My favorite fast food restaurant by far is Taco Bell and my favorite item is the Crunchwrap Supreme. When you consider the fact that all this crunchy goodness is offered up in a meal for $5 and includes a Diet Pepsi, it’s a wonder I don’t eat Taco Bell every day for lunch! Now as much as I enjoy dining at Taco Bell, I’m not immune to poor customer service derailing my appetite. A couple years back I was in search of a quick meal and stopped off at the nearest Taco Bell to place an order. It was about 6:30 in the evening, and as I walked into the restaurant I noticed the lobby was devoid of customers. I looked at the menu—trying to decided what else I was going to order with my Crunchwrap—then I moved closer to the counter ready to place my order. I waited, and waited, and waited.
There was no one at the counter, nor was anyone heading towards me. There were some employees working the drive-thru and food prep, but none came over. One or two glanced in my direction, but no one offered a word of “we’ll be with you shortly,” or “just a minute,” or anything. I remember saying, “Hello? Is anyone going to help me?” After what seemed like an eternity waiting, I left rather dejected; disappointed that I would not get my Crunchwrap and frustrated that I had basically been ignored. I shoved my way through the front doors and angrily strode across the parking lot to the Burger King next door. I think I got their 4 for 4 deal or something like that—whatever it was it didn’t impress me because I was disappointed over not getting my Crunchwrap and frustrated by the lack of customer service I received when I entered the Taco Bell restaurant.
Obviously, this one bad experience at Taco Bell, like my bad experiences at Home Depot, haven’t stopped me from frequenting both businesses. Last Monday I was in Home Depot yet again buying a 2 x 4 x 12 to strengthen my fence, and last Sunday I was at Taco Bell buying a Crunchwrap meal. But, more often than not, good customer service, or good hospitality, is crucial if a business is going to attract and retain customers. In fact, more and more, customers are avoiding business that fail to provide good customer service or good hospitality, and that trend is not unique to the business world.
Last week I was reading the book, Encounters at the Counter: What Congregations Can Learn about Hospitality from Business, written by an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Alan Johnson, reflecting on his experiences working at the Great Harvest Bread Company in Boulder, CO. For many years, Johnson taught the principle of hospitality to UCC churches across the nation. After his retirement, he took a part time job at a bread store and decided to write a book comparing customer service to what we call hospitality in the church world. Johnson was acutely aware that one of the biggest reasons churches have been struggling is that they have failed to adequately welcome and include people.
In his book, Johnson writes that a business dedicated to good customer service will focus on six important aspects. First is the staff, making sure employees and team members are positive and enthusiastic, unified and trusting in the mission of the business. Second is a focus on guests, after all, businesses must have customers to do business with. Third is the community. A business must recognize their role in the broader community and look for ways to give back and support the community. Fourth, the business must have good suppliers, so they have good product to sell. Fifth is investors, and this is where self-investment is so important. Johnson says that “self-investment is the first step to getting investors to invest!” Finally, there is the setting. The business must appear well-kept and clean. Johnson says customer service is an essential element of the mission of the business, which in the case of the bread company, is to sell bread. Good customer service helps accomplish that mission.
I’m thinking about customer service or hospitality today because of the story we read from the book of John about the blind man who was healed. In the story the Pharisees were mad at Jesus because he healed a man on the Sabbath, who they then tried to kick out of the synagogue along with his family because they wouldn’t condemn Jesus. The synagogue in ancient Israel was comparable to church today, it was where people gathered to worship and learn about God. The Pharisees were essentially the church leadership, the folks who had control. They wanted things done a certain way, and would threaten anyone who broke the mold, even when that included Jesus healing a blind man, hardly what we would call welcoming or hospitable.
What I find interesting is that three times the lack of hospitality is made clear. First in verse 22, the blind man’s parents were afraid of being kicked out of the synagogue, as it had apparently already happened to others. Then in verse 34, the Pharisees kick the newly healed man out because he didn’t say the right things, and finally, in verse 35, Jesus hears that the man had indeed been kicked out of the synagogue. These Pharisees were not a welcoming bunch! Remember the “Soup Nazi” from Seinfeld. Don’t do things our way and it’s “no soup for you!” Is it any wonder the man left the synagogue for good and became a follower of Jesus?
It reminds me of what can often happen in churches. For years, churches across America have operated with the same rigidity as the Pharisees and then are surprised when folks leave their church and don’t return. Is it any wonder? Statistics tell us that 60% of young people will quit church, and less that 20% of Americans attend church any given weekend. Any business with the most basic level of foresight would realize these are troubling numbers that must be addressed. Like a business, a church can’t stay in business if it keeps turning away potential customers.
This is where Johnson’s six rules of hospitality or customer service apply to the church. Just as the staff and employees of a business must be unified in their focus, we as members of this church must be unified in our purpose, trusting our leadership, focusing on providing the best hospitality possible. Second, we must focus squarely on our guests. Our job as a church is to create disciples of Jesus, but we can’t create disciples if we don’t have any people. That means we’ve got to pay close attention to the guests who come through our door, and we’ve got to consider what we need to do to reach more potential “customers” who live in our community. Which brings us to Johnson’s third point, that we must engage and care for our community. Meeting the people of the neighborhood, discerning the needs that are present, and providing for the community are all part of what it means to practice good hospitality and good customer service.
The fourth aspect of good customer service is strengthening our relationships with our suppliers. Now we don’t have a supplier in the traditional sense of the word, but I would propose that our denomination is in some sense our supplier. The United Church of Christ is here to help and support us in our mission. As mentioned, this book comes from a UCC pastor who attended a church in our area. It only makes sense that we strengthen our relationships with entities seeking to support and supply us. The fifth aspect of hospitality is self-investment. Johnson says this is about having “skin in the game.” He says that “self-investment is the first step to getting investors to invest.” We can’t expect outsiders to come invest in our endeavor if we are not ourselves faithfully committed. And this is something I believe in deeply, which is why I invest nearly 10% of my compensation back into the mission of this church.
The final point Johnson makes is the setting. How does the place look? Johnson says that “the environment in which our religious activities happen can inhibit or augment the spiritual encounters that (take place). Because our environment affects our experiences, we do well to pay attention to how the place looks.” One author says it more bluntly, churches need to “clean out the cat litter box.” Perhaps you’ve seen the Febreeze commercials where they illustrate the ways we can go “noseblind” to the smells in our own house. I have a cat and a litterbox. Someone who comes to my house probably smells both, though I no longer notice. It’s the same way in churches, we become oblivious to how things really look. An inviting, welcoming space goes a long way in proclaiming our hospitality.
Ultimately, we’re in the business of reaching people. With homes being built 5 minutes to our east, and 5 minutes to our west, there will be over 600 new families who will be looking for new connections, new community, and new places to worship. We can be the welcoming, inclusive place of faith they are looking for—but it will take effort and intentionality on our part. A willingness to surrender control and the faith to let go of our fears of the unknown—to be the church God is calling us to be. Our purpose for existing as a church is to share the good news of God’s love with all people, and we can best do that by living out God’s welcoming hospitality with others.
Each one of us are here because we were welcomed and accepted into this church, whether it be 90 years ago, 9 years ago, 9 months ago, or even 9 days ago. We are here because we found this to be a welcoming and hospitable place. We are living testament of the power of hospitality, of what can happen when a church welcomes and accepts new people. Our call as followers of Jesus is to extend the same welcome we received with others. We demonstrate our faith in who God is by how we welcome one another. May our attitude and our actions be a powerful testimony of God’s grace and love and welcome.
 Alan Johnson, Encounters and the Counter, (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press: 2009), 71.
 Thom Schults and Joani Schultz, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore (Loveland: Group Publishing, 2013), 15.
 Alan Johnson, Encounters and the Counter (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009), 70.
 Alan Johnson, Encounters and the Counter (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009), 71.
 Alan Johnson, Encounters and the Counter (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009), 75.
 Gary L. McIntosh, Beyond the First Visit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 7.
aith in who God is by how we welcome one another. May our attitude and our actions be a powerful testimony of God’s grace and love and welcome.