Our North American culture today is a study in contrasts. On the one hand we’re surrounded by messages upon messages of how to offer hospitality: magazine articles outline the proper place settings and most attractive tableware; television shows demonstrate how to create a lovely, color-coordinated living space; question-and-answer sections in newspapers respond to our concerns about what is the best host/hostess gift to bring to an event.
On the other hand, we sense a real loss of honest-to-goodness hospitality. We can live next door to our neighbors for years without knowing each other’s names. We may have close working relationships with colleagues but never catch a glimpse of one another’s home or family life. We might attend the same church services week in and week out with nothing more than a passing hello to fellow church members.
Of course I’m highlighting the extremes, but there’s more than a grain of truth to these observations.
I wonder at this disconnect, but instead of getting into all the reasons behind it, I’d rather spend some time looking at another possibility.
Nope, it’s not another list of how-tos or must-dos, nor is it meant to pile on guilt for our failings. Instead, it’s a glimpse of how things might look if we practiced true hospitality.
What Is It?
What is true hospitality? It’s a way of living that models God’s love and welcome of us. We love and welcome others because God has loved and welcomed us. But we also embrace others because God loves and welcomes them as much as he does us. (I know we all say we believe this, but it’s a radical notion when we really take the time to ponder it.) True hospitality tries to see others with God’s eyes, and when we do that we realize just how loving and welcoming God is!
Abraham modeled this. Genesis 18:1-15 tells us that the Lord appeared to Abraham in the guise of three strangers whom Abraham welcomed and offered water, shade, rest, and food. In turn, these three strangers relayed to Abraham the amazing news that within a year Sarah, his post-menopausal wife, would bear a son.
Jesus not only modeled this holy hospitality, he tells a parable that shows how essential it is. In Matthew 25:31-46 he says that those who offer food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, invitation to the stranger, clothes to those in need, care to the sick, and visits to the prisoners are blessed because “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did for me” (v. 40).
Christine Pohl, the author of Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999), offers this brief but helpful definition: “Hospitality mean[s] extending to strangers a quality of kindness usually reserved for friends and family.” It means being attentive to the needs of those around us—whether we know them well or are just meeting them for the first time—and being willing to attend to those needs.
You may know of a newly arrived immigrant who could use help getting to know her new city. You may have heard of an exchange student looking for a semester’s lodging. You may have noticed that a work colleague or fellow church member seems always on the fringes and might welcome an invitation for an evening of food and fellowship. All these are opportunities for offering genuine hospitality.
Coke and Cookies
In my 30-plus years I’ve had the opportunity to experience this kind of hospitality—both as a receiver and giver. As a missionary’s kid in Guatemala I remember visiting a Mayan-Indian family in their one-room house and being offered a bottle of Coke and store-bought cookies—a nearly unheard-of treat that must have cost the family more than it could really afford. When I was a teenager, my family moved to Edmonton, Alberta, where we were embraced by another family who regularly opened their home to us and even welcomed our visitors to their Christmas celebrations.
My parents also modeled this kind of hospitality. They readily opened their home to newcomers and strangers in whatever community they found themselves. From a one-time meal with a lonely college student to a newly arrived refugee’s several-month stay, my parents intentionally cultivated the spirit of Christian hospitality.
These and countless other experiences have shaped how my husband and I cultivate hospitality in our lives. We are by no means perfect at it, but we are mindful and intentional about it. We keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open to opportunities to offer hospitality. At church we try to seek out those individuals or families whom we haven’t yet met. Through our respective workplaces we have invited newcomers over for dinner. Our kids’ preschool has offered another opportunity for opening our home to children and parents whose backgrounds are both similar and very different from ours.
A Way of Life
I’ll be the first to admit that being hospitable isn’t always or necessarily easy. Interacting with strangers who are different from me in countless ways can be challenging and awkward or just plain disappointing. Often it’s much simpler to stick with the friends and relationships that already exist.
However, we keep challenging ourselves to be hospitable because, as Christ-followers, it’s simply, and significantly, a way of life. “Hospitality is not optional for Christians, nor is it limited to those who are specially gifted for it,” Pohl writes. “It is, instead, a necessary practice in the community of faith.”
God created the world and its people out of a spirit of hospitality. God sent Jesus to redeem the world and its people out of this same spirit. And the Holy Spirit moves around and within the world and its people because God was, is, and will be a hospitable God.
The beauty and strength of hospitality is that, whether on the giving or the receiving end, there is potential for great growth and blessing. Community can be strengthened. Bonds that may stretch between continents can be initiated and grown. Minds can be stretched, challenged, and changed, and hearts transformed. When you open your heart and home to a stranger, there’s no telling what God might bring of it.
Hospitality is making room within ourselves for the other. That might sound daunting, but it needn’t be because true hospitality is endless and boundless in how it is lived out. It’s not just for super-friendly people who have big, beautiful houses with homemade food always on hand. It’s for all who desire to follow Christ, regardless of their specific situation.
You may be introverted or extroverted. You may have an expansive home or a small, cozy apartment. You may have fresh muffins on the counter or store-bought cookies in the cupboard. You may host a large family potluck or a small, formal dinner or simply coffee on the deck with just one or two others. The moment may have been weeks in the planning or thought of at the last minute. It’s the spirit of hospitality, and not the specifics, that matters.
Christian Reformed pastor Jim Kok has written a book called 90% of Helping Is Just Showing Up (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 1996, 2006). I’d like to propose that “90% of Hospitality Is Just Making the Effort.” There’s no one right way to do it. Rather, see where your innate strengths and gifts take you. Start with what’s comfortable and keep on challenging yourself. Yes, being hospitable takes effort; it’s self-giving because it moves us to make room for others who might be considerably different from us. But who knows what blessing God might bestow through you or for you as you foster a heart of hospitality? It’s an opportunity not to be missed.
- Talk about your best memory of hospitality. What was it about this occasion that made it stick in your mind?
- When did you feel excluded from a community? What was that like?
- Discuss Erika Dekker’s definition of hospitality: “It’s a way of living that models God’s love and welcome of us.”
- In what ways do you offer hospitality?
- How do you feel when you read, “When you open your heart and home to a stranger, there’s no telling what God might bring into it”?
- What opportunities have you noticed in your church, work, or neighborhood that invite you to be hospitable?
- How well is your congregation doing in offering hospitality to visitors? How could you do better?