Last Saturday night I had a dream. I dreamt that the Presbytery had asked me to chair a committee to close a small church on the eastern shore. Instead of closing it I came up with a scheme to keep it open, during the summer months anyway, by using seminary students. These students would preach, provide pastoral care and run the summer vacation bible school. For the rest of the dream I worked diligently to organize this new plan, knowing that if it wasn’t in place, the presbytery would not buy into it. When I awoke from the dream I realized that although I still had another week of sabbatical left, mentally I had already returned to work. Transitions can be difficult – especially after being on sabbatical for 3 months. I have wondered how this transition would go considering it is happening on the first week of September – the week everything in the church ramps up again. The dream is reassuring in reminding me that I mentally I am ready for it. Indeed my mind is already there! I have not been able to stop thinking about Hidenwood for the past week. I been wondering about the health of certain people. I’ve been thinking about the staff and how we will reconnect again at our first staff meeting. I’ve been pondering how to best tell you all about this sabbatical and the things I’ve learned about hospitality. Most of all I am grateful – grateful for all the preachers who supplied for me this summer, grateful for the sabbatical team and their efforts to make this sabbatical a success, grateful for the staff who kept things on an even keel while I was away. Tuesday is my first day back. I feel like a child headed back to school… excited to see old friends and eager to share a summer of experiences with them. See you in church! Bill
Last week my cottage was overflowing with love and laughter as I hosted a clergy/educator retreat. There were seven of us in all traveling from as far away as Texas for the five day gathering. The formal purpose of the retreat was known in advance – to consider ways to nurture hospitality within a congregation. Without announcing it however, I wanted to add something more to the agenda for the week… I wanted to offer these guests of mine hospitality. I wanted them to experience the blessing of not only feeling welcomed but also feeling at home in this summer place of mine. The retreat began on Monday with a cruise on the Segwun, a coal-powered steamboat that has been welcoming people to Muskoka since the 1880s. The wether was glorious and the trip enjoyed by all. The next three days however were wet and cool and instead of enjoying Muskoka, we enjoyed being indoors with one another! The gift of this group is that they are all friends and very comfortable with one another. Conversation comes easy to them. We talked and laughed and talked some more for much longer than I expected during those three days. I shared my sabbatical experience with them and asked them tough questions and they never balked once. I asked them when they have experienced hospitality in their ministry and where they have not. I was shocked to learn that all of those present had been fired or pushed out of a church they were serving at some point in their ministry. They shared the pain of that experience as well as the growth that followed as they moved forward from it. All of them claim to be stronger and more hospitable for having endured the inhospitality of the church. I was left wondering whether this dark side of the church isn’t more prevalent than any of us wants to believe. They all shared wonderful stories of hospitality in the church too, and it is those stories that feed and nurture their souls still. They encouraged me to seek out the most hospitable people in the Hidenwood congregation and to work with them to nurture hospitality in the church. They suggested a format not unlike the one I used with them for the retreat. One of the truths I realized on this retreat is that hospitality takes time. When you prepare a meal for someone, when you send off a caring note or card, when you stop by to visit someone in need, these things take time and in today’s high-speed world, time is a precious commodity. Perhaps that is why hospitality is in such scarce supply nowadays. We took time. We spent five glorious days together – talking, laughing, eating, drinking and playing. When it was all over everyone agreed that it was too short. We needed more time… more hospitality. One person put it this way: “You’ve started a tradition with this retreat because this has to become an annual affair!” Hospitality is like that… once you get a taste of it you’ve got to have more!
In his book, “The Spirituality of Welcoming,” Dr. Ron Wolfson says that worship ought to invoke a sense of awe and grandeur. Walking into the sanctuary of 2nd Presbyterian in Indianapolis, those feelings are inescapable. This place of worship is breathtaking. . . limestone walls rise up to meet huge timber trusses in the ceiling, and stained glass windows filter the sunlight which pours in upon the people in a kaleidoscope of color. There is a large stained glass window of the risen Jesus at the front of the church and a large circular one in the rear, towering over the pipe organ. If people are seeking a sense of the majestic in worship, they can find it here. The architecture of 2nd Presbyterian may draw people in, but it is the hospitality of this congregation that will keep them coming. Usher Dave Sutherland greeted me warmly as I entered worship last Sunday and was only too glad to share the history of this church with me. After the service he sought me ought and showed me a small room where that heritage is preserved. I was given a more extensive tour after the service by Dr. James Riley, the associate pastor who is responsible for hospitality at 2nd. Jim is responsible for new members at 2nd and they welcome more than 100 every year to this congregation. It’s a process he understands well – in fact, he has a doctorate in it. Spiritual nurture is something he cares about deeply. Some of the things that impressed me about this congregation: 1. They converted a room in the lower part of the church into a food bank, and congregational support of it mushroomed. Giving a ministry greater prominence is one way to build its support. 2. 2nd Presbyterian has a lot more deacons than elders because the deacons run the many missions and outreach projects that take place here. The food bank is only one. . .they also have a food closet program and they hold a huge yard sale twice per year that brings in about $100,000 dollars for mission work. 3. Although they are a suburban church, 2nd Pres has recently begun to get involved in the downtown ministry of Indianapolis again. 4. Their pastor, Dr. Lewis Galloway, has encouraged every group at 2nd Presbyterian to include a time of socializing and prayer together. The understanding is that spirituality is not found simply in doing but also in connecting as a group and connecting with God. 2nd Presbyterian’s architecture is grand and its liturgy is lofty but the congregation has it’s feet firmly on the ground. They are aware of the needs of the community around them and they address those needs in their own ministry. They invite one and all to join them not only for worship but also in a life of ministry and service. It is an invitation they believe will grow a person spiritually as they work together, socialize together, and pray together. Hospitality has its roots in all of these things.
It’s been more than a week since I visited Church of All Nations (CAN) in Minneapolis, MN. While it’s true every church is unique in some way, I think it’s fair to say some are more unique than others. I went to CAN thinking that its lack of a dominant culture/race was what made it unique. I was surprised to discover a church that was unique for another reason entirely. Yes, they have a good mixture of whites, blacks and Asians worshipping together at CAN, but even more unusual is that this churn is almost entirely composed of millennials! I arrived early for the service and was warmly welcomed by one of the staff. Pastor Jin arrived about 10 minutes prior to the service, welcomed me with a hug and told me to sit wherever I wanted. The service began with singing and people continued to trickle in. By the time I turned around for the passing of the peace, there were about 170 people in the church and most of them were quite young… between the ages of 20-40! This is precisely the group that is missing from my church and from so many mainline congregations today. The sermon took the form of a group sharing of a recent mission trip. This church community has a relationship with an Indian reserve at Pine Ridge ND, and a group of 17 had just returned from a week there. I was impressed with the depth of reflection they offered. They didn’t share itinerary so much as spiritual insights gained along the trip. Their remarks proved to be a true blessing to the congregation. The pastor was one of the last to share and did so briefly. He said he’s been to about 40 different countries/cultures around the world and all these trips have now and they have helped him see his own culture more clearly. He said that the dominant North American culture which objectifies people and values them only as a commodity. is bankrupt. The church claims a greater value of the person and is embracing a deeper spirituality. later, at lunch later Pastor Jin told me that his ministry is primarily to millennials and that it grew out of his counseling of them. Through his counseling he learned how disenchanted this age group is with the dominant culture. They have stacked up extensive educational debt and yet they are unable to find significant employment. They do not share the baby boomer’s love of independence and materialism… they are looking for something more to life. He says they come to CAN because they hear words that articulate how they’ve been feeling and what needs to be embraced. CAN has integrated its hospitality to millennials within its mission. They operate about 8 homes for millennials who can’t afford the rent of a single apartment. Their rent is significantly reduced and they promise to live in community with each other following certain lifestyle agreements. He also has plans to start an ‘Underground Seminary’ this fall which will provide students with a debt-free seminary education (non credentialed). These students will also live together in an intentional community and their education will prepare them to do ministry simply, sustainably and intelligently among the people. It’s all part of preparing the church for the future where ministry must be done differently than it has in the past. CAN is unlike any church I have seen, but it’s real and it’s working. It is a community where hospitality is not just a program but a way of life. It is integrated into the very life of its people. It is a place that cares for damaged souls, provides shelter for those in need of a home, community for those without enough family, and a message decidedly counter to the dehumanizing aspects of the dominant culture of our day. It’s hard to categorize this congregation or its pastor. It’s not liberal or conservative…it’s other. It’s spiritual yes, but also deeply theological. It’s a mid-sized church but it operates like a family-sized congregation. It feels like camp but it’s most definitely church. It’s decidedly Presbyterian but it’s on a track that most of the denomination hasn’t even discovered yet. I’ve learned that welcoming and hospitality are not the same thing. Welcoming is simply being friendly to strangers. Hospitality is actually taking them in and letting them change you. Church of All Nations could write a book on what hospitality has done to them!
It’s hard being a stranger. It’s hard making ‘cold calls’ to churches on Sunday mornings, wondering how how you will be received. I’m reminded of that fact every weekend as I set out to attend yet another congregation for worship. It’s like going off to school on the first day – it’s unnerving. No wonder most families only church shop for a few weeks before giving up the search for a church home! Being a stranger is an awkward experience. This past weekend it was different. I was headed to Church of All Nations in Columbia Heights, Minnesota… a suburb just north and east of Minneapolis. I had emailed their PC(USA) pastor, Jin.S. Kim, well in advance of my trip to let him know my intentions. He emailed back and encouraged me not only to come for Sunday worship but to stay for Tuesday staff meeting too. (Apparently their weekly staff meetings are exceptional) He also invited me to be his guest at a dinner gathering Sunday night and to come to his house for a meal with his family on Sunday. Knowing Jin was a golfer, I suggested we play a round on the Monday morning if his schedule permitted. He emailed back confirming a tee time for us both and informed me that he had clubs for me to use. So, before ever setting foot inside Church of All Nations church I was already invited to two meals and scheduled to play a round of golf! I was feeling welcome indeed. He emailed me one last time asking whether I would be willing to offer the benediction on Sunday following worship. I said I would be happy to do so, if it wasn’t too strange to their congregation to have a guest offer the benediction. He assured me it happened all the time. Before I ever visited Church of All Nations I knew they were exceptional in the practice of hospitality. It preceded my visit and away my awkwardness as a visitor. As I would soon learn, their hospitality runs very deep – permeating the corporate being of the congregation…but more on that later. Today I’m left to ponder an important question. What can we do ahead of time to make a stranger’s visit feel less strange? Oh, we may not know who is coming each Sunday but we do know there will be strangers every week in our church! What can we do ahead of time to welcome them and make them feel at home? Only hospitality can make a stranger feel they belong.
I recently attended a Sunday worship service at Tabernacle Methodist Church in Poquoson. I did not however, enter the front door of the church to the traditional service, rather I entered the side door to their contemporary worship service. I was greeted by an usher who asked me if I was looking for the contemporary worship service and I assured her I was. Tabernacle holds traditional and contemporary services simultaneously so its up to the ushers to check that people have found the right door. The praise band greeted me with some lively music though I didn’t recognize the tune, and there was a table filled with delightful breakfast foods awaiting me. Donuts, danish, fresh fruit, sliders, even fresh bacon awaited me along with coffee, tea and orange juice. I grabbed a coffee and found a chair since it was almost time for worship to begin. People who had been buzzing in small groups throughout found a chair and we opened with ‘Until the Whole World Hears’ led by the band.. The band was led by a guitarists, and his wife on keyboard but they had plenty of additional help – a second guitarist, a drummer, an acoustic bass player, and three additional vocalists. I was told two members of the band were not present today. Following the opening song we were warmly welcomed by a member of the church followed by an opening prayer. The band led us in singing three more songs, none of which I knew so had to fake my way through. I remember wishing that at least one of these songs might be familiar so I could join the congregation in singing too. The last songs included accompaniment of the children on musical instruments (bongos, triangles, clackers) and then they were excused to attend children’s church. Announcements followed and included many opportunities for people to get involved in the church’s mission and ministry. I was pleased to learn that a mission team of 30 was headed to Jacksonville FL the following week and the bulk of those going appeared to attend the Side Door service. Like so many churches, this one was working hard at reaching out beyond itself but needed more help to achieve its mission. Following announcements came the passing of the peace that extended for a good 5 minutes. I met several veterans of the congregation, one promising to inform me more about the church following service. Absent until now was a specific leader. Brent Staul, candidate for ordained ministry, assumed that mantle during the sharing of prayer requests. It was interesting how he gathered up the expressed concerns and our offertory prayers into one. Scripture followed and a sermon entitled True Rest. It was a topical sermon which focused on our futile efforts to stay busy in order to avoid the things that burden us in life. He encouraged us to give those burdens over to our Lord. He even had us write one of our worries on a sticky note and place it on the cross behind the lectern. The service ended with a closing song , again unfamiliar but with a simple chorus. After the service I was again greeted warmly by members of the church and given a package of material about the mission and ministry of Tabernacle. I learned that Tabernacle had started the service about 6 years ago because they were losing all their young families to churches such as Water’s Edge. Hosting the service at the same time as the traditional service was not an easy decision but they felt that it was necessary to accommodate younger families. In the words of one member “Most young families have trouble enough getting here for 11am!’ The service started off with four band members and an average attendance of 30. Through word of mouth and outreach activities they have started – a coffee house for teens every second Friday and an annual Block Party for the neighborhood, they have been able to grow this service by 30% per year. Today there are ten members in the band and about 110 average in the service including children. There were 88 on the day I attended but it was a holiday weekend. The member I spoke with estimated about 25 new families had been attracted to Tabernacle through this initiative. The Side Door is an example of what mainline churches are capable of doing when they commit to an outreach project . Ministry to young families is hard work and requires the support and commitment of a large group within the congregation over a long period of time. The Side Door service has not only survived but thrived and seems to have momentum still for further growth. Attendance at both traditional and contemporary service are now about equal. It will be interesting to see which congregation dominates in the years to come. If hospitality plays as big a role in the future of the church as I think it will, there is no question that services like The Side Door are going to grow.
I love being in the company of youth. It takes me back to my days as a camp counselor when I spent whole summers enjoying the fellowship of young people in God’s creation. I find them spontaneous, fun loving, and joyous. Young people have something to teach us all when it comes to bringing celebration into our worship of God. So I find myself looking for them on Sunday mornings at church, and usually some are present, but never in great quantity. I know I am fortunate however, because in some churches young people are nowhere to be seen… the least represented age group of all. Not so at Williamsburg Community Chapel. They have been rolling out the red carpet for young people for many years now. When they built a new sanctuary some years ago, the old sanctuary was created into a worship space for middle school and high school students and the program continued to grow. Knowing this, I contacted the Director of Student Ministries, Alexis Kincaid to arrange a Sunday visit to WCC. She was more than willing to have me come to share in their worship and learn more about their youth and young adult program. I arrived at the church 15 minutes early and followed the signs to the youth wing. Alexis greeted me warmly and gave me a quick rundown on the service that day. It happened to be a transition Sunday – all the rising 5th graders and their parents were invited to come share in their first youth service at WCC and enjoy a reception in their honor following. It also happened to be the first Sunday back for the Nicaragua mission team and they would be reporting on their trip. The Nashville mission team would also be there in good numbers since they were being commissioned prior to their leaving. So she warned me that it would be a full service and would likely draw a large crowd. She was right. The young people sifted into the worship space where they greeted one another before taking their place in the chairs for worship. I was warned that they usually had a lazy start to worship, and indeed it was about 5 minutes after the hour before the band started to play. By then there were close to 250 middle and high school teens there and about 50 parents. The praise band led us in an opening song and then Alexis and Luke got up to welcome everyone there. Newcomers were singled out for introduction. Although the leaders did their best to reduce the intimidation of this experience, it still felt a bit awkward to me. I was very pleased that I was not included in the introductions that way! The entire service was paperless, and nobody seemed to mind not having bulletins. The liturgy was quite relaxed and informal but those leading all seemed to know when it was time to come forward and do their part. The rising fifth graders were introduced as a group – entering the room en mass and taking their seats while we all clapped to welcome them. The Nicaragua mission trip was celebrated next with a power point presentation put to music. It was followed by a verbal account of the trip given by one of the teenage participants. He coined a phrase that was used on the trip – “rolling in it”. Whenever a mission participant jumped into an activity with both feet, or let go of their inhibitions and fully engaged in whatever was happening, that was referred to as ‘rolling in it’. This young man shared how he came to experience God during worship one day when everyone, including himself were ‘rolling in it’. His authentic and articulate message was a highlight of the service for me. The mission team to Nashville was then called forward for commissioning which to the form of a brief prayer. They played a game during the service called Madlibs, the purpose of which was lost on me but the middle- schoolers seemed to enjoyed it. We sang another song and finally, one of the summer interns, Kyle, got up to deliver the message for the day. He read to us the parable of the Good Samaritan and preached about the need for us to share ourselves for others. The words ‘share your chips’ were coined by Evan, the college director, who stood to give a closing summation and prayer That prayer abruptly marked the end of the service. There was no concluding song or benediction. There was nothing especially glitzy or professional about the youth service at WCC except perhaps for the use of technology. It was obvious that there were some gifted leaders in charge of the audio and video equipment at the back of the sanctuary. Perhaps the lack of glitz and professionalism is deliberate. It could be that WCC is willing to sacrifice professional quality in worship in order to preserve something more valuable. That something would be the voices and presence of the young people themselves. WCC is all about having the voices of young people are heard and their faces seen in worship. Young people played instruments and sang in the praise band, the read scripture and preached, shared the good news of a successful mission trip, came forward to receive prayers of commissioning, stood to be recognized and welcomed as rising 5th graders. This was a service not only for youth but also led largely by youth . Their leadership is welcomed in worship… even if the professionalism of worship must suffer. After worship I sat down with both Alexis and Luke to learn more about the youth program and to talk specifically about the place of hospitality in their ministry. We enjoyed fresh pastries and drinks in their café as we talked. They remarked how people were lingering longer after church since they opened a café. I remarked how often food is mentioned whenever the topic of hospitality comes up. They nodded. It’s especially true for youth!
A big highlight of my sabbatical has been our trip to Iona, Scotland. Iona is a small island in the Scottish Hebrides which has been a center for Christian faith for nearly 1500 years. St. Columba, an Irish monk, sailed to Scotland in 563AD in search of a place to establish a Christian settlement. He was enthralled by the majestic beauty of the isle so he built his abbey there. Iona was initially just a tiny bastion of Christian faith, fledgling in size and vulnerable to Viking attack, but over time the faith organized and spread to the Picts throughout Scotland. Iona’s influence would eventually be felt throughout the whole of Western Europe. Today there exists a dispersed Ionia community that is influencing the faith on a global scale. Because of its influence and its history, Iona has become something of a Mecca for Christians of every denomination but most notably for Presbyterians. Daily services are held at the Abbey at 9am and 9pm and a communion service is offered every Sunday morning at 10:30. The abbey bell rings 15 minutes before worship and, in the summer months especially, people from all over the world answer its call. I answered that call on a Sunday in mid-June and was surprised at the diversity of the gathered congregation. There were people from Germany, Australia, France, Sweden, Canada and the USA, England and Scotland, and the two lead pastors were both of the Anglican tradition. In spite of our diversity, we worshipped as one congregation that day. Here are some of the signs of hospitality I saw within that service: The ushers greeted us outside the doors of the Abbey and offered us programs for worship. We were invited to find our own place to sit, an easy task since the Abbey fills from the front pews back! A simple prelude was played on an piano (no organ at the Abbey) and before the call to worship we were all warmly greeted by one of the pastors. Announcements were limited to instructions concerning worship. A cantor then taught us several musical responses to be sung during communion the communion liturgy that day. We all entered worship feeling well informed and prepared for what was coming. Although we all had programs, the worship leader announced every part of the service along the way. The Abbey uses two different books in worship, the Iona Worship book (green) and a hymnbook 9red). There was no confusion about which book we should be using because it was always announced. The sermon that day focused on naming. The preacher highlighted humanity’s desire to name things. When something is given a name its mystery is taken away and we have a sense of control over it. The preacher noted that while this works well for things like diseases, it does not work that well for God. Ours is a who resists being named because God is bigger and more mysterious than any of our names can capture. He suggested that God is continually moving beyond the limits of the names we give him and this leads us to a greater awareness of the love and grace of our God. This is one of the ways that we grow in our faith. Our God is always bigger and more inclusive than any of our names can capture. This message was equally challenging to all the people in the congregation that day, regardless of denomination. I appreciated the fact that the sermon did not favor any one theological camp. Bread was broken from a single loaf to be shared, and fermented wine was sipped from a common cup, passed person to person throughout the pews. While this may offend our North American fixation with hygiene, it was a clear sign of our unity in the body of Christ. We share one bread and one cup together in Christ. At the close of the service we were invited into the cloister for tea and fellowship. As we left the Abbey a young child had a basket full of oatcakes to offer us and we were instructed to give our oatcake to a stranger among us at Iona. Since most of us were strangers to each other that day, this was an easy task to fulfill. It was a simple way to encourage greater mixing of the congregation during the fellowship hour. It also assured that people stayed longer together… that and the fact that it was such a glorious day! Hospitality did its work at that Abbey service. Hospitality welcomed us and turned a cold stone building into a sanctuary. Hospitality organized us, turning a crowd of people from different lands, languages and denominations into a single congregation. Hospitality nourished us at the table of Jesus Christ, reminding us of Christ’s loving sacrifice for us. And hospitality sent us into the world to include others within the scope of God’s grace. We do this because the movement of God is always beyond the name we use to limit God, and beyond the circles we draw to limit grace. Click here for Bill’s earlier posts
It was 41 years ago the Lamont family arrived in London for a year’s adventure. My father was enrolled at the University of London for an education course and the four kids were enrolled in local schools. I remember going to school that first day like it was yesterday. I felt very much the outsider, a newcomer with no school uniform and a funny accent to boot! To my surprise and relief I found a warm welcome from my colleagues there. Finchley Manorhill was a very cosmopolitan community and I was just another curious addition to the mix. The English teacher, Mr Jobson also coached the basketball team and insisted I be on his team even though I was very short and not at all good at the game. I think he was doing his part to be sure this foreigner was assimilated into the life of the school. Being on the basketball team put me in the center of the Finchley Manorhill social scene and I was invited to many different parties as a result. This group took me under its wing and taught me all sorts of things about how to be teenager in London In 1973. I learned to be a pretty good soccer player there. I grew in my love of music there too. I also learned how to play poker there and won and lost my share of fortune at the game… which is an education in itself. Most of all, I found my place there among those people who were themselves finding their way in those changing times. I had an opportunity to meet many of those school friends last Friday night. My friend Hitesh spread the word that I was in town and eager to catch up with them again. We all assembled at the Elephant Inn in North Finchley for food, drinks and lots of good memories. I was surprised that after 40 years anyone would even remember me, but they did and we talked the evening away. Even when we finally left the pub we lingered for ages outside. I suspect we had all rediscovered something precious to us in our gathering and we didn’t want to let it go again. We were at home with each other. That’s how hospitality works.
The volunteers trickle into the basement of St Mary’s around 5 pm and everyone feeds into the flurry of activity. I joined a small group that was setting up tables and chairs. Ten chairs per table setting times eight. They only expected about 60 guests that night but they always prepare for more. (more…)
As I begin a three month sabbatical on hospitality I have committed to blogging back to the church website on a weekly basis. In addition to reading I will be visiting a number of churches that are doing a good job of welcoming others. I have tried to approach this topic without bias – not making many assumptions but being open to whatever I discover on the way. This is hard to do because we all tend to approach a topic with preconceived notions. One assumption that I have had to make is that hospitality is a discipline not a gift. Most people speak of hospitality as though it were a gift – some people are naturally good at it and some not. If I were to assume such a thing, there would really be no reason to study hospitality at all. It would either be part of a church’s DNA makeup or not. If however it is a discipline, then there is some hope that every church can become more welcoming to those outside it’s membership. So by necessity I have determined that hospitality is a discipline and the reason some churches are better at demonstrating it is because they have been more intentional in its practice. So I will visit a church that shows hospitality to the homeless, one that shows hospitality to young adults, one to a variety of different ethnic cultures and so on. I will attend worship there and speak to their leadership and find out what intentional things they have implemented in the name of hospitality. You will be able follow me right here and even make comments about what is blogged. I hope through our conversation we will be able to grow as a welcoming congregation. After all, it takes a whole village to make a difference in our warmth to others. Bon voyage. Promise to write!