In response to surveys and as a part of informal conversations, most people share the perception that their congregation is friendly to those who visit.
The reality, however, is that most of our congregations are not as welcoming as they like to think; and people who join our congregations often do not continue to be as active as when they joined. There is a significant hospitality gap between the image of the church as warm and welcoming and what guests and new members actually experience.
Christian Community research shows that 85% – 97% of the people in most congregations think that people in the congregation “go out of their way to be friendly to strangers and newcomers.” But the response dips when people are asked to indicate their agreement with a more personal item: “At church, I take the initiative to talk with those I do not know well.” The national average drops to 65% agreement with that statement, and there are some congregations where the level of agreement falls to the 40% range.
In congregations that are growing, around 90% agree that they take the initiative to talk with new people.
In our blogging on this site, we’re especially focused on helping congregations become more welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. But the truth is that most of our congregations are far less welcoming than they should be to all guests. Having over a third of a congregation not comfortable taking the initiative to talk with people they don’t know doesn’t provide the best environment for new people feeling accepted, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.
Within a year of officially joining a congregation, 62% of those members are less active in the church than at the time they joined. Twenty-five percent simply stop coming within the first year of official membership. Those figures come from current Christian Community research and hold true across denominational lines.
The consequences of this add up year after year. Some become reactivated, but others remain uninvolved or leave the church by their own choice. Some inactive members are eventually removed from the membership rolls when churches are seeking to clean up their records. There are some churches in which more than half the congregation is essentially inactive except for occasional appearances at Easter and Christmas.
Far too many congregations have defined hospitality in a way that equates it to smiles and handshakes for guests. Certainly smiles and handshakes are nice, but that doesn’t go nearly far enough.
In the Christian Community publications Widening the Welcome of Your Church and Deep and Wide, hospitality is defined in this way:
Hospitality involves recognizing the presence of Christ in family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and complete strangers. It means responding to others as we would respond to the presence of Christ in our midst.
As we continue blogging on this site, we’ll have much more to say about what it means to practice this kind of hospitality—not only to LGBT people, but to everyone.