Finding a church to call home

A recent college graduate finds that how a congregation practices hospitality -- encouraging true, deep human interaction -- is more compelling than good preaching, music or other criteria.

Our eldest daughter, Emily, recently graduated from college and set out for her new job in Washington, D.C. It was instructive to watch as she began the process of visiting area churches to find a new church home.

She was open to various denominations, but wanted a traditional service with good preaching, good music and a commitment to social justice. She was limited by her need to walk or take public transportation from her house, which also limits the amount of time she can safely and easily attend mid-week or evening services, meetings, Bible studies and other events.

During the first months of life in her new city, she systematically visited churches. I am happy to report that she heard some good sermons, enjoyed lively music and witnessed several thriving congregations. As the weeks progressed, however, her commentary turned more to where she, a newcomer to the city, found hospitality.

“How was church?” I would ask. “Great! I talked to someone really nice at the coffee hour,” she would reply. Or, “Not going back to that one -- no one even said hello.” Or occasionally, “Today I got a lunch invitation!”

Increasingly, she found that her best experiences were, regardless of the worship, grounded in the human contact she had received on a given Sunday morning. Her criteria seemed to be shifting more to whether she could meet people at worship and have meaningful interactions.

One Sunday afternoon, she called to report happily that she had found her church. She explained that before the service even began, this pastor had asked the congregation to turn to someone they didn’t know and introduce themselves. During the service, there was another opportunity to greet someone, and then after the service, there was yet another chance to meet a neighbor they didn’t know.

By the time she left the building, she had had lively conversations with at least four people, recommendations for three scenic area hikes, and a name and phone number scribbled on a piece of the bulletin.

And these congregants weren’t embarrassed, hesitant or tired of the drill. The opening lines in the Sunday bulletin describe this process as “Hospitality 5-10-2.”

Up front and center -- on the worship page of the bulletin -- the policy is spelled out: “Spend the 5 minutes before and after the service meeting someone you do not know. When you are socializing with your friends, if someone you don’t know passes within 10 feet of your group, excuse yourself, introduce yourself, and invite them into your conversation. When you meet someone new, introduce them to someone else so that every newcomer will meet at least 2 people.”

I don’t know if Emily will remain at this church forever, but for now she returns each week because she knows people there. I do know that I learned an important lesson about how Christian institutions can give more than lip service to hospitality. I also learned something the church may need to know about attracting young people. And it is more fundamental than style of worship, time of day, or the number of guitars.