Our church is launching a new hospitality initiative to better engage our guests on Sundays.
So I’ve been reading the book of Acts, paying attention to what this story of the early church teaches about being a community toward which people gravitate. My approach is simple: Anytime Luke says the church grew (which he does repeatedly), I read the story immediately beforehand to understand why.
For example, let’s take the first of those growth statements:
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:41)
This giant baptism party follows right on the heels of a sermon and the spiritual fireworks of Pentecost, when the believers were empowered to speak the languages of the foreigners gathered in Jerusalem for the holiday.
Let’s ask two questions of this story.
First, why did God first pour out his Spirit on the early church here in such a visible and undeniable way?
That’s easy. Proof. Acts tells us that Jesus himself spent most of his time between his resurrection and his ascension giving “many convincing proofs that he was alive” (1:3). When God does something brand new, like resurrection or church planting, it helps us to have proof that God is indeed part of it.
But let’s consider the second and more important question for our purposes. That is, of all the undeniable ways God could have chosen to give this proof, why does God choose the spiritual gift of language?
Recently, on a layover in Hong Kong, I lumbered down to the hotel restaurant to try and find bacon and eggs. After hours of travel and over a week abroad, bacon and eggs were basically all I could think about.
As I tried to explain to the cook what “scrambled” means, a guy behind me said, “Hey where you from?”
Hearing English in that foreign place, after days of translation and confusion, felt like coming home. I turned to the guy and said, “Memphis.”
He said, “Is that right? My momma lives in Memphis!”
I said, “Does she have a church home? And more importantly, do you know how to say scrambled in Chinese?”
We were two guys brought together for just one moment and yet we were instantly connected because he spoke my language in a place where so many didn’t. Language matters.
We connect with those who can connect with us. We feel at home with someone who understands us. Who gets us. Who speaks our language.
When you realize that, Pentecost makes so much more sense. God pours out his spirit on the early church in Jerusalem at a moment when there are thousands of foreigners there. Thousands of people who feel out of place. Thousands who just want someone they can connect with.
And so the first spiritual gift God gives the church is the gift of language. I think that was strategic (surprise, surprise!). Language was the tool they needed in that moment to connect with people who were starving for connection.
It seems to me that this is as true today as it was at Pentecost.
Every Sunday, we have people who come to our churches, looking for someone who speaks their language. I am using language a bit more broadly now, and I think people come to church for many reasons. But if you were to peel back the layers, most are there because the language the world is speaking is not making sense to them. They want someone who understands them, hears them, and can speak to them in ways that make sense. So many go through life unnoticed, overlooked or feeling out of place. They long for a place where they are noticed, seen, and feel at home. Where the language makes sense.
So, that means someone has to talk to them.
Church leaders, this is why hospitality ministries are so important. This is why greeters at the doors matter. This is why greeters passing out bulletins matter. Why ushers and Sunday School class teachers and those who brew the coffee matter. I know all that seems terribly programmatic and it can be a hassle to organize (trust me; I know).
But each Sunday we need people who are visibly attempting to speak the language of guests who come our way. To welcome them and make them feel at home. At your church, as you choose those to fill your hospitality ministry, look for those with the spiritual gift of conversation. It is a gift as old as Pentecost, and I’m sure there are some at your church who have it.
The great additional benefit of an organized hospitality ministry is that the visible presence of those greeters will remind the rest of your congregation to engage guests in conversation when they are nearby.
Ultimately Pentecost, and the great growth thereafter, proves we need the whole church working to speak the language of everyone who comes our way.
Eric and his wife Lindsey have been at Highland Church in Memphis since 2012. You are likely to find them walking the local Greenline with their sons Noble, Foster, and dachshund Tucker. Eric cares deeply about preaching and social justice. He has a BA in Biblical Text and a Master of Divinity from Abilene Christian University. Eric is a board member for HopeWorks, an organization that provides hope and job training to the chronically unemployed and formerly incarcerated in Memphis.