One of my favorite restaurants is Chick-Fil-A. But it’s not even because of their food that puts them at the top of my list. Yes, their chicken is good. But if we’re honest, it’s really not that good. So why in the world does Chick-Fil-A constantly rank as one of the top fast food restaurants of all time?
It’s because of their customer service (which, in turn, makes their food seems like it tastes better. I have no doubt.)
You will almost always be greeted with a smile, they’ll be very affirming, the manager will come out to your table to personally see how you’re doing, and your “thank you” will always be exchanged with a “my pleasure.” What other fast-food chains come out to you with iPads to take your order when the double drive-thru line is backed up to the highway? Chick-Fil-A employees go so far out of their way to ensure you have a fantastic experience that they will literally chase down a car who forgot their order at the drive-thru, as this YouTube video shows:
Here’s the point. People love an organization for its service, not its products. The organizations that focus on meeting their customers’ humanitarian needs and serving a greater purpose will always beat out those who focus on meeting their financial goals and growing their business.
This applies especially to the local church.
One of my favorite church ministries are hospitality ministries. Every church calls it something different, be it ushers, Guest Services, Hospitality Teams, First Impressions, Host Teams, Door Holders—what have you. They consist of parking lot teams who guide you to open parking spots, greeters who hold the door open as you walk up, coffee makers who make the best cup of cheap coffee imaginable (unless you’re a trendy church and somehow have the budget to afford specialty coffee), team members who give you a free coffee mug at their welcome center, and ushers who pass shiny plastic plates in the middle of the service that always somehow gets to you before you have the time to write a check for your tithe (and that’s if you’re still even carrying a checkbook these days).
Regardless of their names and practices, the overall goal of these ministries is to create welcoming experiences for church goers; to cultivate a culture where people feel welcomed, themselves, vulnerable, and loved, with the hope that new guests will come back the next week.
So in a way—and church culture will affirm this—hospitality ministries are the customer service department of a local church.
And we have to be very, very, very careful with that mindset.
I pastored at a church where I oversaw the Guest Services ministry for a season, so I made sure to read as many books and learn as much as I can from experts in this field to foster a great hospitality ministry. However, one of the themes that consistently arose from some of the churches with the top leading hospitality teams in the country assert that the number one goal of these ministries is to ensure new guests come back the next week. They’d throw out stats that “a new guest to a local church will decide if they’re coming back within the first 7 minutes of their visit.” Therefore, you better be sure to give them the best experience of their life, from the moment they park their cars to until they sit down in the worship center, to ensure they’ll come back next week. You have 7 minutes to knock their socks off so they can return with weekly attendance.
I have a major problem with this perspective, because it pegs the responsibility of creating a positive church culture for the sake of retaining attendance. In the church world, attendance retention rates are the equivalent of a business’ quarterly earnings. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a church’s attendance is what dictates their own financial earnings and their own success from the church-growth mindset that American Christianity is obsessed with. (Thankfully we’re starting to see this trend the other way. But it’s slow-coming.)
Through this perspective, a hospitality ministry for the sake of attendance retention is all about a transactional exchange. You provide the experience for the guest’s consistent attendance, which boosts the church’s numbers. The hospitality ministry, then, is more about the product than the service. It’s more about what it gets than what it gives.
On the other hand, the best hospitality ministries exist not for retaining attendance, nor for serving coffee, and nor for meeting the expectation that every local church has to have these type of volunteers. The best hospitality ministries exist solely for meeting the humanitarian needs of its guests and attendees. That’s why it’s called a ministry, isn’t it?
So what do hospitality ministries look like that have guests’ humanitarian needs in mind?
“for the sake of retaining attendance”…. All for the sake of coming back? I would say that all our efforts should be for the sake of God’s merciful love, not some cheap human substitute like a strictly economic transaction such as you describe. Aquinas teaches the same: ‘God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against His justice, but by doing something more than justice’ (ST 1a.21.3. ad 2). If we want to do something more, we need to let God be God and do God. Or to use a Carmelite quote, in September 1896 Thérèse of the Child Jesus had this insight into her vocation:
“I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES…. IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL!
“Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love …. my vocation, at last I have found it…. MY VOCATION IS LOVE!
“Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized” (Manuscript B, folio 03 verso).