Ushers vs. Hosts

If you’re a fan of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” you may remember an episode where Ray is shamed by his wife, father, and mother into attending church on a more regular basis. But when he sets his sights on becoming an usher with his father, he gets a shock.

His father doesn’t go to church for all the holy reasons he tells the family. Rather, he does it to hang with the guys in the back while cracking jokes on the poor souls in the pews.

This episode came to memory as I read a recent piece by Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center, “Newcomers,” in which he reminds congregational leaders that the way people come to church is not what it used to be–by any measure.

“In the past,” he begins, “people came to us…. New people understood how churches work and shared their beliefs.”

“Today,” he continues, “the sequence for many is the opposite, especially for the young. Serving may be their entry point, followed by a small group and then worship. Also today, some will participate actively without joining, at least for a long while. Some may never join. They will probably not come based on thorough knowledge of our beliefs and values. That does not mean beliefs are unimportant, but rather that decisions about choosing a church are based far more on relationships and belonging.”

No More Good Ol’ Boys Club

Ray and his father were in a church of the past. The people knew one another; grew up together; and often came together out of commitment to family.

And his father, the usher, played to that role. Too many churches today continue to train and use their ushers as if they are churches of the past.

It doesn’t work.

Today’s ushers must be more sensitive to the church of today that Weems describes. A church where people come, very often, first out of an act of service. Many will take years to join, if they ever do.

And when you are communicating your church to the community, those whose job it is to greet and seat these people in worship must be keenly aware of what’s changed.

From Ushers to Hosts

If your idea of ushers still centers around seating, passing out bulletins, and handling the offering plates, pay more attention to what Weems writes.

Treat newcomers as ‘guests’ and not ‘visitors’. When newcomers are seen as guests, your focus is with them and not with you and your church. You try to look at everything from their perspective. Churches can no longer assume guests have a church or religious background, so it is important to monitor everything you do, say, and write from the perspective of guests there for the first time.”

In fact, changing your ushers’ mindsets from that of ushers to hosts may be the most important thing you can do to improve your congregation’s outreach.

What’s the difference? We at SLC stress three.

1. Greeters, not pushers. In today’s world, people are more sensitive than ever to feeling as if people want something from them. Ushers guide people into an established community, leading them through the channels that lead to membership. Hosts, on the other hand, invite people into the “home” of those people they may well have already met outside the church walls. They make them welcome, comfortable, and at home with no expectation that they will ultimately choose to “live” therein.

2. Listeners, not directors. Ushers’ roles historically revolved around directing people to the appropriate places they needed to be. Hosts, on the other hand, spend more time listening. They take an interest in newcomers and show a deep interest in their stories.

3. Inviters, not recruiters.  Ushers played an important role in putting recruiting materials in people’s hands. Hosts, on the other hand, spend their time looking for opportunities that match newcomers’ needs and informing them about these opportunities.

The church today is not your father’s or mother’s church. Your church may or may not have adapted, but the community around you moves forward.

Shifting from ushers to hosts is a small, but important, step in communicating that your congregation is tuned into your community, its needs, and its desire to serve the world we share together.

Hospitality and Cold, Hard Data

Placing technology and faith at odds with one another has become something of a cottage industry in the world of faith. It’s not that we’re uncomfortable with technology; very few of us don’t interact with the internet, e-mail, or social media daily, if only at a cursory level.

But many faith communities remain suspicious, fearing that electronic communications can quickly de-humanize the faith experience. This is unfortunate, as in the congregational setting the information that electronic communications provide, courtesy of Google Analytics and the data that other communication tools provide, can be a real source of strength for building hospitality.

Before looking at how the data generated by technology can build hospitality, let’s look a bit closer at the tension between technology and faith.

Why Are Faith and Technology at Odds?

Many are unaware that electronic communications can teach as well as push information into the ether. On one level this is simply because understanding the information that electronic communications provide takes training and a certain amount of experience.

On a deeper level, many are still burdened by the faux tension that exists between technology and faith. The number of essays and articles that describe this abound, and examples are not hard to find.

Consider this very good commentary published in Religion News Service on July 8 by Tom Ehrich in which he argues that religion has succumbed to simple thinking. A big part of the reason?

We should be teaching the arts of subtlety — learned through literature, history, ethics and philosophy. Instead we teach how to make things work profitably through engineering and technology. Those are useful skills, but they shouldn’t be allowed to override a grasp of nuance and complexity.

Or this one that ran July 3 in Patheos by Paul Jesep.

[Technology] can empower, but also dehumanize and emotionally disconnect people renewing the purpose and relevance of spirituality often enhanced through religion. This is why religion is so important today.

There are many reasons for the faith/technology juxtaposition. The tension between science and faith runs deep in Western history (if you don’t know Wellhausen, you should—he is among the early flashpoints in this debate). Recent works by the likes of Richard Dawkins have understandably put people of faith on edge.

Add to this the the heeby-jeebies that so many of us have about math to begin with, and it’s easy to understand why we want to put the hard numbers behind electronic media (Google Analytics) at odds with the very human expression of faith and grace.

Can Data Be Hospitable?

The perceptions are unfortunate, as behind the cold, hard numbers generated by Analytics and other programs that track our every move on the web are real people.

Carefully read and interpreted, these numbers can provide insights into those who take the time to read the materials that we make available. To be fair, let’s admit up front that a cold side to this does exist. Anyone who has visited a website (say you click on page about Maine) then flipped to his or her Facebook page only to discover an ad screaming “Vacation in Maine” knows that the ad isn’t accidental.

In fact, so much of marketing today is about mining data and using that to “know” the people on the other side of the screen.

But there is a warmer, more hospitable way to approach this data. Especially in the confines of congregations. Unlike major corporations that can’t possibly know the real people behind the data, congregational leaders can, and do. Even within relatively large communities of faith.

That knowledge alone changes the dynamic. In congregations, analytics are not just numbers, they represent the people you minister to. And information gleaned through social networking channels and e-newsletters allows you to see exactly who is reading and reacting to your work and information. By clicking, liking, and following they are revealing a great deal about themselves to you and your ministry team. Information that can sensitize and strengthen your interactions with your members.

Data, in short, opens the door to hospitality—an ancient ideal in Christianity as well as many other world religious traditions—by allowing you to put yourself in the shoes of those you serve.

Individuals consistently clicking information about health care issues or mental health issues may well be signaling a great deal about their own situation that they may well have been hesitant to voice. Being aware of this can only improve your empathy, and your ability to create a hospitable environment for that individual.

Technology and hospitality are not disconnected—they are two sides of the human coin.