In Lviv, Ukraine, I was often moved by the varied, profound stories of the people who showed up in our church meetings. Over a span of time, we welcomed prostitutes, a monk, African exchange students, soldiers, gypsies, mafia members, opera singers, and a woman who survived the siege of Stalingrad and imprisonment during Soviet times. While we were not a perfect church, we knew God called us to be missionary agents of His love, truth, and grace.
In the American context, Thom S. Rainer recently did an informal Twitter poll to ask first-time guests why they chose not to return to a particular church. The second top response they gave was unfriendly church members. While he anticipated this answer, the number of respondents who included non-genuine friendliness as a main reason surprised him. The guests perceived that some people in the church were faking it.
So I wonder, when services are overly scripted with a sleek production, can churches forget the needs of new people or even lose sight of why they gather? Do we gather to worship God and demonstrate His heart for people? Do we allow our schedules to be disrupted so we can listen to a person’s response when we ask how they are doing? The ecclesia, or church, is a covenant community of imperfect, but redeemed Christ-followers – which is the primary medium of God’s mission to His world. And the world is not just “out there”, it’s our communities and sometimes graces the doors of our churches if we will take the time to notice, engage, and love them – people from every race, socio-economic background, and religious persuasion.
In October, my husband and I returned from a ministry trip to Ukraine where we spent part of our time with the church in Lviv. I wanted to defy sleep so I could enjoy every moment in the city and with the people I love there. After many years, I was glad to see a vibrant church that worships and follows Jesus and loves and reaches out to people. As we equipped leaders, we saw that every couple on the leadership team valued and modeled hospitality. The Greek word for hospitality, philozenia, is a combination of two words – philos, meaning “affection” and zenos, meaning “stranger. As I observed one of the services, I saw love in action.
- Their hospitality was stunningly genuine. For example, a few refugees from the war in eastern Ukraine came to the church and were embraced like family.
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” (1 Peter 4:8-10)
- Everyone seemed to value the contribution of everyone else. The leadership team honored one another and thanked those who helped with children’s ministry and served a meal after the service. I was reminded of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring where each member of the Fellowship was needed and honored.
- They weren’t overly scripted. Although they aimed at excellence, the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. When they greeted guests, it wasn’t choreographed and formal. It was real.
They may not have reached their goals yet in structure and process, but they have achieved a far more precious commodity – family. I think we can learn from the relational, organic warmth of Ukrainian culture. If churches are not deliberate about hospitality and engaging new people, they can degrade the very essence of what Jesus modeled for us by seeing people more as projects, numbers, or potential donors, than people in need of God’s love.
Towards the end of our trip after reuniting with many friends, I received this message from a young woman who greeted me after one of the services. She came to the church years ago. I had forgotten this story, but it serves as a reminder to me to care for people even when they don’t seem open to receive truth or love. I need this fresh reminder often.
“Once, more than fifteen years ago, a friend of mine invited me to a women`s meeting in Lviv on Saturday morning. You were talking there on the topic of forgiveness. After your speech I started arguing with you, saying that I don`t agree with some things you stated before. You were trying to explain something to me but I just kept on arguing. Then you asked: “May I pray for you?”
You looked so innocent that I thought nothing bad would happen to me if you just said a prayer. You laid your hand on my shoulder (which was a bit strange to me at that time) and prayed. I even remember some of the words of that prayer. An hour later I felt very bad. I couldn`t sleep the whole night. That was probably the most fearful night in my life. But the next day on Sunday I repented, invited Jesus in my life, and was born again. After that I felt much better. So, you see, it`s impossible to forget things like that. And as you are the part of my story how I came to the Lord I`ll never forget you. You and Mike were my first pastors. Dear Myra, keep laying hands on young ladies` shoulders because it has a very positive impact on their future.”
In Tolkien’s trilogy, when the Fellowship approached the doors to the mines of Moria, they first had to solve a riddle to determine the password. The inscription on the doors said, “Speak, friend, and enter.” The word “friend” opened the doors. People are often guarded until we speak the language of the heart – friendship.