Hospitality as Shared Church

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What if old Screwtape, the senior devil in C. S. Lewis’s book, had wanted to derail shared church? He could have advised Wormwood, his apprentice, to abolish . . . hospitality.

“Convince multitudes of Christians,” Screwtape might well have counseled, “that they simply don’t have the spiritual gift of hospitality--and so need not practice it.” Wrong! Hospitality never shows up in any of the spiritual-gift lists in the New Testament. Yet how many times have you heard Christians say, “That’s not my gift”?

What is Hospitality?

In the New Testament, hospitality and hospitable carry the ideas of loving guests, lodging outsiders, being a host, and generously receiving others. Two terms translated as hospitality are built around phileo, one of the Greek words for love. For example: “Offer hospitality [philoxenoi] to one another without grumbling” (I Pet. 4:9). Hospitality, then, is one of the major ways of carrying out the love and one-anothering Jesus calls for in his new command.

A older widow named Etta was, hands down, probably the best practitioner of hospitality I have ever known. Although she lived in a small apartment—just one bedroom, one bathroom—she made it a regular practice to invite people into her modest quarters for a simple meal. International students, seekers, seniors, singles, new believers, mature Christ-followers—her bandwidth for guests stretched as wide as her heart. And when you left her home after a meal and some rich conversation, you came away with a much-enlarged understanding of the word welcome.

I doubt that Etta ever thought of hospitality as her gift. For her, it was more like a habit, something she carried out so regularly that it had become her way of life. Repetition had honed her skills for extending hospitality. But her unpretentious living space and simple meals made it clear: hospitality is not beyond the reach of any of us. As someone put it: “Hospitality is not a gift I have, but a gift I give.”

What’s Happened to Hospitality?

Sadly, the likes of Etta seem to be getting scarcer in Christian circles. “The practice of hospitality has fallen on bad times,” says the late Eugene Peterson in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. “Fewer and fewer families sit down to a meal together. The meal, which used to be a gathering place for families, neighbors, and ‘the stranger at the gate,’ is on its way out. . . . a primary, maybe the primary, venue for evangelism in Jesus’ life was the meal.”

In The Hospitality Commands, Alexander Strauch tells the story of a single woman who, while in a former church, “had to travel more than an hour by bus every Sunday to attend a small suburban church. Each week after the Sunday morning service, she would eat alone in a restaurant and then spend the entire afternoon in a park or library so that she could attend the evening service. She did this for four years. What left her with sour memories of this church was the fact that in four years no one invited her home to eat a Sunday afternoon meal or to rest. It wasn’t until she announced she was leaving that an elderly woman in the church invited her home for a meal on her final Sunday.”

What Explains the State of Hospitality?

Why, as Peterson put it, has hospitality “fallen on bad times”? The idea that hospitality is a gift—and one most don’t have—has played its part. But other factors undoubtedly help explain why it is in short supply. Some may fear that their homes or their culinary skills are not up to par. Individualism, so prevalent in western culture, has crept into our Christian circles. Intimacy frightens many. Cell phones, computers, entertainment, TV—all these can encourage self-absorption in ways that would make Screwtape smile.

Add to these the notion that hospitality means little more than welcoming visitors to church gatherings so they will return and become part of our congregation. The term for this is church hospitality. But this can easily slip into programmed hospitality. If we delegate the job to welcome committees, greeter teams, parking lot attendants, and clear signs that help newcomers navigate the building, it’s tempting to think we’ve taken care of this responsibility.

Should we make guests feel at home and safe in our congregational meetings? Of course. But when the New Testament calls for hospitality, it speaks mainly of having outsiders and guests into our homes. The settings are family rooms, dining rooms, meals around tables, and people sitting in circles—not auditoriums with all seats facing elevated platforms up front. In an article, “Whatever Happened to Hospitality?” Chuck Crismier writes, “Even our church buildings are now being designed like malls, breeding grounds for artificial relationships—we belong to a club of strangers yearning desperately for fellowship.” Those early Christians “broke bread in their homes and ate together” (Acts 2:46). Yes, they met in larger groups. But their homes served as the launch-pads of their world-reaching hospitality.

Hospitality from the Heart of God

Trace hospitality to its source, and it will lead you right back to the three-in-one God. From all eternity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit welcomed, embraced, and shared intimate fellowship with one another. Then they widened the circle. Through Jesus, they extended a hospitable invitation to outsiders, to us—we who were “strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12).

During Jesus’s time on earth, meals formed a vital part of his work with people. More than once, he himself hosted and fed large crowds. “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ came and ate with him and his disciples” (Matt. 9:10). He ate in the homes of Pharisees. And he described his own work by saying, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Lk. 7:34). When he sent followers out ahead of him, he told them to stay in homes, “eating and drinking whatever they give you” (Lk. 10:7). And just days before his crucifixion and resurrection, he arranged a Passover meal and revealed the true meaning of the bread and cup.

Getting Started

In an age when real-life examples like Etta are few and far between, how can you and I learn how to extend hospitality in our homes? A few suggestions:

  • Thank the Lord for the privilege of extending hospitality and ask for guidance as you do so.

  • If you know someone like Etta, ask them to serve as your hospitality coach.

  • Start a list of neighbors, church people, co-workers, and others you believe would respond to an invitation into your home.

  • Gather recipes for easy meals. Search online for helpful books along that line.

  • Mark the dates and times on your calendar that will work for inviting people in.

  • Develop a few simple, open-ended questions to stimulate fruitful discussion. For example: “What do you consider as your high point in the past year?” Or, “What are your dreams for next year?”

  • Begin inviting people on your list.

Life-Changing Hospitality

Several years ago, I spent a week on a short-term mission trip to Ecuador. Our leader divided the team into smaller groups. My threesome visited a home one evening. The hosts and their other guests did not speak English. We foreigners knew only a few Spanish words like hola, como esta, and adios. The room was small and the food simply cake. And yet the loving hospitality was thick and intense. Just recalling it brings tears to my eyes.

Was hospitality like that the norm in the New Testament church? In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gustav Stahlin says, “One of the most prominent features in the picture of early Christianity, which is so rich in good works, is undoubtedly its hospitality.” To what degree did this shared-church hospitality contribute to the astounding growth of that first-century church? What might happen if we recovered the practice today?