When you think of the word “hospitality” comes to mind? There are now university majors training students to enter into a vocation called, the Hospitality Industry. There are magazines dedicated to expose people not only to a huge segment of our economy but also focusing on minute issues like how interior design communicates welcome to guests. This is a needed shift even in our church culture. For instance, we have a hospitality desk to welcome new people and to help them navigate through all that’s a part of our community. Churches that focus on people who are either unchurched or coming out of bad church experiences do a phenomenal job on thinking through minute details on what communicates a hospitable atmosphere that is both warm and welcoming.
The problem comes when hospitality remains at a organizational level and doesn’t seep into the hearts of the people. In other words, you can do a bang up job creating a warm atmosphere on Sunday morning but does the community of faith practice hospitality in their lives apart from greeting people nicely on Sunday morning? In this day and age where we feel less secure with strangers and how our busy lives tend to crowd out people, the practice of hospitality is falling by the wayside. When we moved to Southern California, we experienced a period of loneliness largely because people were so busy with their lives that very few people initiated to get to know us. We all forget that at some point we experienced what it was like to be the “uninvited”.
This, I believe, is one of the huge differences that we Americans experience when we go overseas, particularly to the Middle East and Africa. We are very good at welcoming people initially with great warmth. However, when it comes to actual hospitality as practiced in Biblical times, we fall way short. I can only speak for myself (but I think it’s true of others), I can protect my time and personal space with the belief that if I give them away I will somehow lose control of my life. These are deep encroachments into my agenda and the list of things I have to do. That’s why it’s hard for Americans to put the schedule aside to spontaneously open their heart and lives to another. In contrast, when I’m overseas I experience not just an initial warmth but an actual invitation of friendship, like I have experienced in Middle Eastern culture and recently in Kenya/Rwanda.
Did you know that hospitality is not just a spiritual gift but also considered a spiritual discipline or practice? The New Testament affirms the spiritual gift but commands all believers to be hospitable.
* Be hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, holy, and upright (Titus 1:8)
* Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels.(Heb. 13:2)
* Show hospitality one another without grumbling (1 Peter 4:9)
The command to be hospitable is not just inviting people over. Nor is this a gift just for people who are good at inviting others over and certainly not just for women to practice. Parker Palmer, in To Know as We are Known, describes hospitality as a way of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. It’s a way of “receiving” another not just into your home but into your life. We can think of hospitality as having to do with opening our homes but actually it’s a virtue that has to do more with the space in your heart and life. So while some people have a great gift of inviting and entertaining others in their home, everyone is to live in a way ready to be open to another person, welcoming them into their lives.
Why is this so important? In my years of ministry, at least one thing that undercuts a sense of community is when people who have known each other for awhile, keep their groups closed to new people. As we seek to live out the mandate of making disciples, the temptation is to think, “I like the friends I have now and don’t have room for anymore.” What this creates is a clear sense to any new person that there really is a social inside and outside and that people are welcome only at a relational distance. While the argument that we only have so much relational capacity is valid, all I have to do is ask the simple question, when is the last time that you met someone new at church and actually took an interest in them outside of the five minutes of greeting time?
Here’s where the gospel actually challenges our own preconceived ideas of what the Christian life is. The gospel is the good news that we who were once outside are now welcomed in through God’s hospitality. He not only welcomes us in but He gives us access to His own heart. The gospel is God’s way of receiving us and sharing His very life with us, as self-centered and self-protective as we. He does this to give us the life that we have always wanted, alongside of others who are in exactly the same boat as we are. If that is the case, then the hospitality we show others in opening our heart to them is simply what we have experienced with God in our own lives. Those who are hospitable know the hospitality that God has shown them.
So what’s the next step? It’s really not to invite a bunch of people you don’t know well over to your house after church this Sunday. Rather it’s the small step can you take to get out of your comfort zone by reaching out to someone you don’t know well. What small step can you take, by faith, to include someone else? Recovering a robust sense of hospitality is vital to a community coming alive (Matthew 25:34-41)!