It’s not the parking space, it’s the hospitality

It is a well established fact that even the whisper of the word snow in a weather forecast for the South creates a commotion.

The only good thing about Southern snowstorms is that they are usually short-lived. 

These winter weather blasts, roll in, dump a few inches, repaint the landscape, give children hope for a day off from school, and in a couple days most of the snow minus a stubborn, graying snowman is gone. 

Despite cold temperatures, Sunday’s snowstorm in Richmond was melting away. It was Tuesday, February 2. Trinity United Methodist Church members Nell Smith, Catherine McSorley, and I were waiting on our church grounds to meet a representative from a local sign company at 12 noon.

After a long Methodist slog through samples and budgets, all of our antiquated interior signage was gone. Replaced with sleek, simple new signs strategically positioned so that guests, visitors, strangers in a strange land can find their way in the maze of our building.

Now, we were ready to improve the signage on the grounds. The goal the same—help people navigate into the building.

We had a good meeting. 

In less than an hour, we shared our opinions, learned about sight lines, proper placement of signs, and value engineering. We left the representative with all of the requirements for the project so that he could develop a plan to meet our needs.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this meeting centered upon parking spaces for visitors, who are now called guests, but who in most cases are strangers to our grounds and building.

Since our meeting, I’ve thought quite a bit about our discussion related to designating the best parking spaces on the grounds for visitors, guests, or strangers. And, I’ve concluded that special parking spaces for visitors, guests, or strangers aren’t needed. 

No, there is something much more important needed for visitors, guests, and strangers, and that is hospitality.

As I was writing this piece, I highlighted the word hospitality, and my computer produced this definition:  The friendly and generous reception and entertainment of visitors, guests, and strangers.

Churches come in all kinds of sizes and shapes. 

But no matter the size or shape of your church, the most valuable asset in that building and on those grounds are the congregation.

And one of the most critical pieces of work done by a congregation is hospitality. A congregation must at all times be prepared to offer a friendly and generous reception to visitors, guests, and strangers.

Churches who do not have the capacity to offer this essential hospitality might as well shut their doors, turn off the lights, and contract with a local relator to sell the place.

I’m not spouting anything new here. This isn’t rocket science thinking. 

And, yes I know my tone is a bit harsh.

But in truth, the survival, the future of the church really depends upon how a congregation connects with visitors, guests, and strangers.

Well before COVID-19 paralyzed us, churches were struggling. In many instances, hanging by their fingernails, just waiting for someone to push them off the edge of the ledge into the church graveyard.

It will be interesting to see if churches learn from COVID-19. 

Will they return to the same predictable paralysis that they stubbornly held on to before the pandemic? 

 Or, will churches have the courage to take a look in the mirror, and say we need to make some changes, if we don’t, we’re dead.

Churches talk about being welcoming, welcoming to all. I think the question I have for churches about being welcoming to all is simply this—do we really mean it?

For sure having proper  signage in place is an essential piece for helping visitors, guests, and strangers to find their way about a church. 

But, the most critical piece of that way finding is the people connector. 

Can a congregation step out of their comfort zones, their familiar patterns of friends, and consistently welcome the newcomers? 

Like a paint brush stroke, a southern snowstorm can in a few hours transform a landscape. 

But transforming the thinking of a congregation about hospitality isn’t always a brush stroke or a quick hitting flurry of snowflakes. 

On December 31, 1967 on Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin the National Football League championship game was played between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. This game has been labeled the Ice Bowl because of the weather conditions.

According to the National Weather Service, at kickoff the temperature was minus 13 degrees below zero, and the wind chill was calculated at 36 degrees below zero. The field was frozen.

Over time, sportswriters have called this one of the greatest games in the long history of the National Football League.

On a last second play, Packer’s quarterback, Bart Starr, squeezed into the end zone scoring the game winning touchdown.

When Pride Still Mattered is a book written byDavid Maraniss that takes a detailed look at the life and career of Packer’s coach Vince Lombardi. Chapter 24 titled Ice gives readers lots of insights about that famous game.

In the post-game press conference, legendary Packers coach Lombardi, told the media that the story of the game wasn’t him and his decision making. 

He nodded to the adjacent locker room where the players were trying to reclaim their bodies from the brutal weather conditions. In Lombardi’s mind the victory came from the players and something the coach referenced in his speeches as “character in action.”

Sports announcer Ray Scott in Maraniss’ book described that last downfield drive by the Packers to score the winning touchdown as “character in action.” That group of determined players moved confidently downfield, and Scott felt what he saw in that drive was “the triumph of will over adversity.”(Maraniss 426)

Churches are not immune from adversity. But how churches respond to adversity is important. 

Post COVID-19 might just be the time for churches to relaunch to reconnect with communities and individuals who have been hurt by the pandemic in countless ways.

In order to make those connections, congregations can’t ignore hospitality.

Irregardless of signage, congregations must feel and sense what it is like to be a stranger in a strange parking lot, sanctuary, fellowship hall, classroom, or corridor. 

And in those critical moments of awkwardness, a congregation must embrace “character in action” with friendly and generous hearts, hearts that can put that stranger at ease.

Forget the parking spots for visitors, guests, and strangers. 

Make sure your interior and exterior signage works. 

But, do not neglect hospitality. 

Put your “character into action” and remember these important words: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:2.

Old sign in church parking lot photo by Bill Pike

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