There are numerous references to hospitality in the word of God. We have the examples of Abraham receiving angels (Gen. 18) and the Shunammite couple building a special room for the prophet Elijah when he frequently traveled through their area (2 Kgs. 4). One of the qualifications of an elder is that he be given to "hospitality" (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8). Christians, in general, are told to "Be hospitable to one another without grumbling" (1 Pet. 4:9).
There is a sense in which a local church is to be hospitable. In fact, the Apostle Paul told the Romans to "Greet one another with a holy kiss. The churches of Christ greet you" (Rom. 16:16). Thus, how well we receive visitors involves being hospitable. It may begin in the parking lot when we see visitors getting out of their vehicles and making their way to the building. It may involve assisting them to their seat. Helping get visitors seated plays a much more important role than we may realize. If we are not careful we will act as though the pew where we sit has our names written on it. A number of times I have had traveling visitors who are members of the Lord's church ask me to tell them where to sit so that they do not take someone's seat. I always tell them to sit anywhere they they like—there are no reserved seats.
In reference to seating, we had an interesting, comical experience years ago. I was preaching in a gospel meeting in one of the local churches in the city where we lived. Jackie was teaching a Bible class at our home congregation on Sunday morning, so she didn't attend the first service of the meeting. She attended with me for all the other services of the meeting. At the Sunday evening service, three times she was told by certain members of that congregation that she was sitting in their seat. After being told that three times, she began to panic, not knowing where to sit. By this time, the building was filling up and she noticed that all the young people were sitting up front on the first few pews. She asked if she could sit with them, they welcomed her, and she sat with them the entire meeting. While this story is humorous, it also teaches some lessons.
Concerning "congregational hospitality," there are several factors to keep in mind. First impressions are more important than we may realize. If we give a bad first impression, visitors may never return again to worship with us. Here are several practical suggestions concerning being hospitable to visitors:
1. Smile and warmly greet them. A smile goes a long way towards a warm welcome. Make eye contact with them. Honor their children by also giving them a personal greeting. Showing honor and respect towards visitors involves such things as a firm handshake, expressing how glad we are to have them, and offering to help them in showing where their children's classes are located.
2. Most visitors like to sit in the back. If we do not need to sit in the very back, we might try to leave some space on these pews available to them. We might also invite them to sit with us. That will make them feel more comfortable and provide us an opportunity to introduce them to others.
3. Although someone is usually assigned this job, we might make sure they get a copy of the weekly bulletin handout. Also, we might hand them a visitor's card and ask that they fill it out, or get them a lesson book if they are in the Bible class.
4. After services, rather than staying with our regular "clique" of friends, make a concerted effort to talk to them before they leave, expressing appreciation for their presence and inviting them to return again.
May God bless each of as we extend warm hospitality to all our visitors. "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels" (Heb. 13:2).