Every church is in the hospitality industry

Published 4:20 pm Thursday, August 3, 2023

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By Rev. Alan Neale

For the Washington Daily News

Fawlty Towers is a British television sitcom broadcast on British television in 1975 and 1979. Just two series of six episodes were made; the creator, John Cleese, decided nothing good would come from adding another series. The show was created and written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, who also starred in the show and were married at the time. In one episode (The Psychiatrist) Sybil Fawlty complains to her husband that “I’ve had it up to here with you”. Basil asks why and she replies, “You never get it right, do you? You’re either crawling all over the guests, licking their boots, or spitting poison at them like some Benzedrine puff adder”.

At the heart of Fawlty Towers is the ridiculous premise that the hotel owner/manager is not there to serve the guests, but rather they are there for his pleasure!

Years past, one often heard reference to the “hospitality industry” and, indeed, hospitality is a task that requires industry and hard work. To be somehow prescient of the needs of guests and diners, of temporary residents and those on vacation, is a challenge; unfortunately, those on vacation sometimes are the most stressed.

Surely the church, every church, is in the “hospitality industry.” It is part of our charge given in Scripture by the writer of Hebrews “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). St. Peter writes, “Be hospitable to one another without complaining” (I Peter 4:9). And many times, Jesus urges his disciples to be hospitable and welcoming, for instance to children (“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” Matthew 19:14).

When a visitor enters a church, they probably neither want to be ignored but nor do they want to be overwhelmed with questions and invitations to return; especially if those invitations carry encouragement to give time or money or service. Unlike Basil Fawlty, church communities need to work and pray that they get the welcome just right. Of course, sometimes our good intentions miss the mark but then the good Lord “helps us in our weakness”.

It is often said in 12 Step Meetings that the most important person in the room is “the newcomer”. Surely this is as true for any and all church? Jesus’ welcome was one of inclusion, attentiveness and companionship – I pray that the churches I have served (and serve today) reflect the hospitality of Jesus.

The Greek word for “hospitality” in Hebrews 13:2 has a wonderful range of meanings including “warmth (friendliness) shown to strangers; (figuratively) the readiness to share hospitality (generosity) by entertaining in one’s home”. It is a strong heart and a faithful one to the Lord that is ready to welcome “the stranger”. And such a welcome extends not only to people but also, I think, to new and different ways of doing what we have done forever. The clarion call “Oh, it’s always been done like this” is not always appropriate especially as we live in the light of the Lord who makes all things new. Sometimes the words of that martial hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” are re-phrased to read, “Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God; brothers/sisters, we are treading where we’ve always trod”. We are empowered by the Lord to be truly and boldly welcoming… just as once we were welcomed by a church but more especially by the Lord.

Alan Neale is the Rector of Zion Episcopal Church in Washington.