{concerning hospitality} ignored at church

{Hospitality is on the brain — brace yourselves for a few different ideas coming up in the next little while!}

When we spent a recent weekend in Minnesota, our schedule didn’t allow for visiting the church we were most interested in. Honestly, if it was just vacation we probably would have read a Psalm over a cup of coffee and called it “good,” but since we had committed to moving there, we decided to jump in church-shopping right away. I mean, we could be a few hours away from meeting our new future best friends!
We perused the worship options listed on a search engine and picked one that looked okay based on the time the service started and lack of overt references to any creepy, extremely liberal, or dangerously isolationist teachings in their website. We arrived early (sort of by accident because we missed the Starbucks turn off on the way over) with our Bibles in hand, bought coffee from their snack stand, and spent the next 10 minutes smiling at people. It was a small, young church with a very “hip” feel.  We walked in feeling exhilarated and happy, wanting to make friends — and in the entire morning, no one spoke to us. It was embarrassing and discouraging. We crawled back into the car feeling cranky and frustrated. I was wondering if we had just made a huge mistake in deciding to move. That experience was rough and it shouldn’t have happened, but when I checked with friends and family, I found out being ignored while visiting a church was really common.
church shopping
[Every red dot in this picture represents a church… Aaron commented that we didn’t need to move up, because, he said, “The Christians are already here and they are organizing!”]
Because we spent all weekend chatting with people in Aaron’s new lab, music store employees, cafe workers, and even people sitting around the hotel hot-tub in the evenings, the drive back to Iowa was punctuated with incredulity and jokes about how the “Minnesota nice” hospitality stopped at church doors. It occurs to me that our response of laughing it off would have been very different if we were weary, wounded, lonely, hurting, or burned out, and it would be really hard to try visiting that (or any other) church again if we weren’t in good spirits going in to the morning. While we are pretty sure we won’t be back there again for other reasons, I kept thinking about what the Bible says about hospitality and greeting other Christians, and opted to send a quick e-mail to the pastor.
So let me say, first, that if you’re reading this and you’ve also been ignored at a church — I’m sorry. That isn’t supposed to happen. That isn’t how scripture tells Christians to greet others and because I’m sure I’ve ignored guests before, I’m just as guilty of this as everyone I observed in that church. But if you had this experience, I encourage you to prayerfully consider proactively contacting someone at the offending church so they can pray for you while you search and change their own behavior to accurately live out what the Bible says we should do.
Hi Pastor,
My husband and I spent the weekend in the area, and since he accepted a job there that begins in January, we wanted to visit at least one church while we were in town. We ended up worshiping with you guys and I am checking in with you since we didn’t get a chance to chat while we were there.
We both really appreciated some of your thoughts about prayer and vision in the sermon, which were very encouraging with this upcoming move! Sometimes when visiting churches it’s hard to tell if the pastors actually like their jobs, but we could see a great deal of brotherly love and happiness in everyone who spoke.
Please know that we consider ourselves partners together in the gospel, so I wanted to speak with you briefly about something you may want to prayerfully address with your people… My husband and I arrived at your location 10 minutes early with our Bibles in hand, bought coffee from the snack table, and smiled at your congregants. We complimented moms on their cute babies, cracked a joke about my husband’s doughnut, and asked where we could find a bulletin and information about the church before entering the sanctuary and smiling at the people sitting in our row. Throughout the entire morning, not a single person said hello back, asked if we were visiting, or introduced themselves to us. It was pretty discouraging, and it was a sharp reminder of how rough church-shopping can be. I’m not trying to make you feel bad about this, but I want to be helpful and encourage you to consider how to implement what the Bible says about hospitality (Hebrews 13:2, 1 Peter 4:9 and 5:14, Romans 12:13 and 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20) within your congregation. As a fellow believer, I have failed often in this area, but I believe it should be a priority and I would really want to know if a visitor had a similar experience at my church!
We are praying you will be encouraged and spurred on to greater love and hospitality (not frustration or embarrassment!) as a congregation, and that your love for each other and visitors would abound more and more. Feel free to let me know if you have any questions – I would be happy to email further if you want, but it’s not necessary. I am praying for you and wish you all the best as you faithfully shepherd your church!

Have you been ignored at church? Or had a great experience as a guest? What makes it work, or not? Have you ever thought about contacting a church you visited and chatting with the pastor afterwards, even if you knew you wouldn’t be back? Since there is more church-searching in my future, I’m thinking a lot about what visitors can do to make hospitality easy for the congregation, so I’d love to hear if you have suggestions for that, too!

15 thoughts on “{concerning hospitality} ignored at church

  1. We have moved a lot through the years, and it’s painful and tedious to church shop, but also a great exercise to help you see how it feels to be a newcomer. I have to tell you, there is a wonderful congregation north of the cities that we were a part of for years, NorthRidge Fellowship in Rogers. I dare you to feel ignored there! Seriously though, try not to get too discouraged in the process.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and offering a church recommendation! That is so sweet! I think I forgot how hard it is to jump in when you are a total stranger… the last time we were looking for a new church was when we were already established in the area, so we knew people in every congregation we visited and it made it a LOT easier to meet the pastor and get connected right away. We learned a lot from our first big move, which was rough and right on the heels of our wedding, so hopefully it will make for a better transition this time!

  3. Hi Abbey,

    Just to re-enforce the fact that being ignored is a common happening, we had a similar experience Saturday. The church on Clark and Wood was having luncheon and bazaar. As we entered the church, the lunch line was right there. People served us with necessary verbal exchange but there was no comment that might start a conversation, like “I don’t recognize you. Have you been here before” We sat at the end of a table and soon a couple sat across from us. I could not make eye contact with either of them to smile at them. Finally, I opened the conversation to learn that they were established members and hosting, and I told them we had recently moved near. From that point on, she was very helpful, taking our empty plates, getting carry-home boxes etc. But there was little conversation. I think people’s hearts are good, but they lack self confidence and social adeptness. Making an initial contact, is just too much for some.

    • I think you’re right, Grandma. It’s an issue with social skills and it’s difficult to overcome if the other person doesn’t want to talk. It’s hard to really think that these people could be open and hospitable in the rest of their lives if they can’t even start regular conversations… I might be jumping to that conclusion too quickly though. It was so funny that the things we did to start conversation around town worked just fine at stores, our hotel, and Aaron’s new lab, but we had no success in a church. I’m not so discouraged as to give up entirely. 🙂 We know people in the Twin Cities so hopefully the start-up won’t be as lonely as it was for us starting here. We’ll see. It’s an adventure and it’s risky!

      Love you!

  4. HI Abbey, interested in your thoughts on this from a slightly different angle …I grew up in church as a matter of habit and stopped going as a matter of principle in college. But when I was of elementary age, my family spent a loooooong time (2-3 years, I think) “church shopping” for a cluster of complicated reasons. So any time now that I have to go to church I am incredibly nervous and socially anxious, both as a non-church-going person and as with baggage from being a very shy little girl forced into a new church every week. When I myself in a very friendly and hospitable church with tons of people coming up to introduce themselves and ask questions about me, it’s not a good experience. I wonder if there’s a middle ground of offering hospitality? So that new people feel welcome, but not overwhelmed, intimidated, or car-salesmanned, if they happen to be less or not actively seeking a church lifestyle?

    I know this issue might not make sense or matter to many of your readers, but I enjoy your thoughts even when I don’t share your beliefs and would be interested in your perspective!

    • Sharon, I really appreciate you sharing here — I think social sensitivity is totally the key. If someone shows up at a church, like we did, equipped with Bibles and smiles and trying to make conversations, it would be socially appropriate for members of the congregation to respond with chatting and the questions that would send someone like you into anxiety-land. At the same time, that insight should also clue people in about knowing when to end the small talk and say, “Well, I am going to have to get a scarf just like yours, and it was good to meet you!” instead of pressuring you into attending their sunday school class or finding out WHY ON EARTH YOU DON’T GET TO CHURCH MORE OFTEN. That’s just as inhospitable as ignoring someone who is trying to talk to you, in my opinion. Also, it’s creepy. We can definitely agree on that.

  5. Ugh, this has totally been our experience. I’ve definitely noticed in the 9 (or 10?) churches we’ve visited out here that young, hip churches are the worst, because twenty- and thirty-somethings don’t seem to be very interested in reaching out. We spent 7 weeks at a small, young, newish church with great preaching, the denomination we’ve attended elsewhere, and exactly our theology, but it was ice cold. We tried to introduce ourselves around, but people avoided eye contact and didn’t want to make conversation. I generally find that churches with a variety of ages are friendlier because people our parents’ ages are friendlier (or maybe more confident about having people over?). However, we attended a larger church out here with plenty of middle-aged and older people, and we never once were invited into anyone’s home for a non-church related activity. We were part of two small groups, I attended the ladies’ Bible study, we went to prayer night, and we tried to have play dates and get connected with other homeschooling families. There was just zero culture of hospitality. Then we tried a tiny 50-person church where we figured we’d HAVE to make friends. At the church potluck, though, we found ourselves sitting alone at a table in the middle of a room buzzing with conversations we weren’t a part of. Church shopping is really unpleasant in my experience. I grew up in the same church my whole life, and moving so many times as an adult has been so hard in terms of forming community.

    I think your email was very gracious. I do think churches need to know when they’re coming across as unfriendly. In our searches out here, we attended a church for 19 months before realizing that we needed to keep looking. I did email the children’s ministries director to discuss our issue with Sunday School (did not hear back) and the church secretary in charge of connection ministries to explain why we felt disconnected (she did reply and thank me for my insight).

    With that said, we’ve been welcomed at many churches in previous places we’ve lived. Positive experiences we’ve had and try to do ourselves: introduce yourself to new-looking people and get the wife’s email, then email her over the week to say hi and invite her to meet at the park. Look for a couple with no kids or older kids and invite them to go out to lunch with you after church (this is harder with young kids in the napping stage). Or even better, have a company meal in the crock pot before you go to church and invite a family over for dinner-in-the-middle-of-the-day after church (which happened to my parents the first week in my hometown when I was 3 weeks old–31 years later, they still attend that church!)–keep inviting people until someone says yes. Look for new faces and walk them to the right classroom. When you meet someone new, bring them up and introduce them to your pastor after the service. Or if they have to rush off and pick up kids, describe them to your pastor so he can run out and introduce himself to them (this happened to us in the parking lot this fall, which we found quite sweet). If your church has monthly potlucks (ours in PA did), make sure to bring extra so that you can honestly tell any guests, “Come even if you haven’t brought anything–we brought enough for two families!”

    I think that having people into our homes often is doubly important–not only is it good for getting to know new friends, but if you’ve had old friends over, you don’t have to spend fellowship time at church catching up and can be on the lookout for new faces to welcome. I’m getting all fired up to talk more about hospitality on my blog…thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, and I really hope that you have more positive experiences once you’ve moved!

    • Good thoughts all around, Emily. I think connecting with church friends outside of church probably helps with friendliness to strangers, too. Making a point to get together THIS WEEK with someone you enjoyed chatting with at a new church is great advice — New relationships are only going to happen if both people put themselves out there! We’ve tried the roast-in-the-oven thing a few times and haven’t ended up having anyone over, but the leftovers are a blessing to us anyway, so it’s always been a good thing.

      I think we will have more positive experiences, and I’m going to try some experiments about connecting with a new church before stepping in the door on Sunday… we’ll see how it goes!

  6. I’ve had that experience (when we moved to North Iowa), but I’ve also had the opposite experience where I attempt to make a connection with someone new and I totally get blown off. I’m not making excuses, but putting yourself out there is really hard.

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