Meet Henry Brinton, expert on Welcoming congregations

Henry G. Brinton, author of The Welcoming Congregation.THIS WEEK, AS AMERICANS HEAD toward the biggest religious celebration of the year, we are featuring insights from columnist and author Henry G. Brinton. Read Part 1 of our series for an introduction to his book—and for tips on what churches should be doing right now to get their websites ready for visitors. Then, Part 3 in this series also features some of Henry’s wisdom; it’s a story about how “strange” some strangers may seem these days. To purchase a copy of Henry’s book, please click on the red cover below. The book will start your mind racing in creative ways and can lead to spirited small-group discussion as well.

Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Henry G. Brinton in …


DAVID: Reading your book, Henry, reminded me of a commentary I wrote in the spring, headlined Another Great Reason to Join a Congregation. I pointed out the dire warnings of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and Harvard scholar Michael Sandel that America is losing “places and institutions that used to bring people together from different walks of life.” Both writers recall the days when millionaires sat next to janitors in the bleachers at baseball parks and they both decry what they call the “sky-boxification” of America. Today, people are encouraged to stay separated almost everywhere they go. So, Henry, one reason I appreciate your new book is that you explain why houses of worship still should be oases of hospitality.

HENRY: That’s absolutely true. Churches hold great promise for bringing people together across a variety of barriers that tend to separate people, today—barriers of race and education and wealth. Even with all of those barriers, people still are drawn to community churches. Think of it: Churches remain one of the few places in our society where people can come for inspiration, for education for themselves and their children, for opportunities to give back and help the larger community. So many other community organizations have fallen on hard times—bowling and golf leagues, fraternal organizations, veterans groups. But churches remain and can continue to do this important work, if we understand our role.

DAVID: You’re clearly not a church-growth huckster; you’re not arguing that we should work on hospitality because it will automatically result in more members. In fact, in some cases, becoming more hospitable to the larger community could result in less members. (News Note: On December 13, the New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein reported on angry reactions toward a Pasadena, California, church that agreed to let a Muslim conference meet at its facility.)

HENRY: Overall, hospitality does hold the promise of growing churches numerically, because the very act of improving our ways of welcoming people will lead to growth. But Christian hospitality is not an option you can choose from a list. It’s a central practice for all people of faith and it’s certainly a central Christian practice. The most important goal in all of this is helping our congregations to discover more about what God is desiring from us and for us.

My book begins with the roots of hospitality. Then, growing out of hospitality first is reconciliation—allowing people of different backgrounds and sometimes opposing points of view to sit down together and learn from each other. Another fruit of hospitality is finding new understandings of God’s inclusive love. We gain a new awareness of who is “in”—in God’s vision. In my reading, the Bible is the story of God’s ever-expanding inclusiveness, moving from the people of Israel, one homogenous group, to a time in which faithful outsiders were allowed into the life of the community—to the ministry of Jesus where he dared to sit down with tax collectors and sinners, to the great evangelistic work of Peter and Paul taking the Gospel to the Gentiles. We’re challenged to do that today around divisive issues like race and nationality and sexual orientation. And, as we do, we will keep making new discoveries of God’s inclusive love.


Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.DAVID: These discoveries in hospitality are inspiring and exciting—but we should be aware that there will be some bumps in the road. You’re not bringing us a 10-steps-to-success list for churches. This is something deeper—and also potentially much more rewarding.

HENRY: There’s a difference between transactional ministry, which is doing something specifically to get a result like putting up a new sign to get more visitors and, thus, more money in the collection plates. I’m talking about relational ministry in which you also may decide to improve your signage, and you also may improve your greeters at the front door and you do other things as well—but we do this because we know that we should be doing these things so that visitors are received as holy people. As Christians, we teach that strangers coming to us bear the image of Christ. We will grow in faith together through these new relationships. We are doing all of this in an attitude of hopefulness and expectation. In this book, I’m talking about relational ministry that finds value in developing deep-spirited friendship, one person to another, with a special focus on those who are currently outside our community.


DAVID: Your book is big on food. Over the years, I’ve eaten in congregations around the world—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh congregations across Europe, the Middle East and Asia—and food truly is the universal flavor of faith. But, while your book is big on sharing food—you also caution people to rethink the way we use food. Share just a couple of your ideas with our readers.

HENRY: The celebrity chef James Beard said food is our universal experience. Food is potentially the thing that can bring us together across boundaries of race and culture and class. We all need to eat. We all enjoy eating. The path to unity is through our stomachs.

I prefer potluck dinners to catered meals, because potlucks encourage mutuality. The roles of hosts and guests are sacred roles to play. Jesus played both roles; he was guest and host. But you have to be careful that no one in your congregation becomes the constant host, always organizing things and telling everyone else what to do.

Try new ideas. For example, you might have an international potluck dinner and encourage your older white members to sit down with younger immigrant members sharing foods across cultural lines—talking about their foods and their lives.

DAVID: Here’s the problem: Some people engage in this kind of hospitable mixing with incredible grace and creativity. Others are stuck in a rut and hold church dinners that are reminders of the local boundaries: who is in and who is out. There are lots of lonely people at potlucks, right?

HENRY: Yes, food can be alienating if we don’t look at our practices from the perspective of real hospitality. For example, at most potlucks, people are told to sit wherever they want. That encourages people to sit with old friends. The youth go off to their own corner. People don’t mix.

There are lots of ways to change that. One idea: Hand out numbers randomly at the door as people enter, so they have to take a place with a new circle of people. Or, plan the seating so that each table is intergenerational.

At your home, you welcome guests and plan their seating. At a restaurant, there is a host. Try having someone at the door to your church’s dining room who welcomes guests and shows them to a table.

DAVID: Hospitality is more than big smiles and social etiquette.

HENRY: That’s right. And, we’re not born knowing these techniques I’m talking about; you have to learn to be good hosts.

The church-growth movement seduced people into thinking that the goal of a church is to meet our needs. So often, we come to our own church expecting to be pleased with our favorite music, our favorite seat, our little bit of inspiration for the week ahead. But it’s quite different if we start thinking of ourselves as hosts: We come to church because we are charged with welcoming others. When we start thinking like that, we shift 180 degrees. When we talk about music for our church, we stop focusing on what we prefer ourselves—and we start asking: What music will help newcomers sing joyfully with us? We don’t just look for our friends when we arrive at church—we start looking for the visitors, the people we don’t know.


DAVID: The bulk of your book is about Christianity and churches. After all, you’re a Christian clergyman and the places you did your research are primarily Christian communities. But you do reach beyond Christian exclusivity.

HENRY: Yes, the book offers challenges to readers. For instance, around the fruit of reconciliation, I think it’s important that every church schedule some kind of bridge event with a group outside Christianity to develop and deepen relationships. Have a Christian-Muslim dialogue. Have a gathering with an organization of senior citizens outside your congregation. Plan an event to host youth from the whole community, not just from your congregation.


DAVID: And you argue that our goal is to transform the whole culture and the larger community toward hospitality. I like the lines in the middle of your book—two sentences, four words: “Don’t judge. Just don’t.”

HENRY: This is what people of faith have known since Abraham welcomed three strangers to his tent thousands of years ago. I admit that it’s human nature to judge. We see people coming up the church steps and we judge who they are from their clothes, their age, their class, their race, their nationality. What I want people to look for first is Christ in that stranger coming toward us. Being rigorous about not judging opens us to the possibility of seeing something we don’t expect in that person. Still tempted to judge? Just remember: In judging, we may end up driving away someone who God has sent to us.

Continue with Part 1 or Part 3 of this series.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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