Space for Grace: a Service with a Focus on Hospitality

During the last year I have been leading workshops and retreats on hospitality for many churches. Congregations who want to be hospitable can benefit from seeing their building, their practices, and their worship services through the eyes of a visitor.

I developed the following service for Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in Langley, British Columbia, a congregation committed to hospitality and to welcoming neighbors to their faith community.

Elements of this service could be used independently, or the service could be used in a series on other Christian virtues. It would be particularly effective when welcoming new members, when completing a building program, or when expanding a ministry of hospitality.

When people experience and practice gracious hospitality in worship, it becomes the norm for how they live as the people of God and how they do ministry. And when hospitality is woven into worshipers’ lives, it becomes a vital part of their grateful, lived-out response to God’s grace.

God Welcomes Strangers

God’s Greeting

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

If you are spiritually weary and in search of rest,
if you are mourning and you long for comfort;
if you are struggling and you desire victory;
if you recognize that you are a sinner and need a Savior—
God welcomes you here in the name of Christ.
To the stranger in need of fellowship, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
and to whoever will come—
this congregation opens wide her doors
and welcomes all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Because God heartily welcomes us, we extend greetings in the name of Christ to one another. If you do not know the people near you, please introduce yourself.

Hymn of Welcome

“Here in This Place” (Gather Us In), With One Voice 718, RW 48:26 or “God Is Here” PsH 516, PH 461, TWC 701

God Makes Us Family

Call to Confession (Two Options)

1. Use the children’s message as a call to confession emphasizing God’s grace to us, which comes before our confession. Confession does not merit grace. Tell the story of the loving Father who welcomes home his prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Emphasize the Father’s love in welcoming his wayward son home. Consider using a storybook with illustrations projected on a screen for everyone to see. Conclude by saying:

God is our loving Father who welcomes us home no matter what we have done. But God is also eager to hear us confess our sins so that nothing stands between us and God.

2. For this alternate call to confession, the worship leader says the following:

No one likes to be a stranger. We long for a place to be at home. We don’t want to be estranged from other people or from God. Selfish words, actions, and thoughts can drive a wedge between us and the people we love. Unconfessed sin can distance us from God. For all who seek reconciliation, God offers his Son Jesus Christ to stand in the gap between us and God. And God, whose business is reconciliation, bends to hear our confession.

Sung Prayer of Confesion

"Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive" PsH 266, PH 347, TH 494

Assurance of Grace

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind,
doing evil deeds,
Christ has now reconciled in his fleshly body
through death,
so as to present you holy and blameless and
irreproachable before him—
provided that you continue securely established
and steadfast in the faith,
without shifting from the hope promised by the
gospel that you heard,
which has been proclaimed to every creature under
heaven.
Col. 1:21-23, NRSV

Songs of Reconciliation

“Lord, I Pray” PsH 268, SFL 37
“Our Father, We Have Wandered” With One Voice 733
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” PsH 486, PH 356, RL 449, TH 457, TWC 45

God Speaks to Us

Sermon (see “Sermon Notes”)

We Show Love to God and Neighbor

Song of Response

“Jesu, Jesu, Fill us with Your Love” PsH 601, PH 367, SFL 251, TWC 436

Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession

Offering

Hymn of Praise

“Praise and Thanksgiving” PsH 631, SFL 83

God’s Blessing

Excerpt
Sermon Notes

Today we associate the word stranger with caution and fear. Don’t talk to strangers, we tell our children. We look over our shoulder in parking lots. We watch our children carefully in stores and even in our own backyards. We do not easily welcome strangers into our homes or lives. We have good reason to exercise caution and discernment. But perhaps our wariness makes us miss opportunities for “entertaining angels.”

Strangers, orphans, widows, and the poor were on God’s priority list of people to receive hospitality in the Old Testament (Ex. 23:9; Deut. 10:18-19). These were the vulnerable people, the ones who were without the protection and care of their clan. By failing to practice hospitality toward these people, the Israelites aroused God’s anger. The Israelites did not reflect the hospitable, gracious character of God that they themselves had experienced (Ex. 22:21-27).

Israel had only to look at its own history to find motivation for showing hospitality to strangers. After all, they were strangers in Egypt, aliens living in a foreign land. Mistreated and abused, they were all too familiar with inhospitable conditions. But God delivered them and brought them to a space of plenty in the land of Canaan.

During the years of wandering in the desert, during the years of disobedience, during the years of being shaped into a nation that God could use to reach the nations, God cared for and protected Israel. God commanded Israel to welcome strangers and to care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans out of gratitude for their deliverance. The most unlikely strangers—Rahab and Ruth, among others—became a part of Israel’s faith family. God’s welcoming vision for his kingdom always extended beyond the borders of Israel.

In the New Testament, Paul refers to Gentiles and sinners as being alienated from God. But in Jesus Christ the dividing wall of hostility has been torn down. Once strangers to God, we are welcomed as friends through Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:6-11; Col. 1:21-23; Eph. 2:11-14). This is our motivation for welcoming people and for offering hospitality. Because we are members of God’s family, we share God’s passion for others to experience God’s embrace of grace. Without this underlying motivation, we can easily become weary and discouraged.

Hospitality is an attitude that informs our practices and habits. It is made concrete in sacrificial acts of love where we lay down our lives for another person. How will we know when we are practicing hospitality? When it costs us something. The cost may be time—writing a note of encouragement, developing a relationship with a family member we have neglected—or perhaps it is sacrificing our pride and asking forgiveness, or even creating space on the road for the driver ahead of us.

When we practice hospitality (Rom. 12:13; 3 John 1:7-8), we welcome Christ who welcomed us (Rom. 15:7). Our hospitality to strangers in Christ’s name has eternal value, for someday Christ will welcome us with open arms into the eternal kingdom (Matt. 25:34-40).

Excerpts
An Excerpt From Traveling Mercies

Writer Anne Lamott’s pilgrimage toward faith started with a church that was sensitive enough to give her space:

I went back to St. Andrew about once a month. No one ever tried to con me into sitting down or staying. I always left before the sermon. I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I just didn’t want to be preached at about him… The church smelled wonderful, like the air had nourishment in it, or like it was composed of these people’s exhalations, of warmth and faith and peace… As part of these people, even though I stayed in the doorway, I did not recognize my voice or know where it was coming from, but sometimes I felt like I could sing forever. Eventually, a few months after I started coming, I took a seat in one of the folding chairs, off by myself. Then the singing enveloped me… Here was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food. Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender… I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life. But I had to leave before the sermon.

—Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1999) 47

Hospitality Looks Like This

Congregations that are serious about hospitality are going to experience surprises and find themselves in unique situations. Consider these real-life scenarios!

An inner-city church had started a ministry to the local youth. As relationships developed, some of the staff started taking kids to church. Some of them had never gone to church before. They wore their baseball hats and jeans with holes. They talked. And they did not sit still. But they were accepted into the fellowship of the church. Adults would talk to the kids after church and sometimes invite them home for dinner. Now young adults, some of these same kids are professing members and serve as leaders in the church’s ministries.

Another church ministers to a number of developmentally disabled adults. These adults do not always conform to the ways of the church. Sometimes Jeff will stand up in the middle of the sermon, or Carl will start crying for no apparent reason, or Michelle will have a seizure. Others will start talking in the midst of silence. The congregation is not distracted one bit by these events—worshipers joyfully greet them every week. As a result, all are enriched with a greater understanding of the body of Christ.

—Joyce Borger, intern pastor, Blythefield Christian Reformed Church, Rockford, Michigan

For more on how to create a welcoming space for all in your congregation, be sure to order the pamphlet So You’ve Been Asked to Greet or Usher by Cindy Holtrop. Available from CRC Publications at 1-800-8300 or online at www.crcpublications.org. #410117; single copies $1.25US/$1.80CDN; 10 or more copies $0.95US/$1.40CDN.

Hallmarks of a Hospitable Church

Here are some suggestions for worship leaders:

  • Communicate welcome with a strong opening song and warm greeting at the opening of the service.
  • Extend a welcome from the pulpit.
  • Institute a greeting time for the congregation after they have received the greeting from God. Encourage congregation and guests to introduce themselves to each other by name. If guests seem open to conversation, members should speak with them following the service.
  • Ask these questions as you plan worship: Which songs and prayers will best enable people to praise, to confess, to pray?
  • Choose more familiar than unfamiliar songs and hymns.
  • Prepare sensitive, well-thought-out transitions in worship so that people can follow the flow of the service.
  • Handle criticism hospitably. Ask, how did this interfere with your worship, with your praying, with your being able to connect with God?
  • Encourage some worship leaders to wear casual clothes so that others who might not have dress clothes will feel welcome.
  • Use sermon illustrations that connect with a variety of people and ages.
  • Ask someone you trust if you have any personal habits that are not hospitable.
  • Appreciate the longings and hurts of people during holidays or special days such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
  • Ask the pastor to remember special anniversaries. In one congregation, the pastor remembered the date of a young mother’s death by including a song from her memorial service in worship. Perhaps no one else noticed, but her family certainly did.
  • Provide a variety of ways to pray, to sing, to appropriate the gospel. Not everyone has the same social, literacy, or visual skills.
  • Allow people to bring their cares, their joys, and their anxieties with them into worship. God welcomes all of who we are and all of what we bring with us into worship.
  • Provide space for the language of lament in different places in the service (confession, prayer), and in different ways (psalms of lament, song, dance, drama, prayer).
  • Challenge the values and expectations of your community by intentionally welcoming people not currently present in your worship.
  • Look for Jesus in every visitor. In welcoming guests, we welcome Christ.
  • Provide gracious space for the broken, the poor, the powerless, the not-so-beautiful.
  • Create meaningful opportunities for children and youth to participate in worship.
  • Involve singles, widowed people, and single parents as well as families in worship leadership roles such as reading Scripture or lighting the Advent candles.
  • Use language in worship that is accessible for children and teens.

Cindy K. Holtrop is author of several Christmas dramas and So You've Been Asked to Greet or Usher--all available from CRC Publications, 1-800-333-8300.