When you search “hospitality” online, Google auto-fills with words like industry, services and tourism. You will find links to lodging, food and beverage establishments, entertainment and travel services, and hospitality management training institutions. What you don’t find, unfortunately, are links to Christianity or the church.
Hospitality used to be the trademark of the early church. It was one of the primary virtues Christians were known for. In fact, the early church redefined hospitality in the ancient world.
In his book The Rise of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark explains that most outsiders regarded the early church as a dubious cult, resulting in periods of widespread hostility and persecution. In spite of this, the church grew and spread at an unprecedented rate. Why? In large part, because of their radical hospitality. During the plagues Christians took in and cared for strangers who were sick and dying, often getting sick and dying themselves. This kind of hospitality was unheard of and made a lasting impression on the people around them.
Why did the early church practise such risky hospitality? Because Jesus made it central to his movement. In Luke 14, Jesus tells his disciples that when they throw a party or gathering, they shouldn’t invite family, friends and neighbours. Instead, they should invite the sick, poor, lame, blind and homeless. Invite people who have no influence, power, money or status. Welcome people who are alienated, ignored, neglected and persecuted. This was true hospitality. Godly hospitality.
Jesus turned hospitality into a spiritual discipline. Like most disciplines, godly hospitality takes time, intention, effort and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. The discipline of godly hospitality reprograms how we think and feel about the “other,” those who are not like us, and it changes who we are, because “we” now includes the stranger, the other and even our enemies.
Radical hospitality became a central practice for the early church. Congregations intentionally welcomed those who were unwelcomed by others. They invited people who didn’t get invited other places. They cared for those who didn’t have anyone to care for them. As a result, Christians became known for their revolutionary hospitality.
This is part of what made the gospel of the early church so offensive to both Jews and gentiles. Rachel Held Evans, who tragically passed away earlier this year, put it this way. “What makes the gospel offensive is not who it keeps out but who it lets in.” Christian hospitality included the people religion and society tried to keep out.
Most churches today would claim to be hospitable. Most churches have a statement like “everyone is welcome” on their website or in their church bulletin. However, hospitality is not just declaring “all are welcome.”
Consider this. Have you ever had a negative experience of hospitality? Maybe you were invited to a social gathering and everyone ignored you. Or perhaps you felt like you didn’t fit in or measure up. While it’s true you were invited and formally welcomed to the party, what you experienced felt more like hostility than hospitality.
Now think about a positive experience of hospitality. What made the experience wonderful?
Was it because there was lots of good food and beverages? Good food and beverages are delightful, but they are not essential to true hospitality. There was probably lots of good food at the party where everyone ignored you, right? On the flip side, we’ve all experienced incredible hospitality over a hot dog or with no food at all. Food and beverages aren’t essential to good hospitality. Neither is entertainment, stimulating conversation or a nice house or backyard. As wonderful as these things are, none of them are essential to true hospitality.
When I reflect on what makes hospitality positive, it boils down to this: I felt comfortable being myself. I felt welcomed and accepted as I am. And this is no small matter. This kind of hospitality is a rare and precious gift. This is why people were drawn to Jesus. Because of how he made them feel. He made them feel accepted and loved as they were.
American poet Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Godly hospitality is not simply opening up our homes or churches to people and saying they are welcome. True hospitality is not merely sharing our food, beverages or resources with others. True hospitality is making other people feel comfortable being themselves. Hospitality is opening ourselves to receive people as they are, moving us from our self-preoccupation, to paying attention to them, to who they really are: people made in the image of God.
Troy Watson is a pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.
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