different community ministries and the establishment of three Mission Collectives that intentionally resource people as salt and light in ministry, there’s now a place to ask each other “hey, how hospitable are we?”

Not because we want to attract you, but because we want to be hospitable when you arrive.

Updated: Prodigal Kiwi ponders this post and the motives for Back to Church Sunday here. I like the way he picks up on the essential need for a missional work out and I agree with his worry that BCS runs the risk of being “bolted onto a particular Sunday – a one-off – rather than being a deeply imbedded and explicit feature of the way a congregation is every Sunday of the year.” But that’s exactly why we got involved. As I commented in response to Andrew Hamilton: “I would hope/expect our community (and all churches) to be hospitable every (Sun)day. otherwise why do we do church? And how can we call ourselves Christians if we’re not ready to welcome the outsider/stranger?” The key for me is the pursuit of a theology of hospitality rather than of attraction.

And here is another Kiwi perspective on Back to Church Sunday. What are the theological narratives at work here?

Posted by steve at 03:42 PM


  1. Steve – this is well articulated. Iwas at an Anglican church recently who are having exactly this and I had mixed reactions. Some of it was ‘that is better than nothing’ and some revolved around whether going back would only reaffirm why they left! I would hold that fear for the church in question.

    I do think you need a high level of confidence in your community to be hospitable on these days and to make peoplle feel like there may be merit in future engagement. I guess the ‘service’ also needs some level of ‘quality’ to stir people and again cause them to wonder whether this may meet a need.

    Maybe BTC isn’t for every church, but it is for those who can have confidence in their people and in their ‘program’. I would hate to be responsible for reinforcing a persons decision to opt out!

    Comment by Hamo — September 11, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

  2. Hamo wrote, “I would hate to be responsible for reinforcing a persons decision to opt out!”

    Stink. Haven’t started my sermon yet. Now the pressure’s on. 🙂


    PS i would hope/expect our community (and all churches) to be hospitable every day. otherwise why do we do church? and how can we call ourselves Christians if we’re not ready to welcome the outsider/stranger?

    Comment by steve — September 11, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

  3. Thank you- this is very helpful. In this village (Northern England) BTCS has some currency…borders between ‘in’ and ‘out’ are not as big as in a town or city. We are going to try it over the next few years (I think).

    However, your post articulates some of the reservations I have about the concept (that is to do with the concept and with me – I’m thinking of having the citation that Kierkegaard wanted on his tomstone: ‘That individual’)….. ‘come and see us’… rather that ‘you know us ‘cos we already bleed/party with you’. It is really helpful- thanks.


    nb:(you blogged some weeks ago on U2…I saw them 3 weeks ago in Sheffield…. beyond words…you have a treat coming when they make it out there. Mate who would not own the label ‘Christian’ came with me. He has been replaying the recording of the concert and saying…’Hey- they put that there, and that and seeing the Christian story being played out…’ I’d like church to have that element of inviting people in to the story and inviting those outside to ‘play’…)

    Comment by Graham — September 11, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

  4. the only change we are making for Sunday is to have coffee before as well as after the service. One thing we find hard when people do visit is that they arrive early and the rest of us arrive late.

    Its our regular overseas mission Sunday so I get to talk about Tear Fund sponsorship – It helped me to invite our coffee groupies to be able to tell them to expect just a more formal version of chats have had. I wonder if it will help them join us on Sunday without feeling they have to graduate to Sunday.

    Comment by Jo Wall — September 12, 2009 @ 7:24 am

  5. It is easy sometimes to slip into that mode where we feel like we have enough people in our lives so we forget to make room for more.

    I think you are right to make sure that the check to self/church is a small adjustment so that it remains honest; if someone comes back to church or starts coming to church they will find out eventually what the church looks like with no makeup on.

    All the best with it.

    Comment by Madeleine — September 12, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

  6. Jo, like the coffee idea.

    if we did that at opawa we’d never get the service started, and we’d need a pee break in the middle of service!

    is that for everyone or just for those new? if just for newbies, will they feel self-conscious? do they get to carry their cups into service or is that “sacred space”?


    Comment by steve — September 12, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

  7. It went well – eats and coffee for everyone before the service giving time for an easing into the more formal worship time. Lots of visitors or ones we hadn’t seen for a while. The “foyer” congregation is small and we continued to serve a couple of coffees. Its only the real rebels who are in our second congregation so most were at the “main event”. More flexiblity would be needed to accept those on a pee break might stay in the foyer! Interesting lots of our regulars weren’t there – nice spring day so why add an hour to church that already takes up half your Sunday??

    Comment by Jo Wall — September 14, 2009 @ 9:45 am

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