Church hospitality is usually another way of saying being nice to church visitors. And for some reason, evangelicals fall down hard at doing this one simple thing. Sure, they know they’re supposed to be nice to their own members and to the visitors who show up. But there’s a big gap in between knowing they should do the thing and actually doing the thing. There’s a reason why, too. Let’s dive into that reason today.

(From introduction: Antiprocess; Ancient Aliens debunk video; He Gets Us; “Subbacultcha” lyrics.)

Wayback Machine set to 1988: Church hospitality, Pentecostal-style

When I was Pentecostal, the first church I attended was large by Pentecostal standards. Its parking lot was always full, and if you didn’t get to the church fairly early you might have to squeeze into a back-row pew for the Sunday service.

Naturally, with a church that size, visitors often crossed our doorstep.

Very few stuck around.

Often, the ones who stuck around had something to say about their first experience. Usually, it ran along these lines:

Boy, those Pentecostals were crazy! It was a little scary. I wondered how fast I could run out of there! But I wanted whatever they have!

Cue the excited clapping and loud cries of “AMEN!” and “Praise the Lord!”

I didn’t stop to wonder about the people who attended once and never again until I was well past deconversion. There had to be a lot of people whose testimonies stopped after the first two sentences, after which they fled with a resolution never to question their home churches again.

In a very real way, our church’s leaders filtered visitors to find the kind of people who would fit in with the congregation.

Church hospitality through the (fairly recent) ages

That first Pentecostal church handled visitors the same way countless churches still do today:

  • We stationed a welcoming committee near the front door before and after services; these committee members were old-timers at the church and knew everybody, so they’d quickly spot a visitor. Once they spotted one, they’d shake hands and make small talk with them.
  • The pastor asked mid-service if there are any first-time visitors in the church, asking them to stand and introduce themselves, and give time for those nearby to shake their hand—and for everyone to admire whoever brought/invited them.
  • Someone set a small table up in the foyer that was loaded with tracts outlining our specific beliefs.

Again, this approach filtered out shy and reserved people. Only very confident people could handle that kind of scrutiny! And those were the people who’d investigate the tracts on the little table out front.

But church leaders have slowly become aware that this approach doesn’t work very well. In an age where people feel free to reject Christian evangelists’ recruitment attempts, a church can’t count on visitors at all, much less ones that will be chased off very quickly by weird, unfamiliar practices like speaking in tongues.

Incidentally, when evangelicals use the term church hospitality, it refers to all aspects of managing a guest’s experience. Its tasks range from parking-lot management to the little table in the foyer to the snacks and coffee large churches might offer to anything else.

But it can also mean something far, far grander. You just have to go by context.

And church hospitality as imagined through the mythological lens of Original Christianity

Christians feel very certain that the very first Christians, immortalized in Low Christianity as “Original Christians,” handled hospitality in some very different and vastly superior way compared to modern churches. If Christians today could only duplicate what Original Christians did centuries ago, then membership would boom just like it totally did in the first centuries of the religion!

(Narrator: No, it actually didn’t grow very quickly at all until its leaders gained real power in the 4th century. And the NT itself tells us—in places like 1 John 2—that early churches struggled hard to retain members.)

This fundamental ignorance of Christianity’s origins is how you get posts like this one from 2020 on Outreach Canada’s website (archive). Its writer thinks that this supposed vast hospitality “contributed to the birth and health of the early church.” But it did not consist of welcoming committees or callouts during the service. Rather, it consisted of real meals for the hungry and lodging for travelers. I know of no evangelical churches routinely offering anything like this. Even that link’s reference to evangelicals hosting refugee families makes clear that this was not something the entire church did.

The Gospel Coalition also likes this idea of Original Christians being super-hospitable. On their site, they solemnly exhort readers to “follow the path of the ancient Christians in their countercultural practice of hospitality.”

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In addition, someone at Liberty University even tried to turn the apocalyptic vision of the destruction of Jerusalem into a model of church hospitality for modern evangelical churches.

(Remember last week when Sargon of Akkad said that ideologues kept unsuccessfully trying to turn an ideology into lived reality? That is this guy. Right here. He’s a pastor in NYC right now, and I wonder if his lived experience has taught him anything about his youthful idealism.)

Evangelicals are very certain that church hospitality works as an evangelism method

Even so, one should hesitate before accepting anything in the Bible as “gospel truth,” if you’ll pardon the pun. Very few organizations would remain solvent if they did this all the time, and I doubt most Christian groups could afford anything like it. And yet every source I consulted had something to say about the byproduct of church hospitality: conversions galore.

I particularly liked this guy’s writeup of the idea on LinkedIn. He left the practical benefit of conversions almost to the last paragraph of his general information section:

Not only is hospitality ministry following in the example of Jesus; it’s also strategic. Providing an effective welcome to a church will help to keep membership numbers growing.

Over at Lifeway, church hospitality is considered a guaranteed way for a church to grow its membership rolls:

“Biblical hospitality seeks out the stranger to welcome them as neighbor, embraces them, and, by the power of God, minsters—and prays their heart is changed so the neighbor becomes part of the family of God,” says [Rosaria] Butterfield. [. . .]

Butterfield tells the story of a family who walked into her Durham, North Carolina, church recently. It soon became known they were without a home. Two families in the church—one of them being the Butterfields—took in this family who had been displaced and living in their car for about six weeks.

“We missed a few swim team practices,” Butterfield says of the time she hosted the displaced family. “We missed haircuts. We doubled our water and our grocery bills. But it’s incalculable what we gained.”

There’s always a “gain” in church hospitality. It never produces a net loss for the hospitality-givers. Of course, this kind of hospitality is far out of scope of most churches. Most churches are doing well just to have parking-lot ushers and a welcome committee. And maybe a little table in the foyer stocked with tracts.

Evangelicals still need to maintain their judgementalism, even when performing church hospitality

Overall, evangelicals struggle to define exactly what church hospitality should encompass and how it should be expressed for maximum effectiveness.

They want it to mean kindness and material help given to the needy outside the bounds of their churches. But it’s obvious that most of them will never go so far. In almost all cases, the church tries to just be nice to visitors and make their transition to church members as seamless and easy as possible.

And any kindness must be weighed against the evangelical’s need to judge and condemn others. The Gospel Coalition cautions church congregations about being too nice and too accepting of the unwashed heathens they hold in utter contempt:

This idea that hospitality means unqualified acceptance was the position of philosopher Jacques Derrida, and it seems to be “common sense” in this day and age. But we cannot embrace this definition, because it is incompatible with the Great Commission.

Their writer advises evangelicals to carefully walk a tightrope between gracious kindness and “see[ing] people as projects” to be fixed with the tool of hospitality. Yeah, I’m completely sure evangelicals can manage that trick. They’ve always done it so well, after all. (/s /s /s /s /s /s)

Defining church hospitality success is apparently very difficult

The Southern Baptist Convention’s domestic evangelism subgroup, North American Mission Board (SBC; NAMB), makes clear that church hospitality will reliably produce new members for a congregation. But it has to be done just-so. They warn readers:

If your church is anchored in loving God and loving people–evangelizing, making disciples and caring for the community–then your church will grow. 

You’d think every single one of them would be led by a super-Jesusy pastor who wants to do both of those things. So why do so many evangelical churches not grow?

Even when a church settles on a definition of church hospitality that they think they can manage, we hear horror stories about them ignoring or mistreating guests. One site, Church Marketing Sucks (archive), even ran a series about it in the mid-2010s!

Evangelical leaders appear to know that hospitality involves a lot of work and an open, giving heart. I found no shortage of evangelical essays about the importance of cultivating that kind of heart. A pastor’s wife relates a story of a young man who lacked that heart (archive):

This man was a new Christian and a recent member of the church. He had enthusiasm for preaching and for giving his testimony. He was willing to call out and confront sin. He was bold in his approach to teenagers and felt strongly about the necessity of preaching about Heaven and Hell. Unfortunately, he lacked one thing– he had zero relationship with those students. They didn’t know him or trust him, and he hadn’t listened to their stories enough to know them. They listened to his preaching, but he couldn’t meaningfully connect to them on a personal level.

Indeed, his ministry didn’t go very far.

But maybe this is exactly why evangelicals so rarely practice the full-meal-deal of church hospitality.

Evangelicals can’t relate to relationships

Evangelicals inhabit a deeply dysfunctional, power-obsessed authoritarian social system. Its leaders make a lot of promises about what that system can do for members, but what they deliver fails to fulfill almost all of those promises.

Anybody involved in evangelicalism is going to be power-hungry—or else a stepping-stone to power for the power-hungry.

In that kind of environment, nobody can afford the vulnerability that results from getting too close to someone else. Any secrets told can instantly light up a church gossip vine if it’ll give the recipient something they want. Any kindness shown can be used to push the kindness-giver down and keep them giving till they die of exhaustion. Backstabbing is just a Standard Operating Procedure for evangelicals. Trusting them is a major mistake.

That’s why I had to laugh at NAMB’s essay about church hospitality. It hits every single mark of evangelical dysfunction:

  • Gesturing vaguely toward Original Christianity
  • Refusing to define its own terms or tell evangelicals exactly how to do it
  • Insisting that churches doing it will flourish and grow

But this in particular was hilarious: A whole section devoted to “telling stories” about people the congregation had helped. It specifically mentions four people: a preacher’s kid with a particular backstory, a single dad and his kid in a specific situation, and an anxiety-riddled young woman with a very distinctive driving style. If these four people exist, did they give NAMB’s writer permission to talk about them? I doubt it.

That section admonishes readers that they can’t share these stories without learning them first. Irony, thy name is Evangelicalism!

We’re also leaving out evangelicals’ tendency to exaggerate or make up stories that make them feel and look good. Anecdotes don’t help recruiters like they used to, that’s for sure. The marks have learned about salespeople’s inherent dishonesty. They are unlikely to fall for such tales unless they are very vulnerable indeed.

Evangelicals’ contempt for others makes church hospitality surface-level at best

I am really and truly thinking here, and I’m having trouble thinking of a single evangelical I’ve ever encountered post-deconversion who gave a single flying fuck about me as a person. Almost always, they approach with a recruitment demand. When I refuse, they disappear forever. If I ask them to provide evidence to support this or that claim being made, they might even promise to provide it before disappearing forever.

I once mentioned a guy at my last home who asked my husband if we might visit his church. My husband declined, and he never even talked to either of us ever again. We saw him all the time, but he pretended he had no idea who we were.

Evangelical leaders teach their flocks to view everyone around them as a poor widdle lost heathen who needs to be fixed. The flocks learn that attending and joining their church will do that trick. If the marks refuse, the erstwhile soulwinners simply move on to the next mark. Remember, John Stott promised them (archive) that if they even made an attempt, that’d be more than enough to please Jesus.

Perhaps that’s why so many evangelism strategies seem very shallow and surface-level. Evangelicals engage in small talk only to gain useful information about their marks. They deploy that information as deviously as they can. If they fail at converting the mark, they must move on. They don’t have time to waste on people who’ll never become customers.

I’m positive, however, that this is why evangelicals’ charity efforts seem fixated on evangelism rather than helping people. If they can’t try to make a sale, they won’t perform the charity.

Segue: There’s a power-threatening element to church hospitality failures, too

If you read the horror stories at that one Church Marketing Sucks website (relink), you’ll quickly notice a major theme to the experiences relayed there.

Evangelicals are power-focused, remember. Within their congregations, many people may jockey for limited positions of power. Every new person who joins becomes a potential threat to the power they’ve cobbled together. Because favoritism and affection are the major criteria for advancement, a new person who has a lot of charisma or a seriously bankable skill could wreck everything.

That’s why long-established church members fight for “their” pew. Or refuse to acknowledge a new child in their Sunday School class. Or get really creepy with visitors or pointedly ignore them, thus ensuring they never return. The church congregation can feel uplifted because someone totally visited, but the visitor didn’t shake up the established power structure much so it’s all okay now.

Their whole mentality feels like: Yes, you may visit, but always remember your place. If you can’t deal with your place, don’t return.

It must really frustrate pastors who want to see a growing church congregation and realize that the biggest obstacle to that goal is the current congregation.

And there’s no way for evangelicals to fix this situation

Evangelicals ache to be known as people who love people. They yearn for their Jesus-osity to shine out through their eyes and fingertips like the glow of the transforming Beast at the end of Disney’s movie. They want all the world to see them and nod among themselves: Yes, here at last is a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ doing exactly what Jesus wants his followers to do.

But everything about their conceptualization of Christianity prevents such a scene from ever happening. Even if they weren’t dysfunctional authoritarians, their end of Christianity simply isn’t compatible with this dream.

Think about how evangelicals recruit others. It’s always a sense of SAVE YOURSELF: FORGET EVERYONE ELSE UNTIL YOU’RE SAFE. I’ve even personally heard evangelicals use imagery like parents on airplanes having to set their own air masks on first so they can better help their kids get their own masks on.

This recruitment approach gets evangelicals thinking in terms of their own needs, not those of others. Similarly, evangelicals focus on their own progress through Christianity. You always hear them asking each other, “How’s your walk with Christ?” but never “How is your relationship with those around you?”

The one Christian I’ve ever heard of who flipped that script on someone admitted he was being “a bit provocative” (archive). But what he did wasn’t at all provocative. It was something he should have been saying to every single student within his earshot who ever sighed dramatically and lamented that they needed to work on their “relationship with God.”

He chalked this situation up to a bait and switch, and it is. Yes. But the switch goes much further than easy substitutions of religious devotions in place of scary, challenging real-world practices.

It’s dangerous to get close to heathens

Evangelicals “get saved” knowing that most of the people they know and love are not “saved,” meaning they will all be tortured forever in Hell after they die. Evangelicals make peace with that knowledge however they can, but they never dream of challenging the ideology that threatens their loved ones so gruesomely.

And they progress through their lives and their religion thinking primarily of their own salvation. In fact, if they express concern about a hypocrite, someone in the tribe inevitably tells them to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” which in this context means not allowing hypocrites to shake their faith and thus threaten their own safety from Hell. I got told both toward the end of my time as a Christian, and I see Christians still saying the same things nowadays.

They only come face-to-face with the brutality of this ideology if one of their children or their spouse deconverts. At such times, they cannot cope. The truth of the ideology becomes all too real. Even then, the only solution they perceive is the deconverted person returning to the faith. That’s the only solution their Dear Leaders have ever presented to them. If that doesn’t happen, they’re in agony. The only way out at that point becomes a softening of the doctrine of Hell, but that in and of itself threatens evangelicals’ own sense of safety from Hell!

No wonder evangelicals avoid getting too close to heathens. Such closeness has so many ways to go utterly pear-shaped.

To grow a group, the principles still remain quite earthly

Last week, we had a laugh over the ginormous lengths that Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) folks are going to over evangelism. They’re pulling out all the stops to recruit more people to their denomination. That even includes throwing many millions of dollars at the problem!

Not a single part of their plans requires a god to succeed. In fact, it’s what I’d expect any normal purely-earthly non-religious group to do if they seriously wanted to increase their membership. No gods are behind the SBC’s recruitment push. That’s crystal-clear obvious to anyone.

Growing a group has nothing to do with any gods. The group can be historical re-enactors, annual camping pass holders, parents’ babysitting circles, or whatever. Group growth still depends on the same stuff as it always has:

  1. A good group to join and hang out with
  2. Clear benefits for joining and no substantial dealbreakers
  3. Reasonable-feeling requirements and expectations of members

Any group that fits this description is going to grow, especially if their leaders have a few million dollars to throw around to publicize their existence.

Unfortunately, evangelical groups usually fall down on all three of those criteria. They’re not good groups in most people’s opinion. They offer few real-world benefits for joining—and way too many dealbreakers, like sex abuse and financial misdeeds. And they want a lot out of members, especially nowadays with the serious evangelism pushes going on. If anything, evangelical leaders are demanding even more from a smaller pool of people than they’ve ever had in recent memory. As we saw last week, nowadays pastors are even pushing particular sheep into ministry!

Getting someone to visit a church is hard enough. But turning a visitor into a lifelong actively-participating and supporting member of that church is really hard. All the evangelism in the world can’t undo evangelicalism’s serious flaws as a social system. All it’ll do is highlight the dichotomy between how evangelicals see themselves—and how everyone else does.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.


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