What makes a first-time church visitor return? The music? The preaching? Sister Betty’s chicken casserole?
Church growth specialists, pastors, and bloggers often debate the topic, but does the Bible say anything about it?
Admittedly, the Bible doesn’t seem concerned with growing your church congregation from 100 to 500 or from 10,000 to 25,000. But it does talk a lot about the spiritual and practical significance of hospitality to the one who offers it.
Unfortunately, when we think of the word “hospitality,” we reduce it to things like cooking church meals, front-door greeters, and general friendliness. These don’t tend to grow the host.
But philoxenia is the Greek word in the New Testament that’s translated into the English word hospitality. Importantly, it doesn’t have much to do with being friendly to church friends and family. Instead, the New Testament concept of hospitality has to do with the receiving and loving of strangers–those who are very different than you.
One of the ways God demonstrates his hospitality to us is that he hosts humanity on this earth. The Bible says that He hosts both the righteous and the unrighteous. But when we experience God’s hospitality we are often tempted to ask, “Why do the righteous suffer?” Or, “Why do the wicked prosper?” Matthew 5:45 reminds us that the sun shines and the rain falls on both the evil and the good. Why? Because God not only shows hospitality to those that know Him, but also to the stranger and even His enemy.
This concept of hospitality is evident in the relationship between God and the Israelites in the Old Testament. The OT paints a picture of the people of Israel as alienated people who are dependent on God’s hospitality (Ps. 39:12; Heb. 11:13).
The essence of Christian hospitality is to receive the church stranger/visitor in the same way as you were/are received by God. You rain on the just ones and the unjust ones. You show favor to those who exhibit no discernable value to your church enterprise.
Ultimately our goal in hospitality isn’t to grow the numbers of our church, but rather to grow in our own love of strangers so that we love them as God has loved them throughout the Scriptures. Your visitor program will never be effective until it is at least as much about your own spiritual growth as it is the growth of your congregation. Then, as Jesus says in Matthew 5:45, you will be called children of your father in heaven–the father who has the paradigmatic case of philoxenia.