Is it time to tell a new story? Sing a new song?


Turnaround Pastors know how to harness the power of narrative – the stories we tell ourselves – to change the culture in a static or dying congregation. In this post we’ll explore how writing new narratives can revolutionize a common trouble spot in churches that are “stuck” with a lousy hospitality system.

Hospitality Blues

You know the tune. You’ve probably sung it a few times. The “church hospitality blues” is a famous chorus in churches that do not know why they are in full retreat. Thankfully, it is not tough to entirely change the trajectory of your church by starting with a refurbished greeting ministry. And the essential, very first step is always to understand and use the influence of narrative

Should you do that your congregation will grow to be the warmest, most friendly organization a church visitor can expect to meet.

Narrative is the interior story that governs how we will see the world, how we think of life’s events and lets us know how we fit into life’s grand story. Every one of us carries our personal, special narrative that starts with the messages the world sends us from the moment we’re born. These signals are sent and confirmed by parents, family members, friends and people we think are important. My personal narrative informs me who I am, what I’m excellent at, how other people see me and why I am worthy (or not).

Congregations each have a narrative. It’s shaped by experiences – good and bad, by victories and defeats, by the individual narratives of influential leaders and by the collective history piled up over the years.

The fantastic thing about narratives is that they can be relatively easy to change. When you rewrite them the results are amazing. There’s an important book on this subject, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. It provides solid research that proves just how powerfully a rewritten narrative can change people and organizations for the better.

New narratives help us see issues in a different way. A new narrative turns discouraged and depressed people into people who begin to feel mildly optimistic. When that happens changes in behavior aren’t far behind. Church renewal soon follows!

The biblical precedent for this is found in Proverbs 23:7, “As a man thinks inside himself, so is he.”

Rewriting Hospitality Narrative

If church visitors rarely return for a second visit there’s almost certainly something amiss with the hospitality process. In my practical experience as an intentional interim pastor, these churches struggle mainly because the congregational narrative is unfavorable. The spot to start repairing this is by guiding the hospitality group in an exercise that rewrites the narrative.

Start off using a 90 minute session for the whole hospitality team. Direct them in brainstorming answers to this question: “What comes to your mind when you give thought to this church’s hospitality ministry?” Have someone  record the words and terms that show up on a whiteboard or a big easel.

When the conversation begins to diminish over this question, pick a few provocative statements and have the group expand on them so as to add extra detail.

At some point you will sense that this part of the session has run its course. When this occurs, change gears  and choose one of the more troubling remarks (e.g. “visitors don’t return because we have an inferior nursery”) and then discuss distinct approaches to rewrite that narrative (e.g., “Nursery volunteers will gladly spruce up their work when they realize how vital it is to the future of our church”). Then facilitate a group talk that looks at distinct ways that the rewritten narrative could have advantageous effect for the church and the hospitality team.

Finally, divide the team into twos and give them a new narrative to discuss: “Our hospitality ministry delivers excellent hospitality to church visitors.” Allow them to have a half-hour to respond to four significant questions around this fascinating story:

  • How will my role in the hospitality ministry be different in the long run?
  • What will our church guests experience from now on?
  • In what ways will this new narrative have valuable effect on the church?
  • How will the church be different going forward?

Finally, tell the hospitality team that you’d like them to repeat that new narrative every day to themselves – at least once a day. Let them know that you’ll be touching bases with them on Sunday morning to see how that has gone for them.

Then, when Sunday rolls around gather the team together before services to briefly discuss how they’re feeling and what they think will be different about their work? Then sit back and watch as the team takes on new life and energy and begins to change the way they do their ministry. In time you’ll give them permission to begin making positive changes in the whole system to match their new narrative. It won’t take long!