There’s been much ado about “Church Growth” in recent years. I get it, the church is “dying” and if we want to reverse the downward trend we have to “grow the Church” (whatever that even means). If we want to attract people, especially young “millennials” who have become the “Holy Grail” of Church Growth, we have to do something. We have to start this new program, or this new group for moms, or offer this cool new worship opportunity, or do this new service or mission project with the faint hope that it will strike a chord with people and they will come streaming into the doors of the church.
There are churches that are having some success with this model (whatever “success” looks like from a Christian lens). While the overall church involvement may be decreasing, there are churches that are experiencing great growth. Even the church where I currently serve is discerning that next new thing, that next step to remain a viable community of faith for the next 100 years by offering what people are looking for. It’s noble and it springs from a deep desire and intention to be faithful.
However, over recent weeks and months I have been wrestling with a concept that was re-presented to me when I decided to listen to the audio version of The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society by Henri Nouwen while returning from a visit to a friend in Memphis, Tennessee. This seminal work, which explores the complexities and ways forward for ministry in an quickly changing context, was one that I had read before, and paid a great deal of attention to, but that the depth of which I was unable to grasp until I was actually involved in the ministry it attempts to outline. Towards the end of the book, Nouwen begins talking about “Hospitality” as a method by which healing takes place. As I listened to this book, I heard something in this book that I had never really heard before – “it has become difficult for us today to fully understand the implications of hospitality. Like the Semitic nomads, we live in a desert which many lonely travelers who are looking for a moment of peace, for a fresh drink, and for a sign of encouragement so that they can continue their mysterious search for freedom.” Hospitality, Nouwen explains, is the ability to “let others enter the space created for them, and allow them to dance their own dance, sing their own song, and speak their own language without fear.” Quoting James Hillman, Nouwen goes on to explain the endless potential this space presents when he suggests that a model for hospitality “can be found in the Jewish mystical doctrine of Tsimtsum. God as omnipresent and omnipotent was everywhere. He filled the universe with his Being. How then could creation come about? …God had to create by withdrawal; He created the not-Him, the other…” The withdrawal of self and creation of space “aids the other to come into being.” What I heard in Nouwen’s words this time around was the importance of creating space, not filling it.
As I reflected upon these words since (and even as I sit down to write), I occurs to me that we often get this very wrong. We feel that in order to practice hospitality we have to be doing something. This plays out in church in many unhealthy ways – if we want to practice hospitality we have to provide this program, or that offering, or this event, or that opportunity, and it all comes from a deep (maybe misguided) desire to be faithful. But what I have seen play out over and over again is that more often than not, this constant filling of space only taxes the faithful community who themselves are “lonely travelers… looking for a moment of peace, for a fresh drink…” and what should be an opportunity to be encouraged becomes a loathsome task that only exacerbates their fatigue and estrangement from self and God.
We seem almost addicted to doing more. As Walter Brueggeman suggests in Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, “the reality of restlessness in our contemporary society is obvious and epidemic.” It almost seems like we’re in this arms race of sorts, a Cold War, fighting for peoples’ attention and allegiance. Popular culture has filled people’s schedules with task upon task upon task, and church, desirous of being viable, has followed suit. We’ve become junkies hooked on the drug of production and doing. To apply a religious lens to it, we have begun serving the gods of “more” instead of hearing the call of a God who creates space to rest and be. As a result, my fear is that we are creating “consumer Christians,” those who reduce faith to just another commodity, another task on a list, or a drug to be administered instead of a life to be lived and a relationship to be entered into. The question that must be asked is this – are we really creating space for the “lonely travelers” or are we only magnifying their loneliness? By loneliness, I don’t mean merely the feeling of being disconnected from people, but I am referring also to the chilling, bone-deep awareness that we are disconnected from ourselves and God. Is the Church really creating spaces for “lonely travelers” to drink from the “well that never runs dry?”
What if, instead of more programs, offerings, and events to do, the Church was intentional about provided opportunities to just be? What if we didn’t fill liturgies with words, but allowed space, real space, for uncomfortable silence, introspection, and reflection? What if our response to declining attendance and budgets was to open our sanctuary doors and allow spaces for people to come in, out of the scorching heat, and to sit in a cool, quiet place, and just be in God’s presence?
Is hospitality about “Church Growth?” No. Hospitality, at least the way Nouwen outlines it, is about “paying attention without intention.” We practice hospitality for hospitality’s sake. We do it because we know all to well what it is like to be a tired, weary traveler and to be unable to find a moment of peace, a place to drink, and a space to just be. Will practicing intentional hospitality grow the church? Maybe. Maybe not. But one thing is for certain, hospitality, the space to sing, to dance, to pray, to embrace whatever comes, to just be, creates an opportunity for creation to happen anew.
Keep the faith, and make it COLORFUL!