Church begins in the parking lot

September 19, 2011

Bishop Will Willimon of the United Methodist Church has been loudly beating the bushes of his North Alabama Conference trying to figure out what makes churches grow and thrive. Based on a lot of conversations with pastors in his conference, he’s concluded that hospitality is a key factor. He writes:

“We want church to begin in our parking lot,” declared one of our dynamic pastors. “We’re vetting and training teams of friendly Greeters who meet visitors in the parking lot, welcome them, hand them off to the Hosts who stay close to them in the service, then invite them to lunch afterwards.”

The most notable change in church architecture in the past fifty years is the enlargement and the open atmosphere of the narthex, the hallway into a church’s worship space. A hundred years ago our churches received people in a dark, cramped entrance hall. Today churches build spacious, open, light, comfortable “Welcome Centers” as a sign that they desire and expect people who are not seasoned members.

Indeed, I have learned that the main difference between a congregation in decline and one with a future is the difference between practicing the faith for the exclusive benefit of “insiders” (the members of that congregation) or passionate concern for the “outsiders” (those who have yet to hear and to respond to the gospel).

Jesus Christ died for the whole wide world, not just for those inside the church. Therefore, a theological test for the fidelity of a church is hospitality. In our contesting of the Alabama Legislature’s ill conceived immigration law, and I’m rediscovering the radical nature of the seemingly benign Christian notion of hospitality. Our churches really resent any intrusion into their attempts to be obedient to Christ’s mandate to welcome others as we have been welcomed. An evangelical definition of a Christian: Christians are people who know how to welcome people even as Christ has welcomed us.

In the Vinebranch Chapel, we inherited one of those “dark, cramped entrance halls” that was built 75 years ago. We’ve made strides to make our little narthex more welcoming, adding furniture and pictures. We have a small team of dedicated and friendly greeters. I know we offer the best coffee in church. But the truth is that I haven’t given much of a thought to improving hospitality in Vinebranch. I haven’t tried to put myself in the shoes of a visitor. This article challenges me to stop neglecting this important aspect of church life.

What does it feel like to be a first-time visitor in Vinebranch? What obstacles prevent visitors from feeling welcome and comfortable? What do we need to do to improve this experience for newcomers?

Things that I do see (and hear) in Vinebranch—the Vinebranch band, the sound system, multimedia, the sermon, the bulletin, etc.—matter greatly to me. My problem is that I get complacent about things I don’t see.

As Jerry Maguire said, “Help me help you.” I’m open to suggestions. Friend me on Facebook and message me, email me at, or comment below.

2 Responses to “Church begins in the parking lot”

  1. Joseph Edmunds Says:

    A suggestion from me would be to have the front greeter stand outside the door to the chapel inviting people in, Instead of having them at the top of the stairs in the narthex waiting for people to enter and walk up the stairs before being greeted. The back greeter (by the stage) could be in the hallway inviting people into the chapel. Just a thought.

    To me having someone outside would be more inviting that waiting for someone to open “cold” front door to the chapel before saying hello.

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