Episode 61: “The Art of Hospitality” featuring Debi Nixon

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 61: “The Art of Hospitality” featuring Debi Nixon

How can your church welcome visitors in a way that delights them and lets them know they matter? In this episode we speak with Debi Nixon of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection about the essential Christian practice of hospitality.

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How can your church welcome visitors in a way that delights them and lets them know they matter? In this episode we speak with Debi Nixon of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection about the essential Christian practice of hospitality.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and host of this episode of Leading Ideas Talks Podcast. I’m pleased to be talking today with Debi Nixon who is a senior staff member at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. Debi is co-author with Yvonne Gentile of a new book The Art of Hospitality and that’s the subject for our talk today. So thanks for being with us, Debi.

Debi Nixon: Thank you so much for the invitation to be here and I just want to thank you and all of those at the Lewis Center for all that you do to equip us as leaders in the local church.

Ann Michel: Well, thank you for that. Hospitality is such an important subject. So I thought a good way to get our listeners into this subject would be to ask you for your definition of hospitality as it applies to the work of a local congregation.

Debi Nixon: One of the reasons that I am passionate about hospitality is because I have learned how transformative it is in people’s lives. Because when we experience something that goes beyond what we expected, it makes us more interested to dive in deeper, to learn more, to get closer. And so when I think about a definition of radical hospitality, one of the things that I always tell people is that I believe that radical hospitality is hospitality that delights people, that surprises them, they feel noticed. Because they’re experiencing something that they hadn’t anticipated. And because of that, then for those in a ministry, it allows us to have a greater opportunity then for them to get to know the love of Jesus Christ and for us to share the gospel with them.

Ann Michel: It’s interesting, I think, and you point this out in the book, that hospitality of course is a concern for all kinds of organizations, not just the church. There are corporations that appreciate that good hospitality is part of good customer relations. There is a hospitality industry in our country. And there’s a lot that we can learn from how for-profit organizations do hospitality. But what I wanted to ask you is, how do you see Christian hospitality as different from hospitality in other kinds of settings?

Debi Nixon: Well, first I think the principles are very similar. Because again, what we’re trying to do is be ambassadors. And so as ambassadors we’re trying to share information about whatever our particular service is, or our product, and what it is that we have to offer others. What it is that we have to offer in the church is we have Jesus Christ to offer. And so that’s where I see a difference — that we’re offering to people the good news of the love of Christ. Also this transforming relationship that changes lives. So that gives us purpose in life, that changes our relationship, that provides hope, that provides a bridge for us as we began to build these relationships with others and our communities, it builds relationships. And that good news is the difference that I see and what it is that we have to offer. And so when we don’t do hospitality well, those are the barriers that we create — that others then maybe don’t want to take that next step in faith. And so the consequences for us, if people choose to not take that next step in faith, are very high.

Ann Michel: Yeah. I think if you put it in the negative and think that if we are inhospitable we are creating barriers between others and God and Jesus Christ, I think that puts it a little bit more starkly, or to the point. In my own reflections on Christian hospitality, I’ve thought a lot about all the stories in the Bible where God comes to us in the form of a stranger. And you mentioned this in your book, Abraham and Sarah entertaining the strangers that are God. Or Jesus being known to the disciples on the road to Emmaus coming in the form of a stranger. Or something that you make reference to in your book, Matthew 25, about Jesus’s presence in the people that we are serving. I think when we are hospitable to strangers, it’s a revelation of God to us, as well. And I love being able to think about that. “Angels unbeknownst” is a powerful, powerful idea to me.

Debi Nixon: That’s why I love that passage in Hebrew so much, Ann, where it says “let your love continue and don’t neglect hospitality because by doing so some of us have been caught unaware that we have known angels without knowing that.” And I think the other thing about our hospitality is that for me, I’ve learned that it becomes an expression of the love that I have for Christ. And so on the days that maybe I’m not feeling quite as hospitable, it’s a good indicator for me that maybe my heart’s not in tune, as well. And my humanness creates those kind of barriers. But the more I learn to love strangers, I find that my faith and my love for Christ just deepens in the process with that.

Ann Michel. Yeah. So one of your starting points is you describe the difference between a congregation that’s inwardly focused and one that’s outwardly focused, with an outward focus being the essential foundation of being a hospitable church. And I think that you would agree that adopting an outward focus, it’s easier for us to talk about that than to actually do it. Because there are a lot of congregations who think they’re friendly and welcoming. They say they’re friendly and welcoming. It may even be part of their stated mission. But their practices and their attitudes don’t always really reflect that. And sometimes they’re not even aware of the ways in which they’re not living up to their ideals in this area. So I wondered if you had some examples or suggestions for how a church can transition from an inward focus to an outward focus in a way that isn’t just giving lip service to it, but really changes the ethos of the congregation.

Debi Nixon: When I think about changing from a inwardly focused to an outwardly focused church, we must recognize that this is culture change for us and that we can talk about hospitality when it comes to methods. And so our book goes through and we talk about methods for follow up. We talk about methods for training greeters and ushers. And you can sit down and list all of the methods of ways that we can extend hospitality. But in order for it to become part of the culture of the church, where we truly know that we have turned ourselves from being inward to an outward focus, that requires a transformation of all of our own hearts. And I talk in the book, I just even recognizing my own self, my own human tendencies to want to be in the places where I’m most comfortable. So I share that I have a tendency, even as an extrovert, that I want to talk with those that I’m most comfortable with. I’m drawn to that. I find myself in my behavior going towards that. And so it takes real intentionality for me to recognize when I’m going into a place I’m serving or even just in any place that I’m present, what might God be calling me to do? Who should I be looking out for? And then extend just that first word of welcome or curiosity to get to see who’s in the room that maybe no one else has noticed. And so I use the question that helps me know whether or not I’m being outwardly or inwardly focused. And the question that I have to ask myself often is “Am I willing to be uncomfortable today so that someone else would be more comfortable?”

Ann Michel: Yeah. And I think you know the concept of radical hospitality, I think there is a self-sacrificing aspect to it that goes back to the question of what makes hospitality Christian. I think that’s part of it. And I also really appreciate that you are talking about the attitude in the heart that’s behind the actions. It’s so important for us to focus on best practices. And your book is full of best practices. But if those best practices aren’t inspired by a true desire to be open to others, I think it can come across as very mechanistic. So thank you. Thank you for sharing that. I used to work as the outreach director at my church years ago. And a good bit of our work at the Lewis Center relates to helping churches reach new people, as well. So I think I’ve heard almost all of the excuses for why churches are reluctant to engage their visitors more proactively, as I’m sure that you have as well. So I thought what I might do is run a list of those excuses by you and see how you might respond to them. So here’s the first one. “It seems like most of our visitors just want to be left alone. They sit right near the door. They stay to themselves. They’re out the door two seconds after the service. Shouldn’t we just respect their privacy?”

Debi Nixon: You know you will have some people that do want to come in and they don’t want to be bombarded. So we talk about this principle and this idea of not being overly friendly. But yet we believe that each person wants to be noticed. And so what are those “touches of notice” that they know that they’ve been seen. And part of respecting and giving them that space is letting them know that they’ve been seen. So that can be great eye contact. It can be a simple word of just looking at them and saying, “Hi my name’s Debi. I’m so glad you’re here today.” And then you can continue on because their body language will give you a que as to whether or not they want you to approach them for more conversation. But we still think it’s important then there’s follow up after. And so that’s why we’re really intentional about trying to determine and find out what their name is. So that as they leave, really quickly afterwards, we have an ability to surprise them. That’s where the surprise element comes in. And they get a text or they get a coffee mug on their front door that says “we’re so glad that you’re at worship today. I don’t want to come in. I don’t want to take your time. We just want to let you know how honored we were that you were here. And if you don’t have a church family we hope you’ll come back and visit us again.”

Ann Michel: So it’s non-threatening in the way that you’re acknowledging them.

Debi Nixon: I was going to say, I think it also takes being able to read people. And so some churches will really inundate people with their friendliness. It becomes overwhelming and that can be off putting also. So it’s knowing that quick friendly touch again and paying attention to the verbal body cues of your guests to see how much they want you to engage with them.

Ann Michel: OK. So here’s the next one. “So, I’m afraid to welcome visitors because I’m never sure who is a visitor. The last time I greeted someone I thought was new by saying ‘I’m so glad you worship with us today,’ they told me that they’d been a member for 20 years and it was so embarrassing.”

Debi Nixon: Yes, my son had that happened at our church. He was back and now is a grown person and walked into our church several years ago. And someone came up to him and said “It must be your first Sunday here. And so glad you’re here.” And he just grinned and wanted to say, “Actually, do you know my mom?” But he let it go and mentioned it to me later. But for him, that was off putting. So it even happens at Church of the Resurrection where we don’t always get it right. But when we hear those stories, and then we hear the way it made the person feel, we realize again how important it is for us to remember, what are some better ways that we can do that? And so we ask and train our volunteers to the very best of our ability that when they see someone, and they may not remember, they may think they know them, but they’re not certain if they’d been there before. They just simply say “Hey, my name’s Debi. I don’t know if we’ve met yet or not.” Or, “Hi my name’s Debi. I’m glad you’re here today.” That’s my typical go-to response. You probably heard me mention that in the first example. So you can see that that’s my pattern to say it that way, because that doesn’t really indicate whether I know if you’ve been here before or not. I’m just reintroducing myself and my name to you.

Ann Michel: Yeah. I think that’s very helpful not to make assumptions about people but just to begin by introducing yourself. Because that way, it’s about you. That’s what I teach as well. So here’s our next excuse. “We’re such a small church. Of course the Church of the Resurrection can do all those things. But we just don’t have the same resources.”

Debi Nixon: When they think about what resources we have when it comes to our hospitality resources, the resources that we have for hospitality are talent resources and the resources of each one of us who calls Church of the Resurrection our church home. And so whether it’s three or four people that have said, “Hey, I want to be a part of this ministry in this culture. Fifty people in a congregation or 5000 people in a congregation, that is the resource that’s deployed to offer the kind radical hospitality that says “I see you. We’re glad you’re here today. And we hope that you have a really great experience.”

I think that also what you’re mentioning when we go back to the first barrier — well people really just kind of want to be left alone, right. I think they come to your church for a reason. They’re seeking something. And think about the effort that it took for them to make that walk into that front door. I mean again, I’m a hundred percent extrovert. But walking into a strange place, my heart’s pounding a bit. I feel a bit nervous. I wonder what I’m going to experience when I get inside. And so having someone there to just say “Hey, I see you. We’re so glad you’re here” begins to put that at ease. But what surprised me the most after my first visit to Church of the Resurrection was that surprise visit to our house on that same day when Pastor Adam showed up with that coffee mug. And that was the moment I’m like, “Okay, this church is serious about this.” When they said that they were glad I was here they took that a step further and really demonstrated that it wasn’t just words that they were using. Because the words are easy, right? If they demonstrated it in a really radical act by getting my address and then showing up within 24 hours to bring that coffee mug to my house. Not be intrusive. I’m not coming in. But when I told you “we were glad you’re right here,” we meant it. We wanted to just show you one more time.

Ann Michel: Do you know of other ways, or can you think of other examples of ways congregations can demonstrate that that seriousness of intent. The “mugging” ministry that you have is very, very powerful. But are there other examples of ways that you put that desire to connect with people — you take it from word to action in a way that makes it real for them?

Debi Nixon: One of the ways that we’re doing that now actually is we use software called “text in church.” It is a really great resource and product that any church of any size will find affordable and useful in their context. And so now what happens is once you’ve attended church with us on a weekend, it’s your very first worship service. We’ve captured your cell phone number. How do we get your cell phone number? We asked for it. I want to keep reiterating that. Because so many churches say “how do you get this information?” And we’re intentional about the ways that we are asking to get that information. And then we use it very respectfully. But within the next several hours after that worship service, you get a text from us that says again, “We were glad you were in worship. Thank you for coming today. If we can answer any questions for you, let us know.” And so text is a really low entry and affordable way to be able to reach out and surprise someone and let them know in a form of communication that people are using today.

Ann Michel: So I want to shift focus a little bit. Your book is on how to welcome new people. It happened to be released when most congregations aren’t gathering for in-person worship and have been thrust into a new paradigm really for how to connect with new people. And so I wanted to ask, are you thinking about hospitality differently given the experience of the past four months with the corona virus and the heightened interest in online church?

Debi Nixon: Yeah, that was crazy, wasn’t it. The whole world changed. And then Yvonne and I had a book launch in the midst of it about hospitality in in-person worship and hospitality. It really made us sit down and go back and test our assumptions. So as soon as we realized that we were not going to have in-person gatherings, Yvonne and I sit down and we just asked ourselves, “What’s still relevant today?” This is even before the book. We knew the book was coming out. It was already to the publisher. It was too late to change it. And so we said, “Okay, now with what we know in this new reality, this new pandemic, what is still relevant today?” And first of all, we recognize that biblical hospitality is focused on loving neighbor. So how then do you begin to love your neighbor and think about hospitality in this new way that says “I see you. You matter to me.”? And so we began encouraging our congregation to find ways when we say “love your neighbor,” what does it really mean to love your neighbor? And so what are touches that you can do with those that are in your neighborhood. So we started these campaigns with a lot of handwritten notes. Today write a note to a health care worker. Today write a note to your post office person. Today write a note to two or three neighbors in your area. So we started giving people practical ways to be in relationship and communicating with their neighbors. Because isn’t that what biblical hospitality is all about? Then again looking to say “Okay, now as we’re beginning to go to online worship, what is that principle of inwardly focused congregations and outwardly focused congregations, where are we inwardly focused? And we recognize that we do immediately begin to shift our language on online worship. The first couple of weeks we did worship like we always did. And then we recognized, “Oh my gosh. We’re inviting our online congregation to have a “peer in,” if you will, of what we’re doing in in-person gatherings every week. This is what we’ve been doing since we’ve had online worship. And what would happen if we begin to have this new focus that understood ourselves that we are both an online congregation and and in-person congregation and we do this together? So some of the changes that we begin doing is we made certain that from the very beginning we invited others into the experience.

And that’s given us now the opportunity then to also make certain then that what they experience when they do come back into the church. So if they enter now through online worship, that that experience that they have is the highest quality possible. That it’s authentic. And that it provides them with an opportunity to take a next step. That they’re invited into that. They’re not just watching what other with this church does and I’m sitting here on the outside. There’s something that’s drawing them in. Of course, the Holy Spirit is drawing them in. And that we have a part of that and I think for us we had this relentless resolve to want to be a part of that in this relentless resolve to want to be the best at what we’re doing to create the best experience possible. We recognize that our principles are still relevant, Dr. Michel. We have to ask “who worshipping with us?” We need to know that you’re here. And so we had to find ways to get people to sign in. And we’re still toying with that a bit. Because we’re finding in-person we would get about 80 percent of everyone to give us their names and addresses. We’re not finding that online. We’re finding that significantly less. So we’re talking about what could we entice them with that would raise that back up. Our follow up has continued. And again we wanted them to get that kind of personal attention. So those principles all stayed really relevant and we felt we’re sound and you’ll see those in the book.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I appreciate you walking through that process. Because I think every congregation that has transitioned to online worship, especially congregations that hope to use this as an opportunity to build and sustain an online presence, really has to be thinking through these issues. And it’s been, I think, a God Moment to be thrust into this situation where we have to take this leap forward. If there’s a silver lining in all of this, I feel that it’s made us leap forward into the future in a positive way, at least in that sense.

Debi Nixon: I think what we have realized during COVID is that the church never closed. And that’s been the great new realization for us as a church. We’ve said it. But now we can say that we meant it. The church did not close. Our doors for in-person worship and being together inside the building have ceased for this season of life. But the church has not closed. And the church has now gone out. And I think about Christ’s call for us to go to the ends of the earth, to go out into the harvest field. We had to begin to shift and look out into the community and ask “where are our neighbors?”

Ann Michel: I want to begin to draw this to a close, but I thought a good way to end is, your book is so filled with practical advice and strategies, and I know every church is different, but I wondered if there’s just one tip or one bit of advice that you would give to a church that wanted to take a first step toward embracing hospitality more fully?

Debi Nixon: One of the things that we try to stress in the book is that not all of these strategies in the book will work in every church or every context. So it’s the principles that we hope will resonate the most. And so what would that next step be? I would encourage churches to recognize that we’re actually not as hospitable even internally inside the church as we think we are. For most of us, even inside the smaller churches, we have these groups of people that we know really well. We might know the names of everyone else. But we still have our own groups of people that we are most connected to and that you’re most likely to find us in relationship with. And so what might happen if we began expanding that group and stretching ourselves to have those three minute conversations with someone else? Everyone within our church that we don’t know as well. I was coaching at a church in Arkansas and had talked to them about having a parking lot ministry. And they said, “Why would we do that? We don’t even have visitors yet. Why would we start a parking lot ministry now?” And I said, “Because we’re practicing.” And so I said, “Just see what happens.” And so they got two or three people who were willing to start taking turns going out in a parking lot greeting their own people week after week. And what happened in that initial greeting is it began surprising their own congregation as they began arriving. That change of heart began happening in such a way then, that other people wanted to be more part of it. And then they felt so good about their church that they actually were more willing to invite others to come.

Ann Michel: I’m smiling as you tell this story because that is such a great point. We only think about being hospitable when the visitors shows up. But if we can’t practice basic hospitality among ourselves first …. that is such a wonderful, wonderful point. I really appreciate you raising that. Debi, I want to thank you for this book which I think is a tremendous resource to the church. I want to thank you for the work that you do on an ongoing basis at Church of the Resurrection to resource other churches and help them fulfill their callings. And thank you for taking the time to talk with me and our listeners today.

Debi Nixon: It has been humbling to be a part of this. And again, I just want to thank all of you at the Lewis Center, too, for your commitment to engage with those of us that are serving vocationally day to day in the church and providing such great resources for us on a weekly basis. I know the time it takes to do that. And I want to let you know how meaningful and how needed they are for us. So thank you for what you do.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, Dr. Michael Fisher helps us unpack and understand racism and the role congregations can play in addressing it.

Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Related Resources

The Art of Hospitality


About Author

Debi Nixon

Debi Nixon is the Executive Director of Donor Development and ShareChurch at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection — the largest United Methodist Church in the United States. Her most recent book, with Yvonne Gentile, is The Art of Hospitality available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.