Evangelism or hospitality — or both?

November 13th, 2019

Some may contend that there is a stark difference between evangelism and hospitality, but I believe that in twenty-first-century culture they are the same strategy reflected differently, as rays from a diamond in the sun. Historically, many local churches have designed their evangelism and hospitality efforts to include the election of a six- to nine-member team, cookies in the lobby for visitors, and follow-up via poorly-printed form letters delivered by the US Postal Service. Before today, this form of evangelism and hospitality worked because, for the most part in the US, we were seeking and reaching the loyalty generation.

This generation grew up in a time in America when loyalty was king. People from this generation stayed with a company, denomination, or community organization even if they disagreed with its creed or practices or if they had unhappy experiences. These individuals would work for their employer for decades and, upon retirement, receive a small cake in a less-than-plush company break room, the latest and greatest paper certificate with a raised gold-star sticker, and handshakes from coworkers who were quietly miserable with their own careers, secretly wishing that the retirement party was for them. Truly we owe a great deal to these forerunners who’ve been so loyal—our wonderful institutions, endowments, and many of our scientific, religious, and technological achievements. Many of these individuals who built and nurtured most of our local churches and larger denominations were a congregation’s prime customers for the early form of evangelism and hospitality. Fifty years ago, we could simply hang a cross in a new sanctuary, place an “open for business” sign on the front door, and rightly expect as a direct result that people would enter the building and experience the power of God.

Today it’s an entirely different story and landscape, requiring a different design, approach, and execution. The early form of evangelism and hospitality is no longer optimal; it doesn’t help local churches connect with the communities around them. Today, we are no longer trying to reach only the “loyalty” generation. We are also seeking the “relational” generation. The relational generation is a uniquely creative group, craving relationships that are not formed or nurtured primarily through traditional or outdated institutions. As the relational generation came into being, many denominations and local churches failed to maintain a pulse on the current developing beneath the flow of the loyalty generation.

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The deep undercurrent that our predecessors missed was the future presence of today’s relational generation, which is best explained from the passage in Exodus 1:8 (NLT): “Eventually, a new king came to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph or what he had done.” We were so certain that the loyalty generation would have children and grandchildren who would be similarly loyal. However, in 2019 we know that this isn’t the case as we continue to witness a decline in American Christian churches—a decline that some find to be incredibly frightening. While the decline may be scary, it’s also at least motivating, causing an energetic mobilization of church leaders to research and develop new ideas and practices for our denominations and local churches.

So, the solution for twenty-first-century local congregations is to learn how to reach a new and profoundly creative relational generation while still connecting to the loyalty generation.

We can actually live out this solution by practicing good ol’ evangelism and hospitality — except that we execute in fresh and different ways. We are fresh and different when we realize that evangelism and hospitality today is more than knocking on doors, inviting neighbors to the upcoming Vacation Bible School, and providing visitors with lobby cookies on Sunday mornings. Contemporary, good ol’ evangelism and hospitality is actually making real and lasting relationships, developing a strategy called “zip code presence.” This strategy means sitting with leaders from our congregations to map out our churches’ zip codes in five- to ten-mile radius circles accompanied by questions like “Who are the schools’ principals? Who is the police chief? Who is the fire chief? Who are the business owners? Where are the apartments, the young people, the seniors, and the nonprofit organizations?” Like most churches and leaders, we will leave these kinds of meetings with more questions than answers, which is a good result, one that means our churches have the opportunity to be a twenty-first-century relational faith community. Then we can be committed to connecting with our immediate communities so that our congregations can truly be witnesses for Jesus Christ. Actually, we would not have enough room in any of our churches if we fully committed to this practice of evangelism and hospitality using zip code presence and diligently sought the answers to our questions.

Finally, once we ignite zip code evangelism and hospitality in our local churches, we have to go one step further to commit to and practice “extreme” hospitality. This type of hospitality is best defined by the following three statements: All people are welcome. All people are worthy. All people have a place. This type of extreme hospitality will make authentic and lasting places for those in our communities with whom we connect via the zip code evangelism tool. My hope is that we don’t spend much time debating evangelism vs. hospitality. Rather, I hope that we recognize and use these strategies as complementary tools and powerful connectors to the world around us, deciding to practice evangelism and hospitality on a new level — fresh, different, yet somehow familiar.

This article originally appeared at Ministry Matters in May 2015. 

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