Equip #35 – How to Make A Big Church Feel Like Home
In this episode of Equip, Pastor of Leadership Development Brad Merchant talks with Director of Guest & Member Services, Jenny Brake, about how she leads hospitality efforts at College Park.
Brad Merchant: I’m Brad Merchant, one of the pastors here at College Park, and here today on the Equip podcast with my friend Jenny Brake. Jenny, how are you?
Jenny Brake: I’m fine, thanks Brad.
Brad Merchant: Now, Jenny, what do you do at College Park?
Jenny Brake: Well, some people would call it the front door fraternity mom here. But really I’m the Director of Guest and Member Services here at church.
Brad Merchant: So what do you do week to week?
Jenny Brake: I make sure that an army full of volunteers are able to serve and serve well. We’ve got about 350 to 400 volunteers that’s split up-
Brad Merchant: That’s amazing. That’s like a small church.
Jenny Brake: It is kind of, isn’t it? I don’t like to think of that because I’ll freak out. But it’s like you use half of them for one month and half the other. They shake hands, open doors, seat people, give them information. Love on them.
Brad Merchant: Yeah. That’s amazing. Now, maybe sort of for some people that are listening and they have no idea what even the word “”hospitality means. How do we define, and specifically, you define hospitality in the context of the church?
Jenny Brake: Well, I’ll tell you what I thought it was.
Brad Merchant: Perfect.
Jenny Brake: And growing up or being a newly newlywed or having my own house, I had to entertain people over and I’d want to make the house look as spiffy as possible.
Brad Merchant: Sure.
Jenny Brake: And people would say, “Boy, we sure feel welcome at your home.” And people came over a lot. And then as I had kids and dogs, I realized that there were clothes piled on the dining room table that I didn’t quite get off in enough time before my friends would come over or people that we invited over. Constant toys, constant dog hair. And people went away and said they still felt welcome. And I was surprised cause I was pretty embarrassed.
Jenny Brake: But then I realized after that it was really not about any impressing guests because obviously I didn’t, but it was really just about making them feel welcome and accepted in my home. And I know the New Testament word for hospitality I think is like “love of strangers.” So it’s really making people feel welcome wherever you are. And that that is perfect here in a setting of course in the church.
Brad Merchant: So why is that important in the church?
Jenny Brake: Well, we love on people. People come in here and in our area, particularly where we accept or welcome our first time guests, it’s not about coffee and great snacks and smiles and anything like that. We found out that that area is kind of a sacred area, that people are coming to our church who don’t know us and they are strangers and they’re feeling a little bit inhibited or maybe they’re feeling really conviction by the Holy Spirit and they’re looking for a safe place. And that area that we have designed for them is safe because we’re not out to pitch anything, to sell them anything, tell them … We just wanted to come back really and tell them how much God loves them. Actually we kind of want to get out of the way because we realize God’s doing a big work and we get to watch it, but we just love on them.
Brad Merchant: Yeah, that’s amazing. And that’s so important in the church when people come that they feel welcome because we want them to come back to hear the gospel, right?
Jenny Brake: That’s what it’s about, yeah.
Brad Merchant: Yeah, absolutely. I heard JD Greear once say that the gospel is offensive so we don’t have to be. And I love that. We can create this culture of welcoming and love so people come and they hear the gospel and are convicted by that, not our lack of love for them when they come in. That’s important.
Jenny Brake: I mean, our ministry, it is truly a front door or a big picture window to see what God’s up to.
Brad Merchant: It’s amazing.
Jenny Brake: It’s pretty cool.
Brad Merchant: So maybe for someone listening who hasn’t been to College Park in a while, or maybe has never been to College Park, what does hospitality look like practically, boots on the ground, Sunday morning? What would someone experience if they walked through the doors of our church?
Jenny Brake: Well, even before they walk in, hopefully they’ll be greeted in the parking lot by a friendly face and even … We kind of do a little package gift that has like breath mints, tissue, a pen, everything they might need for that morning.
Brad Merchant: In the parking lot?
Jenny Brake: In the parking lot.
Brad Merchant: That’s amazing.
Jenny Brake: We try to identify them and just say, “We’re so glad you’re here.” And we walk them. I mean that’s the one thing about our ministry is we don’t point our finger anywhere. We take them everywhere. So they come through the doors and they’re greeted right at the doors. And if we can kind of figure out they’re new, we’ll approach them if we haven’t in the parking lot, and we’ll take them where they need to go. And that’s usually to the children’s area or show them where the Sanctuary is, show them where a class might be, but we take them there. I think that’s important.
Brad Merchant: That is important. Yeah. Rather than just this cold finger pointing, it’s actually putting arm on your shoulder, saying, “Let me take you.”
Jenny Brake: I mean I used to actually say take everybody everywhere, but the restrooms are off limits. But then I went to a restaurant one time in a city I was very unfamiliar with, and I needed to use the restroom, and it was crowded and I didn’t know where to go and some guy said, “Let me take you.” And so I thought, “Well that’s okay.” Because I wasn’t offended. But you really need directions to people that walk in here that are unfamiliar just need to be treated as if they’re invited guests and that we expected them. Yeah.
Brad Merchant: That’s right, it’s a big place. So they get greeted in the parking lot. They walk through the doors, then what?
Jenny Brake: Well, then hopefully they find their way to the Sanctuary where there’s some people inside the sanctuary, either helping them to find a seat, or even there are certain people already in the Sanctuary that are there like 20, 30 minutes ahead of time praying for their section, and they’re looking for people. And so if you walk into a section … I mean, as big as a church as this is, you can still spot newcomers. I mean if you’re in that area. So there are people that are seated in the Sanctuary that have prayed for their area and prayed that they might meet somebody new. And then if somebody is in their area they don’t recognize, they introduce themselves.
Brad Merchant: So there is someone … I didn’t know this, there’s actually someone who is in the Sanctuary before the service begins praying for that section and looking for new people?
Jenny Brake: They’re looking for people they don’t recognize. And you know what? If it’s a member, it’s still good to meet them.
Brad Merchant: That’s right. That’s unbelievable.
Jenny Brake: Yeah.
Brad Merchant: So then someone sits in a service, okay, and the service is over, then what?
Jenny Brake: Then I think there’s an appeal upfront to take a next step or like, “Hey, you’re new and we get it. And so if you want to talk to somebody, there are people that are just eager to meet you over in an area we call Next Steps.” It’s really our guest area.
Brad Merchant: So what is that area all about?
Jenny Brake: Well, that’s where I’ve got some pretty good connectors over there. And it’s really a neat place. Again, sure we hand out great tasting bread and we’ve got coffee and we do all that stuff, but that’s really just there. We just really want to invite someone in. We really want to do in the short time that we have get to know them. Again, we’re not going to tell them all about our great ministries that we have here, and we do. We have great ones, but we’re not interested in that. We want to know kind of, “How’d you get here and what’s God doing in your life?” And we’ve had opportunities. There’s a guy here now that is in the worship arts who is helping to lead worship and came to our church, he and his little fiancé then. And what was really neat is one of the things I found out later was one of the reasons he stuck around was not because we were really impressive in that area or had great coffee. It’s because we asked if we could pray for them and their search for a new church.
Brad Merchant: Made all the difference. Wow.
Jenny Brake: Yeah.
Brad Merchant: What are some stories that come to mind? I mean you’ve had to see countless stories in that area.
Jenny Brake: Yeah.
Brad Merchant: What are some that come to the top of your mind?
Jenny Brake: Well there was one Sunday that I just kind of, I don’t know if I shook my head or I was just like, “This is really awesome that I am talking to two women in a conversation.” They don’t know who each other are or where they are in their life. I do. One was an unemployed NBA coach’s wife and one was a homeless woman that somebody dropped off from Kroger. And both of these women are interacting. They have no idea where they are and their status of life. And I was just going like, “This is great.” Because they had things in common because they were both really seeking something that they were missing.
Brad Merchant: Yeah, absolutely.
Jenny Brake: And it was really cool. We had a neat thing that just happened last week that the gal came in that visited us who already I think had been reached out at one of the restaurants nearby. Some of the pastors that have already been loving on this woman at the restaurant, invited her to church. She walks in, we recognize her cause we kind of knew she might be coming. And right away without any prompting, there’s a great couple that serves in that area and they took her to the table, they loved on her. I peeked over and saw this gal’s eyes just watering. She was broken, but this couple ministered to her. Then the wife really spent some time with her and then they take her out to lunch on their dime. It’s like that’s just what these people do.
Brad Merchant: That’s amazing.
Jenny Brake: I think we’ve just unleashed them to, again, not just be, I don’t know, PR pros for your church. They’re shepherds and they love on people, and they love on people well.
Brad Merchant: That’s right. So, I think some people think of hospitality ministry, what they have in mind is somewhat kind of like a robot that just hands out a bulletin and then that’s all they do. But that’s not what you’re talking about. These are people who are actually caring for the souls of people Sunday to Sunday.
Jenny Brake: I put a big… I raise the bar high on this ministry. I know a lot of churches and there’s nothing wrong with calling your church whatever your ministry is, connection point, first impressions. We call ours First Hand, which I didn’t know what really meant, so we changed it. That was really weird. But I know a lot of people talk about first impressions and what I try to communicate to our team is that we are not out to make a first impression at all. And if we do, we’re going to probably fail because that sounds a lot more like it’s in the flesh.
Jenny Brake: Whereas, if you are out to make a good first expression of Jesus at the door, at the desk, in the Sanctuary, in an aisle, that’s a higher bar, and that’s a big call. So I heard … Oh, I don’t know, somebody … Blackaby could be I think quoted one thing one time something that I thought was great, which again, I try to instill in our volunteers is that God does not call the equipped, he equips the call. And so if you let these people know that you have every bit of a huge responsibility where you are as our worship pastor does, and our preaching pastor, it’s all a part of really the gospel on a morning. And so it’s a big call. It’s not as hard as preaching or leading worship, but it is a calling. So it’s really neat.
Brad Merchant: Yeah. That’s right. That’s right. I remember reading in Rosaria Butterfield’s book on hospitality, which is just amazing, talking about hospitality is taking a stranger and turning them into a friend so that God might turn a friend into a family member. And I love that picture.
Jenny Brake: Right. Right, no, that’s really neat. Who then can go after strangers.
Brad Merchant: That’s right.
Jenny Brake: Yeah, exactly.
Brad Merchant: It’s a cycle. So Jenny, for people listening to this, who are hearing all this, they’re like, “Man, this is so exciting. I didn’t even know this was a part of our church.” What do you have to say to them? How would you encourage them to be more hospitable on Sunday mornings and then even outside of Sunday mornings? So how can they be more hospitable practically on Sunday to Sunday church services, and then how could they be more hospitable even in their own lives week to week?
Jenny Brake: Yeah. I think we can’t get off the hook on being hospitable. I mean if our leaders and our elders, I mean they’re called to be that way, it’s from the top down, there’s no reason why we can’t be. And it’s, again, it’s not about impressing anybody. It’s just people need to know the love of God and hear the gospel. And it shouldn’t be left always to the people on the stage. I mean it’s everybody.
Brad Merchant: That’s a good word.
Jenny Brake: I mean, I just had a gal who started … We have a cookie followup ministry from when our guests come, if they give us their address, we don’t tell them this, but we will find them and drop off a huge bag of home baked cookies to them the next week. Now, I know that sounds kind of old school, and it is old school, but it’s really cool. I hear a lot of stories. Well, this woman just started last week and she said, “I met the woman in the guest area,” who she ended up delivering cookies to. They had a conversation. The woman called her back. They’re going out for lunch. They’re going to have another time to … I mean, I didn’t ask her to do that. We just want to drop cookies and ask how you can pray for somebody. So our people really take it seriously and I love that. It’s just really unleashing them to do what God wants them to do.
Brad Merchant: Absolutely. Because to your point earlier, you don’t have to have some extraordinary gift to do this. Just ordinary people being conduits of God’s grace, isn’t it?
Jenny Brake: Yeah. And I tell you what, it’s one of those things that it’s a privilege because, again, you may not be the person who actually shares the gospel, but just to be a little link in that chain. There was a fellow who came to a funeral here last month and I noticed he was sitting by himself in a chair. I mean, it’s a funeral. It’s going to be an uncomfortable day anyway. But I went … Well, I mean I didn’t, the Holy Spirit was nudging me to go over to say something to him. And what I’m doing is I’m stashing a cranberry roll from the spread in a drawer that I can eat later.
Brad Merchant: I love it.
Jenny Brake: And then I look at this guy and I go, “Okay, I know what to do. I know, Lord.” So I go over there and I just offer him a bottle of water. I meet him and he just didn’t look like most people that go to College Park. And then I found out that he had been … A lot of leaders, and some of the elders had been reaching out to this guy in his business world. And I saw him on the following Sunday.
Brad Merchant: Wow.
Jenny Brake: And you know what? I didn’t share the gospel with him. I just did what the Lord told me to do. And that’s give him a bottle of water. And so it’s not like you take any credit, but it’s like, “I got to see something.” Because of that man, I got to hear of what God’s doing in his life with these other people that are developing relationships with him and sharing the gospel. I just got to see it. I mean, that’s a blast. Why wouldn’t I want to do that? And I think that’s kind of what I try to convey to all of our volunteers. It’s like you just be who you are, where you are at the time, and look for opportunities, and you’ll be amazed. And it’s not like it’s hard work.
Brad Merchant: Yeah. That’s amazing. Well, Jenny, you’ve said so many nuggets of truth that I think are good for our listeners to think about, for me to think about. Could you just close our time by praying that our church would grow in this gospel hospitality for people that come in.
Jenny Brake: Sure. Sure. Glad to do it. Father, we thank you, for without your hospitality to us, loving us where we were, seeking us out, drawing us to yourself, we don’t know where we’d be. But Lord, we know where we are and we are grateful people. And I pray that you would just instill such a gratefulness in the people at College Park that they would want to do nothing less than step up. And not only here on Sundays, but in their homes, for there are so many people that are broken waiting for us. And God is waiting for us to be used. And if not us, he’ll use someone else, Lord. So why can’t we just hug onto those blessings that you’ve promised us, to love people, love them well, and watch what you’re doing in the lives of others as we’ve done in our own lives? And we thank you for that. Father, in your Son’s precious name and who we represent each Sunday, we say amen.
Brad Merchant: Amen. Amen.