This excellent essay on church life was originally written by The Rev. Lee Nelson and published on AnglicanPastor.com on September 13, 2016. Father Nelson is a priest, church-planter, and catechist currently planting churches in Waco and College Station, Texas, with the aim of making disciples on college campuses through the planting of Anglican churches. For the last several years he has served on the Catechesis Task Force of the Anglican Church in North America, which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism.
“Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,
for He is going to say,
“I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35).
And to all let due honor be shown,
especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims.”
– from The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 53
Hospitality for strangers, visitors, and newcomers is a paramount task in the ministry of a parish church. The rituals of hospitality serve as “threshold events” into the divine life. We observe these rituals either poorly or well, and according to Saint Benedict the key is to welcome every guest like Christ. Visitors to a parish church will decide if they will visit again or join within a few short minutes of first contact, and I’m convinced that Benedict’s wisdom is essential for making the most of these initial contacts.
Welcoming Without Partiality
The first part of this wisdom stands firmly in the conviction that the guest is to be welcomed as Christ. This forms a culture of avoiding the distinctions of rich vs. poor, educated vs. uneducated, adult vs. child, etc. No, every visitor is to be welcomed and received as Christ.
Instead of making distinctions by appearance or status, Benedict’s advice is to respond to the needs of the guest. Esther DeWaal says of this:
“He has prepared me to welcome all, regardless of rank, and yet to treat each according to need, so that there is no uniformity but consideration for weakness or infirmity.” (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the rule of St Benedict. London: Continuum, 1995, p.155)
Putting this into practice, perhaps you see a young mother struggling with her kids; the response should be tailored to her needs. Can I help you bring in your kids? Can I walk you to the nursery? Would you like a cup of coffee? I’m happy to hold the baby during the service. Maybe you notice a newcomer looks nervous; assure them that they’re welcome, and that nothing is expected of them.
Praying with Guests
One of the instructions Benedict gives to his monks is that they should immediately, upon receiving a guest and offering charitable service, offer to pray with the visitor, then offering them the kiss of peace. This takes a lot of courage and even more humility. The monk is encouraged to prostrate himself on the ground before the visitor. Posture is essential to establishing a very important ritual welcome – that the visitor is not here to meet the people of the congregation but to meet God, and to be served by the Lord Jesus Christ as an honored guest.
As priests we need to lean, bow a bit, and most of all, listen. Ask questions. Greeters should be trained to adopt a posture of humility in welcoming visitors and again, to be humble enough to pray for them on the spot.
Welcome in the Liturgy
Benedict further instructs that the superior or some other monk should be appointed to sit with the guests at the divine offices. The superior should also break his fast for the sake of the guests. In addition, the feet of guests should be washed by the monks. In those days, this application was not merely symbolic but practical. Travelers to monasteries would need their feet washed. But it also had symbolic application, pointing to the monastery as a place of peace and refuge from the vanities and sin of the world.
In parishes, we need to consider how we can serve in this way. The liturgy itself should first and foremost show forth communion with the God who is Trinity. The joy of welcoming guests to this blessed fellowship and sacramental communion does not necessitate that they actually receive communion, but it does necessitate that the guest be served. Greeters, and by extension the whole congregation, should be encouraged to guide visitors through the liturgy, to answer their questions, and to give occasional instruction.
Maintaining a Guest House
Lastly, Benedict commands that guests be given a separate kitchen and quarters outside of the cloister of the monks. When I stay in Benedictine communities, this is a particular relief. I am less auspicious. I have the freedom to come and go without concern that I am bothering the monks. Benedict’s insistence on facilities for guests is rooted in two convictions. The first is that visitors to the monastery are to be drawn into the life of the monastery, not assumed to be immediate members. The second is to protect the life of the community from disruption and scandal.
As to the first, we very often look at visitors as prospective members, not objects of love or as those to be honored as Christ. In parish life, we quickly think about how a visitor can be made a Sunday School teacher or a member of the choir. Slow down. First thing’s first. The parish church should have a specific ministry to visitors, not only in the form of greeters but in terms of an orientation to the life of the congregation. For a small congregation, this should come in the form of personal contact with the parish priest. I invite newcomers to join me for lunch or dinner, and I present them with the vision of the congregation and answer any questions they might have. But above all, this is a time to honor them, to serve in humility.
For a larger congregation, this can look like a more programmatic dinner or lunch, which seeks to do much the same. It is an opportunity to meet the pastor, to be connected with members, but again, above all, to be treated with honor and received as Christ.
For the ancient Church, the Catechumenate served as a “guest house” in which visitors and strangers were welcomed and instructed in the Christian Faith. Our churches desperately need similar arrangements, and this points to the second concern which Benedict has, that of disruption by those who have not been initiated into the life of the community. The Catechumenate served as a distinct social space for those who had not yet been baptized, a place to “belong but not yet believe.” This shielded the church from the disruption of those who may have entertained membership as a means to power, to growing their business, or to making powerful friends. But it also shielded the church from the wiles of the Enemy. Disruptors, those inimical to Christian faith and practice, were in a sense weeded out, but certainly allowed to continue to occupy this space for guests.
I am convinced that the wisdom of the 4th and 5th Centuries, including Benedict, has much to say to us today, especially when we are not terribly proficient at welcoming visitors nor protecting our parishes from disruption by outside forces.
Newcomer classes are a good start, but essential to the culture of a welcoming congregation is setting very clear expectations of what membership in the congregation demands. The expectations for members of the Benedictine Order were able to remain high while continuing to offer extreme hospitality. That is only part of the wisdom of the Rule. The wisdom offered to us is that we need not lower membership standards or our standards of hospitality. We can and should have both!