Practicing Missional Hospitality in a Suburban Church
Discernment: Theology and the Practice of Ministry
Practicing Missional Hospitality in a Suburban Church
Recommended Citation Stewart, Kevin (2017) "Practicing Missional Hospitality in a Suburban Church," Discernment: Th eology and the Practice of Ministry: Vol. 3 : Iss. 2 , Article 2. Available at: https://digitalcommons.acu.edu/discernment/vol3/iss2/2
Part of the Biblical Studies Commons; Christianity Commons; and the Practical The ology
I believe that the West Houston Church of Christ1 is typical of many
churches in North America that have lost their ability to relate in
meaningful ways to the culture around them. Over a period of thirty years,
West Houston changed from a small, vibrant young church with a thriving
family-like atmosphere to a large church that had lost its family connections
and was struggling to find a new identity. Demographics changed, bringing
greater socio-economic, religious, and racial diversity into the
congregation. West Houston is not effectively assimilating these new
groups into its family. The challenge of forging a close-knit body of
believers in face of a changing and diverse cultural environment will
require a rethinking of both our theology and our praxis. Having served at
this congregation as its executive minister, I discuss in this article the
ingrained sense of family that has served as the identity of West Houston
and explore theological and practical ways in which a church can navigate
the uncharted waters of cultural change that we see all around us.2
1 Hereinafter referred to as West Houston.
2 This article condenses a project thesis I wrote at Abilene Christian University. Kevin Stewart,
“Cultivating the Practice of Missional Hospitality for Small Groups at West Houston Church of Christ” (DMin
thesis, Abilene Christian University, 2010). Available at https://digitalcommons.acu.edu/dmin_theses/14/.
Description of a Suburban Ministry Context
When I arrived in June of 2012 as West Houston’s new executive
minister, I spent four months interviewing over fifty leaders from within
the church. A recurring theme I heard was that West Houston had lost its
sense of community and no longer felt like family. Some of the phrases I
heard during the interviews included (1) “We are disconnected.” (2) “We
don’t know each other anymore.” (
) “We lost our community.” (
don’t do things as a family like we used to.” Members expressed a need to
recapture the family-like atmosphere of the past.
Beginning Life as a Family
Since the congregation’s beginning in 1982, the family metaphor has
featured prominently in the language of West Houston Church members.
Several young marrieds started West Houston and began meeting in Bear
Creek Elementary School. Bear Creek was located in the rapidly expanding
Copperfield subdivision in northwest Houston. West Houston grew from
just a few families to over two hundred in the first two years. The church
attracted many young and energetic families, most of whom were
educated, white, and high achievers. These families quickly bonded and
began “doing life” together as one extended family.
Early Practices of Family Life
Church picnics, work days, Easter egg hunts, fall festivals, and pot
luck fellowships formed the habitual lifeline events attended by the
majority of members. Every long-time member I spoke with talked about
the close family-like atmosphere that had been abundant in all their
gatherings. West Houston children loved to attend these events and
through them became very close to each other. Several members said that
they had raised their children together as one large family. Church activities
were important family rituals, but they also became the way West Houston
socialized new family members. Many times members told me that people
who visited West Houston joined the church because they were drawn in
by the loving family they had experienced.
Extending the Family
When I interviewed church members concerning past family
practices, they reflected nostalgically on the days when attractional events
such as VBS and church picnics were effective at reaching the lost for Christ.
Often they cited the story of a young couple who lived near the church and
were invited to one of the church picnics by neighbors. The couple was
living out of wedlock, but graciously no one ever mentioned this. Instead
the church showed them unconditional love, studied the Bible with them,
and converted them to Jesus. Once converted, they made the decision to get
married. This story has taken on mythic proportions in the church body and
is held up as a model for how the West Houston family is compelled by
love to reach others. West Houston viewed family as the way that all
aspects of a church’s mission are carried out, including reaching the lost.
West Houston members perceived that the church was very effective
in reaching into its community during its first seventeen years. Most of this
is based on the fact that West Houston grew numerically during that time.
Numerical growth was a constant from 1982 to 1999, growing from a few
families to over seven hundred in attendance. Although members believed
the numerical growth was a sign of effective outreach, most of the
numerical growth was due to members of the Churches of Christ who
moved into the Copperfield area. However, there were enough stories such
as the one above to keep the congregation satisfied that God was also using
West Houston to reach the lost.
Disrupting the Family-Like Atmosphere
Difficult parking and crowded services seemed like a sure sign that
God was calling West Houston to build a larger building so that it could
continue its growth trajectory. West Houston decided to build a new
building a few miles down the road on a piece of land that was surrounded
by future housing development projects. In 2005 West Houston moved into
a brand new thirteen million dollar facility with a worship center that could
seat one thousand. The church expected that they would resume growing
now that they were not limited by facility space. Instead, the church
plateaued and the family ties that had effectively held them together for so
long began to deteriorate.
Waning Family Gatherings
What changed? The move had unintended and unforeseen
consequences. Previously the church members were also the janitors, the
landscapers, the painters, and the repairmen. Work days and other projects
are fondly remembered as key ways the family grew close and spent time
together. Once West Houston arrived at its new location, it began hiring out
all of its landscaping and building maintenance. In addition, all the exterior
doors and thermostats were operated by computer so that it was
unnecessary to have humans involved in these processes. One other factor
is that the core group that organized church events became empty-nesters,
who travel often and feel less need for large family gatherings. There are
new young couples being attracted to West Houston, but many of them are
from different religious and sociological backgrounds and have not easily
assimilated into the church. As a result, the church has lost a vital body-life
practice. Losing key church-family practices has created anxiety among
long-time members and led to an identity crisis at West Houston.
The transient nature of urban life has led to a large turnover at West
Houston and adversely affected family-life practices. Many former core
members have moved away and new members moving in tend to be
Sunday morning only attendees, resulting in their not connecting with the
church as a whole. For long-time members, this means they know a smaller
percentage of those attending the church. This has naturally resulted in
disorientation. In addition, the new members at West Houston are much
more diverse. There is a growing African American and Latino population.
Previously, when the church was homogeneous, it was very easy to have a
strong sense of family. All twelve of the West Houston elders are white and
among twenty-two deacons, there is one Latino deacon and one African
American deacon. Attempts have been made to recruit African Americans
to become deacons or ministry leaders, but they have not been very
successful. A few of the church’s small groups are beginning to reflect the
diversity that we see in worship on Sunday mornings, but most of them are
exclusively white. Integration has been difficult, and diversity has eroded
the former familiar identity of the church.
Failure of Attractional Events
West Houston’s previous outreach efforts have primarily focused on
attractional events. Attractional models seek to organize big events that
draw large numbers of guests into the building or to a church activity with
the hope that these guests, once exposed to the church, will be enticed to
visit further. Some of attractional events that West Houston has utilized for
outreach are: (1) Vacation Bible School (VBS), (2) Celebrate Jesus (live
dramatic reenactment of the life of Jesus at Christmas), (
) Upward Sports,
) Fall Festival. These events have attracted a large number of
outsiders and thus have served as reasonably effective attractional tools.
While it is possible that some of the guests attending these events have
ended up becoming members at West Houston, I have been unable to find
evidence that supports it.3 Though these attractional events draw large
crowds, relationships are not being built with the attendees. Ramped up
attractional events are requiring increasing numbers of volunteer hours and
are burning out core members. These events are not creating the type of
authentic community needed to maintain West Houston’s family values or
to accomplish God’s mission of reaching the lost.
North American Cultural Context
As an attractional church in suburban Houston, West Houston must
change its practices to assimilate those whom God brings within its doors.
However, there is also a growing need to recognize that the church must
grow beyond attractional events if it is to truly reach the lost in the rapidly
changing North American culture. The Christian church is accustomed to
being at the center of American culture and to having people seek it out for
answers. However, North America has become pluralistic and the church
is no longer viewed as the primary social “chaplain to the culture.”4 In
addition, there are a growing number of Americans who no longer affiliate
with organized religion.5 All this indicates that North America is a growing
mission field and that an increasing number will not seek answers to their
life problems from the Christian community.6 Gallup polling also shows
that confidence in organized religion is at an all-time low.7 Thus the lost are
less likely to be attracted to the church.
West Houston’s model depends on the lost seeking out the church.
If West Houston is going to reach the lost from its surrounding community
in today’s context, it will need to reclaim a missional identity by going to
the lost and offering them community, which is a practice I identify as
missional hospitality. North America is a mission field and churches need
to recapture the practice of missional hospitality to actively seek out and
reconcile the lost to God.
Missional hospitality is also needed to maintain the cohesiveness of
the church body at West Houston. I have discussed how the sense of family
at West Houston has deteriorated and the body has lost relationality and
traditional family practices in light of the changing demographics of the
congregation. At West Houston new members join the church, but often fail
to connect with others in a relational way. Though new members are
attending Sunday morning services, they are not forming relationships in
which they can meaningfully share all aspects of life in community.
Authentic hospitality facilitates the opportunity to address the deeper
needs of humanity within a relational setting.8 New members and some
long-time members are not easily finding authentically hospitable
community at West Houston.
Small groups have been targeted as a key way to assimilate
newcomers into the family life of the church. However, West Houston
promotes its small groups by offering public invitations to join these
groups. Small groups cannot expect disconnected members to contact them,
but must reach out relationally with personal invitations to members who
are not in small groups. In my Doctor of Ministry thesis, I proposed
missional hospitality as a theological practice to help small groups at West
Houston extend authentic Christian community to all of its members.9
West Houston’s growing and diverse community is a very different
context from the homogenous environment that gave birth to this church
over thirty years ago. There is a need to rethink the church’s mission for the
present context.10 People today are seeking authentic community in which
they can form relational bonds.11 If missional communities are to offer
authentic community, they will have to develop the practice of missional
hospitality. Missional hospitality opens up small groups to relationship
with each other and extends that relationship to others outside of their own
8 Newman lists the following as distortions of hospitality: 1) sentimental hospitality, 2) privatized
hospitality, 3) hospitality as a mode of marketing, 4) hospitality as inclusivity, 5) homeless hospitality.
Sentimental hospitality is sort of a “good-old-boys” hospitality. Privatized hospitality focuses on “beautiful
homes, delicious dinners, and polite conversations.” Hospitality as a mode of marketing appeals to a
consumeristic mentality. Hospitality as inclusivity makes diversity “without expectations” to be the aim of
hospitality. Homeless hospitality fails “to reflect the home or place of Christian hospitality.” Elizabeth Newman,
Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 19-40.
9 Kenneth Stewart, “Cultivating the Practice of Missional Theology.”
10 Patrick Keifert, We Are Here Now: A New Missional Era (St. Paul: Church Innovations, 2006), 22.
11 Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
Culture, Context, and Change
West Houston needs to experience a cultural transformation if it is
to effectively develop the practice of missional hospitality. There is a big
difference between cultural and technical change. Technical change leads
to new forms and systems. Cultural change seeks to transform values and
attitudes. Small groups are making technical changes. The adult
discipleship minister renamed them “missional communities.” He enrolled
almost all of the small group leaders in a half-day training to emphasize the
role of missional communities in West Houston’s new vision. However, it
will take more than a new name and a new organizational plan for lasting
changes to occur. If West Houston is to be successful in implementing the
practice of missional hospitality, it will need to adopt new values and
practices.12 Small groups will need to be less focused on themselves and
develop a passion to reach out relationally to others. This will require a
cultural transformation. I believe that West Houston can be transformed
through fresh theological reflection on God’s missional nature, combined
with actual practice of missional hospitality.
A Theology of Missional Hospitality
Missional hospitality is a fundamental practice of the triune God. In
fact, hospitality is experienced among the Trinity as they accept, honor, and
relate one to another. Thus missional hospitality initiates in the life of the
Trinity and is an extension of the divine life to the world through the
believing community. Hospitality welcomes others into divine community
in a way that addresses deep human needs such as “physical, social, and
spiritual dimensions of human existence and relationships.”13 The use of
the word “missional” in relation to hospitality is an attempt to rethink the
practice of hospitality in light of its missional character.14 The Trinity seeks
to reconcile and embrace all of humanity through the practice of missional
hospitality. God forms Christian community and extends this community
to others through missional hospitality. Likewise, the church must be
deeply engaged in the practice of missional hospitality within its own body
and in the surrounding community in order to facilitate reconciliation.
12 Keifert, We Are Here Now, 39.
13 Pohl, Making Room, 6.
14 While there has been much written concerning missional theology and hospitality individually,
there is a need to more fully reflect on hospitality as a fundamental dimension of the missional Trinity. Studying
hospitality on its own merit is valuable, but grounding it in the missionary character of the Trinity deepens and
broadens one’s perspective of hospitality and potentially shapes the life of those seeking to reflect God to the
Missional hospitality is a necessary practice to reconcile the lost with God
and to maintain relational cohesiveness in the church body.
Jesus’ “reception of hostile humanity” into Trinitarian community is
a model for how Christian community should embrace others through
hospitality.15 The purpose of missional hospitality moves beyond the
indoctrination of a Christian belief system in others. God practices
missional hospitality to forge relational community with humanity. The
relationality of God will be at the center of all efforts to practice missional
hospitality because this practice is part of God’s identity. God’s life within
his people through the Holy Spirit similarly propels them into community
to offer relationship with others through the practice of hospitality.
Christians must be willing to open up their lives to each other and
the strangers around them. Christian love does not keep others at arm’s
length; it welcomes them into the family life of the faith community.
Christian communities should not expect that others will be interested in
the gospel outside of a loving and relational connection. I am proposing
missional hospitality as a way for a church to reimagine and reenergize
relational-building activities in order to more fully participate in God’s
work of building and extending Christian community.
Hospitality Happens in Community
Hospitality cannot be offered authentically at arms’ length, but
instead invites the “other” into community where these significant needs
can be met. Hospitality can be thought of as a “bridge that connects our
theology with daily life and concerns.”16 Jesus models missional hospitality
by extending his ministry beyond teaching in the synagogue to walking in
the streets and spending time in people’s homes. Conversation, acceptance,
personal challenge, the meeting of physical needs, and the bestowal of
selfworth characterize the missional hospitality of Jesus.
The relationality of the Trinity is understood fully only in terms of
community because there are three divine persons that form the triune God
(John 10:38).17 Yet modernity’s emphasis on individualism encourages
people to think of their salvation as an individual event. Such a notion
might lead people to believe they can live out their salvation in isolation
from others. Christianity, though, cannot be isolated to individual salvation
and personal experience because this is inconsistent with the nature of the
Trinity. Church, reflecting the nature of God, should be understood in
terms of community. Thus salvation brings one into divinely established
community, where relationality is experienced. Salvation offered in
Christianity cannot be separated out from the kingdom community or from
the divine practice of hospitality that holds the community together.
Transformation – Community requires a “staying power” to effect
transformation in people’s lives. Transformative relationships are formed
as individuals interrelate over a long period of time with each other within
a group setting. These new social relations are not just an “implication” of
salvation but are “precisely that which is offered as salvation.”18 Therefore,
salvation and its benefits are fully experienced only within the newly found
relations within a community that reflects Trinitarian relationality. Heuertz
and Pohl confirm this finding, reporting that to build the type of
relationship that will be transformative in the lives of the poor requires
living in community with them for years.19 “New patterns of kinship and
social relation” are not found in individual relations, but are formed and
reinforced in the context of a committed community.20
Small Groups – Community is where one finds the fullest
expression of God’s kingdom. Large churches have difficulty in creating the
relationality necessary to constitute authentic community. Authentic
community demands settings in which people can share life together, but
this does not easily happen during a formal worship in a large building.
Even classroom settings do not foster the type of openness and sharing that
typifies close community. When church communities extend beyond
formal buildings into households, they create the type of hospitality and
personal interaction that is necessary to create communal relationships that
“transcend social differences.”21 The goal of missional hospitality is to foster
kingdom communities in small group settings.
Creates Solidarity – Solidarity is the way that missional hospitality
accomplishes its goal of creating authentic relational community. Solidarity
involves a sharing of life, suffering, and death with others. God takes on
flesh and suffers with humanity to show his solidarity with creation (Phil.
2:6-8; Heb. 2:18; 4:14-15). The church seeks solidarity with its self and others
by sharing in the sufferings of Christ (Phil. 3:10). God’s Spirit is at work in
this process by bringing together a new group of people, who share each
other’s suffering in solidarity.22 Paul says it thus, “rejoice with those who
rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15).
Everyday Life – Everyday life is where people struggle to keep their
marriage together, raise their children, keep their jobs, overcome prejudice,
dispel doubt, and face countless other challenges. Thus missional
hospitality cannot be confined to church buildings or homes, but must seek
solidarity in the traffic patterns of everyday life. Solidarity is found when
people eat together, work together, play together, are sad together, and
learn together. Solidarity happens when life, in its rich and challenging
diversity, is shared in community. Solidarity gives the depth necessary to
authenticate relational connections within community. Conversely,
without solidarity one cannot experience authentic community.
Self-Giving – Solidarity cannot be structured as much as it is sought
by giving ourselves to others for the purpose of receiving them into “divine
communion.”23 Solidarity is not easily accomplished programmatically, but
occurs when people make room for relationships in their personal lives.
Church programs, if they are to be helpful, must focus on the need for
members to be transformed into the type of “social agents” or “selves” that
Christians need to be in order to offer solidarity and community to
another.24 Heuertz and Pohl report that “people are transformed when
someone is willing to listen to their stories, to share a meal with them, and
to find their insights and concerns important or interesting.”25
Modern culture poses a challenge to the authentic giving of one’s self
that leads to solidarity with another. Modernity’s emphasis on the
individual tends to breed a self-centered pursuit of happiness and
selfabsorption, by definition, leaves little room for others.26 Christians are not
to “claim the comfort of the Crucified while rejecting his way” of giving
oneself to others.27 Such a way of life advocates “not only cheap grace, but
a deceitful ideology.”28 Instead, God gives up God’s own self on the cross
in order to make room for solidarity with others. Through baptism,
Christians experience a dying of the self so that they can be “de-centered”
away from self and “re-centered” on Christ (Rom. 6:1-7).29 Dying to self
22 Michael Welker, God the Spirit, trans. John Hoffmeyer (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1994), 57.
23 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 23.
24 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 20-21.
25 Heuertz and Pohl, Friendship at the Margins, 80.
26 Welker talks about how the pursuit of individualism leads to self-focus and a fleeting attempt to
find meaning within one’s self. This sort of narcissistic approach is contrasted with the self-emptying approach
of the cross. Welker, God the Spirit, 35-37.
27 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 24.
28 Ibid., 24.
29 Ibid., 70.
creates the room necessary in one’s life to seek solidarity with others. God
modeled this “other-centered” life by giving up God’s own self to seek
solidarity with humanity (Phil. 2:5-8); Christians are likewise transformed
into social agents that practice self-giving through missional hospitality to
forge authentic Christian community through solidarity with others.
Meals – Meals are often the location where the values of missional
hospitality can be seen and solidarity can be experienced. Jesus’
characterization of the kingdom in the parable of the great banquet in Luke
14 is appropriately centered on a meal. Meals provide the opportunity for
dialogue between hosts, guests, and strangers, which is a critical practice of
missional hospitality. Meals also bring people together in a place where
kingdom values can be experienced and lived out. This is why Jesus spent
much of his missional ministry eating meals in the homes of others. At its
inception, the church adopted Jesus’ practice of communal meals (Acts
2:4247). Communal meals offer the opportunity for Christians to subvert the
worldly distinctions of class and race (Gal. 3:26-28). When Christians eat
together in unity, without the cloak of worldly status, one sees a present
foretaste of the kingdom of God that Jesus describes in Luke 14.30
Meals are an excellent way to provide the setting needed for
missional hospitality to occur. Modern factors such as technology and
suburban living make it much easier to live without the type of relationality
necessary to build authentic community.31 People have become too spread
out geographically and—through the use of technology—are able to
navigate much of their life without the necessity of building deep
relationships. The practice of missional hospitality, however, cannot
happen over “long distance;” instead it requires a place to “dwell in order
to participate faithfully” in relationship.32 Large church gatherings bring
people together, but often lack the informal and relaxed environment
needed for a small group of people to experience authentic relationship.
Meals provide the context necessary for the building of a relational
community centered on kingdom values. In Pohl’s research on the practice
of hospitality, she reports that a “close look at contemporary communities
and at their ancient counterparts reveals important commonalities. The
practice of hospitality almost always includes eating meals together.”33
My own practice of missional hospitality has also confirmed the
important role meals play in breaking down social barriers. Over two years
30 Pohl, Making Room, 30.
31 Newman, Untamed Hospitality, 34.
32 Ibid., 33.
33 Pohl, Making Room, 12.
ago I formed a small group diverse in age, social class, and race that meets
together regularly for a meal and to share God’s word. The group is
primarily made up of minorities: 50% Latino, 30% African American, and
20% Caucasian. All in my group believe that the meals are a central catalyst
to our closeness. All the members in this group were strangers to each other
and only recently began attending West Houston. Our meetings typically
lasted three hours and were characterized by a growing sense of
community. Often group members would talk about how the small group
was their “family.” The relationships we were building together
transcended the social and racial diversity of the group. At one point the
group voted to cease meals and focus only on sharing the word. Meetings
became shorter and before long the closeness that had been developing in
the group began to wane. The group finally returned to its practice of
sharing meals together at each meeting in order to regain that closeness.
Meals facilitate the type of interaction that is needed to build an inclusive
community that challenges worldly values.
Hospitality and Identity
Missional hospitality is an ongoing initiative of the church that
builds authentic communal relationships through standing in solidarity
with each other and with the surrounding community. The community that
is built through the practice of missional hospitality includes strangers and
disrupts unjust societal norms, while reflecting kingdom values. The
practice of missional hospitality is central to the identity of the church and
is critical to maintaining a vibrant faith community.
Practicing Missional Hospitality
In an attempt to foster the practice of missional community at West
Houston, a planning group was formed and met for nine weeks in the fall
of 2014. Cultural change happens in authentic relational settings, which
include dialogue, theological reflection, and a challenge to learn new ways
of living.34 Thus the group studied the theological concept of missional
hospitality, engaged in earnest dialogue, and practiced missional
hospitality through various practical assignments. Assignments to practice
missional hospitality contributed to the group’s appreciation for missional
hospitality. When asked, group members agreed that the process was
personally transformative. This culminated in a plan by the group to
cultivate the practice of missional hospitality at West Houston with an
emphasis on small groups.
Missional Hospitality for an Attractional Church
The planning group valued the concept of missional living, but also
found worth in the benefits of a large church like West Houston. The group
wanted to find ways to apply missional hospitality to an attractional
church. One of those applications involved reaching the unchurched people
God brings on a weekly basis. The team felt strongly that West Houston has
a responsibility to extend missional hospitality to all within its four walls.
The planning team noticed that it seemed easier to assimilate new
members into groups where new members were the majority than to
integrate them into older groups. This fact is evidenced within three of the
four missional communities represented in the planning team. The leaders
of these three small groups impressed on the planning team that many
unchurched people attend West Houston each Sunday, but few small
groups are connecting with them. For example, my missional community
is made up almost completely of people attending West Houston less than
one year. Several of my small group members have not become members
of West Houston yet. I have met and recruited most of our small group
members within the church walls. However, most missional communities
(small groups) are not oriented toward assimilating newcomers.
New members are not connecting to existing small groups within
West Houston, but they tend to be receptive to forming new relationships.
Thus the team proposed forming new missional communities out of new
members and providing these groups with a strong leader or shepherd
from the existing membership. This duplicates what has worked well with
the three groups on the planning team. These three missional communities
have strong leaders that formed a nucleus to which the new members were
attracted. The team exhibited more excitement over this idea than any other
idea presented. While the planning team still hopes to mold the existing
small group culture into a more missional form, it also realizes that creating
new groups alongside the old groups is an effective way to begin impacting
the overall culture of the church. The consensus was that missional
hospitality should inform the way we interact with guests within our
worship center and the way we bring new members into the church body.
Action Plan The plan devised by the group suggested focusing on the following four distinct areas. First, missional community leaders would be trained in
the theological practice of missional hospitality. Missional communities
revolve around their leaders at West Houston; training these leaders is
crucial to groups adopting the practice of missional hospitality. This was to
be accomplished through already existing biannual trainings and enhanced
with biweekly trainings that would be offered on a volunteer basis to
missional community leaders. These trainings would model missional
hospitality and include the same type of learning and assigned practices
that had been experienced by the planning group. Second, new members
would be inculcated into the practice of missional hospitality as a part of
their initiation into membership. At that time, prospective members
attended a two-hour class that involved a meal, but the session was
primarily designed to disseminate information and obtain a membership
commitment. In the future, those desiring to place membership would
attend an eight-week course called “discovery group,” in which missional
hospitality would be modeled in the context of a meal. The intent was to
form a new missional community out of the prospective members. A
previously trained group leader along with a few core members would
provide leadership for the newly formed missional community. This goal
intended to remediate the existing situation in which new members are not
being assimilated by existing missional communities. The third part of the
plan was to conduct a congregation-wide focus on missional hospitality
through a simultaneous sermon and Sunday school class series. These
lessons were to be coupled with a challenge to the church to form teams
within their missional communities to practice missional hospitality by
inviting their neighbors to a meal. The planning group was keenly aware
that a cultural change would have to be enacted for the practice of missional
hospitality to become a regular praxis of small groups. The group expressed
hope that the different parts of this plan would work together to begin the
process of conversation and practice necessary for cultural change.
After this action plan had been developed and implemented, the
ministry staff at West Houston added an additional element to keep the
practice of missional hospitality before the congregation. Ministers
purchased a large casserole dish with the words “Say Yes to the Dish”
engraved on it. Each minister invited an elder couple into their home and a
guest that was either: 1) a new member, 2) an unchurched friend, or 3)
someone visiting the church. The elder couple committed to continuing the
practice by inviting a church couple and guest to dinner and then handing
off the dish to the invited church couple to continue the practice. A journal
was provided to record the guests and describe the experience of the
evening. The front cover of the journal describes the process so it can be
repeated. Recently, all of the elders came before the congregation, handed
off their casserole dish to another couple, and invited the congregation to
join in this practice by purchasing their own casserole dish.
Small Group Response – Leader training was optional in our plan
because culture change cannot be forced. The idea was to train a small
group of committed missional community leaders who would then lead
their group to plant a new missional community within one to two years;
missional hospitality was to be a key component of the training. The hope
was that the number of groups that are committed to missional hospitality
would grow exponentially from small beginnings. It was assumed that the
beginnings would be small due to the high level of commitment required
from leaders to participate in the training. This process has proved slower
than we imagined. There were only four out of thirty groups that
participated in the volunteer trainings. Only three of those groups are still
following the missional hospitality program. It will require leadership and
staying power if these groups are to continue on this path and give birth to
groups that also practice missional hospitality.
Efforts were made to encourage all groups to practice missional
hospitality. Moving a congregation and specifically small groups from a
practice that consisted of Bible study and fellowship crammed into a one
hour time frame to a more robust practice of eating together, sharing life
with each other, and inviting in strangers has proved more difficult that we
imagined. As a part of this process we invited in the training group Mission
Alive to partner with us in teaching our leaders the concept of living in a
missional community. The concept of missional hospitality was expanded
to involve sharing life together on a weekly and daily basis. This concept
would require members of a missional community to live in close proximity
to each other and engage in regular life activities together. This view of
missional community was not well received by our members, who live in a
large metroplex that is characterized by a fast-pace of life, long commute
times, and diverse family activities that are community driven rather than
church driven. Only a few of our groups have truly gravitated to the
practice of living together missionally. We are still facing an uphill battle to
encourage our groups to practice missional hospitality. We have learned
that we can foster the practice of missional hospitality, but we will have to
do it within the confines of a suburban North American culture. Also,
changing an attractional, suburban culture into a culture of mission and
hospitality is challenging and requires staying power.
New Member Recruitment – One of the planning group members
agreed to teach the first “discovery group” and attempt to form a small
group out of it. This was successful and gave us hope that this practice
could be used to effectively assimilate new members through the practice
of missional hospitality. However, we ran into difficulties with subsequent
new member classes. The main obstacle was that we lacked a leader from
the congregation to form a new small group out of the new members who
were joining. We believe that if we had a pipeline that was producing small
group leaders it would be possible to form new groups out of the new
members. Though we have talented members, we have been unable to
recruit them to start new groups. There is a need to stir up a desire among
our people to launch new groups that will primarily be vehicles to
assimilating new members. Understandably, most of our members prefer
to stay in the safety of their present groups.
Congregational Response – Responding to the sermon series, a
significant number of members and small groups initiated a meal based on
the concept of missional hospitality. A significant number of our members
posted details of their missional hospitality on our Facebook page.
However, it is unlikely that this has become a regular practice. Also, while
there has been a favorable response to the “Say Yes to the Dish” initiative,
the congregation as a whole is not participating in the program. The
participation has been limited to those who have received the original ten
dishes from the ministers and an additional ten members, who purchased
their own dishes to initiate this practice. Our hope is that overtime the
practice will extend to others.
What Have We Learned?
I asked the planning group to plan a meal in their respective
missional community that would include inviting someone who is
unchurched. I asked them to choose a date and plan a formal event within
their missional community to fulfil this assignment. Interestingly, only my
missional community fulfilled the assignment as I envisioned it. My small
group planned a meal at my house to which we invited several people we
had met outside of the West Houston setting. However, others in the
planning group found less programmatic ways of fulfilling the assignment.
None of them set a date ahead of time and worked their way toward it.
Natural Traffic Patterns – I learned that missional hospitality occurs
in the natural traffic patterns of our lives and is the result of an adopted
lifestyle. This practice cannot be easily assured through education and
programming. An example of this is one of the team members who invited
a former unchurched neighbor to play at Topgolf with the men from his
missional community; they had drinks together and were able to get to
know each other. The neighbor talked about how his children are attending
a Christian school and learning about God. Another group member invited
a coworker, who was struggling to believe in God, to lunch. He and his
coworker agreed to meet more regularly to discuss theological matters. A
third member met his neighbor, who is Nigerian, and invited him and his
family to a barbecue at his house. He also invited the man’s children to
swim in his pool. In all three cases the extension of hospitality was a
spontaneous opportunity seized upon by the group members, not a formal
invitation to a missional community meeting. All agreed that their practice
of missional hospitality was spurred by participation in the planning team
sessions. However, the practice evidenced itself in the natural traffic
patterns of their life, not as a preplanned event. Missional hospitality
happens in the natural traffic patterns of our lives and in God’s timing as
we open our eyes to people around us. At best, programs may spur us to
be more aware of God’s work in others’ lives.
Influencing Culture – Cultural transformation will need to occur if
missional hospitality is to become a regular practice at West Houston, yet
cultural transformation is a difficult goal to accomplish. It is dangerous to
assume that a “top-down” program will change the existing culture of West
Houston. In fact, it could cause more harm than good. Projects to effect
organizational change often fail due to the lack of “sufficient knowledge of
the nature or importance of organizational culture.”35 The cultural construct
at West Houston is based on thirty years of interpretive stories and
practices. It is naïve to think that the entire culture can be easily changed.36
I do not believe the culture of a church can be completely changed, but the
goal should be to influence the culture by building on past strengths that
are compatible with the new direction of missional hospitality.37 It is
important that the task of cultivating missional hospitality at West Houston
be accompanied by an informed view of the culture at West Houston. This
means that the church needs to build on the strengths it has exemplified
through use of its family metaphor language to create new family
groupings or extend existing family groupings through the practice of
missional hospitality in small groups.
Influencing culture is challenging because much of it is hidden at a
subconscious level. Culture is reinforced through storytelling and practice.
“In other words, as humans, we actively participate in creating and
recreating the determinative power” of our culture through our
communications and actions with each other.38 This means that both
teaching and engaging in dialogue with small-group leaders, small-group
members, and the congregation can provide a platform for influencing the
culture at West Houston. New conversations and practices over a long
period of time can lead to new stories and a degree of cultural
transformation. This is a laudable and achievable goal, but it must be
carried out in an informed and incremental fashion to be successful.
It is likely that more work needs to be done to explore the difference
between the church’s historically attractional ethos and the newly desired
focus on missional hospitality. The truth is that missional hospitality is
rooted in a heart transformed by the missional love of God. Thus cultural
change at any church will require prayerful reliance on God’s help. The
hope is that raising awareness of the theological concept of missional
hospitality will create a dialogue concerning the practice, and encourage
people to actually delve into the practice. It is my prayer that God will work
through this process to engender the practice of missional hospitality at
West Houston and in churches across North America.
Kevin Stewart served as the executive minister at the West Houston
Church of Christ from 2012 to 2016. Presently, he is the chief business
development officer at NextThought, a software development company in
Norman, Oklahoma. He holds a DMin from Abilene Christian University. Kevin
has been in full time ministry for over twenty-nine years, serving in the roles of
senior minister, education minister, singles minister and campus minister. Kevin
is passionate about congregational leadership, community outreach, and
evangelism. Kevin has served as the President of the Muskogee Ministerial
Alliance (2005-2007), the President of Muskogee Rotary (2006-2007), and the
President of Monarch, a drug and alcohol rehab center for women (2009-2012).
In 2005 Kevin led an Oklahoma alliance of federal and faith based organizations
that helped house Hurricane Katrina refugees. He received awards from Governor
Brad Henry, USDA Rural Development, and FASTEN (Faith and Service
Technical Education) for this effort. He and his wife Monica have three adult
children: Ethan, Allyson and Ashley.
3 I interviewed the staff, looked at the data on new members, and talked to the elders and other key members in the spring of 2015, but I was unable to identify a single member that had come to West Houston through these attractional events in the last eight years. In addition, I could not find evidence of any friendships that had been started with community attendees to these events.
4 Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church : A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998 ), 78 .
5 Putnam's research indicates that 17% of the United States' population chose “none” when asked for their religious affiliation. This is now the third largest category after Evangelical Protestant and Catholic . See Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010 ), 17 .
6 Reggie McNeal, Missional Communities: The Rise of the Post-Congregational Church (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2011 ), 16 .
7 Lydia Saad , US Confidence in Organized Religion at Low Point (Princeton: Gallup, 2012 ), http://www.gallup.com/poll/155690/ Confidence-Organized-Religion- Low-Point.aspx.
15 Miroslav Volf , Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996 ), 100 .
16 Pohl, Making Room, 8 .
17 Ibid., 128 .
19 Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl , Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (Downers Grove , IL: InterVarsity, 2010 ), 28 .
20 Bryan Stone , Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos , 2007 ), 78 .
21 Pohl, Making Room, 56 .
34 Patrick Keifert , “ The Return of the Congregation to Theological Conversation ,” pp. 13 - 26 in Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations, ed . Patrick Keifert (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans , 2009 ), 21 .
35 Gerald W. Driskill and Angela Laird Brenton, Organizational Culture in Action: A Cultural Analysis Workbook , 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: Sage, 2011 ), 16 .
36 While some researchers believe information from culture can be used pragmatically to change culture, others question whether culture can be changed at all . Driskill and Brenton , Organizational Culture, 17 .
37 Branson talks about how building on positive themes from a congregation's past through dialogue is critical to moving a church forward into a positive vision of the future . Mark Lau Branson , Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change (Herndon , VA: Alban Institute, 2004 ), 77 - 112 .