Danny Franks: Hospitality Is an Evangelistic Gift—Part 2

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview with Danny Franks, pastor of guest services at The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, under senior pastor J.D. Greear. Franks’ new book People Are the Mission: How Churches Can Welcome Guests Without Compromising the Gospel (Zondervan, March 2018), helps leaders understand the importance of creating a culture of hospitality and gives them the tools to do it. In part one of the interview, Franks talked about why hospitality matters and why leaders across a church need to be on board for it to become reality. In part two of the interview, Franks looks inward and outward—at established members and first-time visitors—and talks about how to approach the biggest obstacles on both ends when it comes to welcoming and feeling welcomed.

Sometimes hospitality can be downplayed as a “soft” form of service. It’s for people who aren’t on the front lines of ministry. They’re not on stage or they’re not leaders. It’s getting coffee ready and greeting people at the door. How do you see it?

First of all, I think serving on a hospitality team can be a very tough role to play, because you have people coming into the church who want what they want. If people think they have thick skin, they ought to try serving on a church seating team one Sunday. That’ll bring a really strong, tough man to his knees.

But I do think this is an area where God has given people in the church very unique gifts to be able to connect with people they’ve never met before to make them feel welcome, to feel like family. And, even more importantly, to build a relationship with someone who, five minutes ago, was a complete stranger, in order to nudge them into a deeper relationship with Christ. I think one of the greatest things we’re able to see around here on a regular basis is people who are coming to faith not in the sermon or at the end of a worship service, but because of a conversation they’re having with a parking team member in the parking lot. That has been one of my greatest joys: to see people use evangelistic gifts in a very practical, almost logistical way. They’re helping people get from point A to point B, but they’re not missing the gospel in the middle of that. They recognize their ultimate goal is not to park cars or pour coffee or help people find seats. Their ultimate goal is to help people find Jesus.

So hospitality is an evangelistic gift God has given to certain people. But you say everyone in a church—not just those on a designated team or those God has gifted in this area—is responsible for hospitality.

We’re told in Romans, “As Christ has welcomed you, therefore you should also welcome one another.” And if that is a command given to Christians, then that is something all Christians should be able to do through the power and grace of God. Some people have certain gifts and personality traits that make it easier for them to serve on the First Impressions team. I think sometimes introverts may automatically try to write themselves off. But at the same time, some of our strongest team members are those who, at first glance, may not seem like they have the outgoing, gregarious skill sets to be able to pull this thing off. They’re introverts who love those deep, one-on-one conversations with people. They don’t necessarily need to be in front of a large crowd. So I don’t think you need to have certain personality traits in order to be a success. It’s all in how you open your life up and invite God to use you in the lives of other people.

As a leader, how do you convince an entire congregation to view hospitality as their responsibility, especially the ones who, as you say, might write themselves off?

Exactly. I think it means talking about it a lot. One way to do that is to make sure every single weekend you are speaking to the guests. And I don’t mean calling them out in the middle of the service and asking them to introduce themselves. I mean addressing the guests in the room to raise awareness in the rest of your congregation that there are people who are here.

I think it means creating opportunities for our long-time members to have a chance to interact with those guests. Maybe that’s by serving on the hospitality team. Maybe it’s by giving up a parking space or a favorite seat so that our guests can have those things as priority. I think a lot of times it’s training us to die to ourselves for the sake of something greater. Training us to put others’ needs ahead of our own. And I think the more we continue to talk about this, the more it allows our congregation to develop this kind of whole-church hospitality culture.

There are people in the congregation who’ve been there for three months or 30 years, and they kind of know the ins and outs, they know the rhythms and the routines. But we’ve always got to make sure we’re showing people there has to be an open seat at the table for other people to come in and to hear the goodness of Jesus and be a part of that local church body.

You talk about those people in the book. The ones who might struggle with dying to self, with putting others’ needs ahead of their own. You call them the big brothers in the parable of the prodigal son. How do we help those people have a change of heart?

I think you begin with a lot of grace, because the first step in recognizing there are older brothers in the congregation is recognizing there is usually an older brother staring back at us from the mirror every single morning. I know that’s true of myself. So many times I falsely believe I’ve gotten what I’ve gotten spiritually because I earned it or I deserved it. And that is absolutely false. But that’s what the older brother believed. He believed he earned everything he got from his father because he followed the rules, he stayed on the farm, he didn’t stray, he didn’t follow the sins of his younger brother.

But the realization we have when we look at that story is that the older brother was doing the right things with the wrong heart, which meant he was just as sinful as his younger brother. When we see that begin to creep up in the congregation, when we see people who don’t want to welcome a prodigal back in, the answer is not to kick out the older brother in order to honor the prodigal. No, you treat the older brother the same way you treat the younger brother: with grace. The father in Luke 15 left the party. He tried to bring back his oldest son so he could celebrate the return of the youngest son. He viewed both of those as people who needed to be in fellowship with the father. I think a lot of times we view older brothers as an obstacle to avoid rather than as somebody Christ also died for.

There’s a chance that prodigals might be offended by what we have to say to them. But the gospel is inherently offensive. How realistic is it for churches to find a middle ground between truth and grace when interacting with guests?

When it comes to the gospel, there’s really no middle ground. The gospel is what it is. There’s a Charles Spurgeon quote that I love, that says Scripture is like a caged lion. When a lion in a cage is under attack, you don’t protect the lion. You just step out of the way, open the cage, and let the lion do what the lion does. And I think, if the gospel is true, then we don’t need to do anything to make it more palatable, more marketable, to the masses. The gospel can stand on its own. But so many times we tend to obscure the gospel when we try to dress it up or dumb it down to make it more acceptable to society. I think when we do that, we end up with either a very watered-down version of the gospel or something that is murky at best. People don’t understand what we believe and what Scripture teaches, because we’re so scared to come right out and say, This is what the gospel is. When we can’t just get to the gospel, then we’ve failed, you know? There’s really no other way to say it. That should be the church’s main responsibility: to deliver the gospel to people in an undiluted form and to point them straight to Jesus.

The flip side of that coin is that the gospel is offensive, but nothing else should be. I think we’ve got to stop worrying about the gospel being offensive and start seeing all the other things that are offensive in our churches, and begin removing those offenses one by one so people can see the gospel clearly without being distracted by anything else.

So is that the answer to accommodating guests who are offended by everything? Just eliminating everything offensive besides the gospel?

Well that’s where the problem comes in because, as you’re very aware, I think people can find just about anything to get offended over these days. What I’m not saying is that we try to create an environment that is everything for everybody, where we pull a little from this tradition and a little from that tradition and we have 78 different kinds of services that you can choose from and all of that. There are churches that do that with relative measures of success, but we’re not attempting to create an environment that is devoid of any sort of identity as far as who we are as a church. I think we already know who we are. We ought to be able to identify our strengths as a congregation, and I don’t think we should apologize for majoring in those things.

We need to recognize that there are a lot of different styles of churches in our city, and there are going to be other churches that do certain things better than we do. We ought to be able to let them do those things. Sometimes I think we fall on 1 Corinthians 9:22, where Paul says, “I want to be all things to all people so that in all cases I might win some.” The way I understand that passage, Paul was talking about that in his personal evangelism style. He was not giving that as a proof text for how you develop your launch plan for the local church. Paul was saying, I want to be able to find points of commonality with everybody I come into contact with so I can find something we have in common, and then I can use that to plow a direct path toward the gospel. That can work really well in personal evangelism. But when we try to design a worship service that is going to fit every conceivable demographic out there, we begin to have an identity crisis.

Which areas around guest services and hospitality you see as being the most commonly problematic in churches today?

So many churches think inside out when they need to be thinking outside in. They make sure their usher team is covered inside the auditorium. It’s fine to make sure we have enough coverage there, but the inside of the auditorium is not the first thing a guest sees. It’s the last thing. The first thing they see is the perimeter of the property. They’re going to see the parking lot, the outer entry doors, the sidewalk. A lot of times we ignore those places. We don’t think about putting people outside. We’re just concerned with making sure people are inside. We want to create systems where we have volunteers in these first places our guests are going to be looking for people. When we have volunteers there, it’s going to send a signal to guests that there’s more to come inside and that we’re here to serve you and help you navigate this place.

Another really practical thing is making sure somebody in the congregation is owning this ministry. So many times we might think we can’t afford to hire this as a staff position. But you don’t need to. A volunteer with a heart for hospitality and an eye for detail can easily cover this and bring around some other friends to help serve. But there’s got to be somebody who is the decision maker here. A culture of hospitality needs to rise and fall on their ability to lead. The thing about hospitality is, just like anything else, when it’s everybody’s job, it’s nobody’s job. So even though hospitality is something every Christian is called to do, we’ve got to be able to give certain people those roles to make sure we’re welcoming those on the outside, to manage the logistics of it.

You’re at a very large multisite church, so you’re able to implement a pretty sophisticated ministry plan for hospitality. What’s your advice to a small church pastor if they’re short on resources?

Start where you are. There is no need to try to take the grace of God in another church and cut and paste it into your context. God’s grace is more than sufficient to meet the needs of a small church just the way it meets the needs of a large church. I think you just begin by looking around and assessing, Where are we now, and what are one or two steps we can take by the end of the year in order to begin to build this guest-friendly hospitality culture? You may not need a parking team if your parking lot holds 100 cars and you’ve got 50 folks showing up.

Look at your signage. Is it clear where a guest is supposed to go when they show up? Begin by doing a quick review of your website. Are the service times correct? Is the address on the site correct? Is there a place where people can pick up the phone or send an email to get in touch with somebody that day if they need to? None of those are going to be life-changing for the regular rhythm of the church. But some of them you can fix very quickly and simply, and in some cases without it costing you a dime. At the same time, those are going to be things that will be life-changing for that guest who isn’t looking for a place to call home. They’re looking for a place where they can begin to grow their faith or a place where they can begin to develop their relationship with Jesus.

Let’s say you’re successful at turning first-time guests into members. How do you know you’re not just entertaining them and impressing them enough to make them stick around, but that you’re actually discipling them?

In the book I use a few different qualifier descriptions for that. I talk about consumers versus those who have been commissioned in order to live on lifelong mission. I believe it was Mark Dever who said, “People will come to your church because of quality and options, but they’ll stay because of relationships.” They’re going to stay not only because of the relationships they’re building with you but because of the relationships you’re building with Jesus. And I think if we’re not very careful about making sure we’re helping pull people out of their consumerism and helping them see that they are actually a part of the mission that Christ is calling us all to, then it’s just going to be a matter of time before those people find a bigger, better, flashier show at another church down the road.

I don’t have a problem with having consumers in the church. Jesus’ ministry was a ministry to consumers. They were people who followed him around because he was producing bread out of thin air. He was healing the sick. He was raising their relatives from the dead. They were going after Jesus because of what he was doing for them. But Jesus was never content just to leave them there. He was always calling them into something greater and deeper. I think we’ve got to follow that same thing. I do have a problem with people staying consumers in the church. So we’ve got to be able to help them see there is a better life out there when they are serving others rather than only being served.

Read more from Danny Franks »

Jessica Hanewinckel is an Outreach magazine contributing writer.